As we maneuver our way through life, we’re constantly giving massive amounts of advice to one another every day — from what to wear to what music to download, from which classes to take to which books to read; the influence we have on one another is inescapable. And when we think we know what’s best, we try to share our gifts with others. In a way, it’s a good thing — and it makes us feel good, too.
We love feeling like we’re helping people who need us; we love thinking we’re making a difference.
In fact, there are entire companies dedicated to convincing people that they’re “making a difference;” I worked with one of them. These are programs where, if you just pay the company a few thousand dollars, you too can sign up to “change the world.” With several other American teenagers, I painted sea creatures on a school in Costa Rica in 2010 and taught English to the children of migrant workers in an impoverished part of rural China in 2011.
Both times, we all left feeling great as a result of the positive impact we thought we’d made on our world.
Yet, looking back on it now, there are a few discrepancies in what we felt we’d done and what little we had actually accomplished: Maybe the Costa Ricans didn’t need a bunch of rowdy teenagers painting pictures on a schoolhouse; maybe we American high schoolers — who, by the way, had little to no grasp of the Mandarin language — weren’t actually all that effective at teaching language to Chinese students who didn’t speak a word of English; maybe all of those people had much bigger problems to deal with than any of the ones that we could have helped with. Looking back on it, we did practically nothing to change the world — but none of us stopped to think that maybe our “help” was mostly just helping us.
Welcome to what’s called “White Savior Industrial Complex.” According to novelist Teju Cole, whose Twitter responses to the Kony 2012 video attracted widespread attention, it’s that same idea from colonial days — that it’s the white man’s burden to save people from their barbaric ways. “The White Savior Industrial Complex is … about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege,” and “there is much more to doing good work than ‘making a difference.’” Although most of us feel bad for starving African children, I doubt that many of us even understand what’s going on in Africa, let alone know what’s to be done. Which takes us right back to the concept of “making a difference.” When we try to help someone, we take a quick look at what is most likely a very complex problem and try to come to a quick solution. Most of the time, we end up fitting idealistic answers to realistic problems: Your boyfriend’s getting on your nerves? Dump him. Stressing out over school starting? Stop worrying. We can’t possibly understand all the variables to the problems other people face.
Although we’ll never know what it’s really like to walk in someone else’s shoes, we like thinking we have all the answers; it’s easy to feel like we’re the exception to the rules we’ve made, that we’re special.
The problem with us thinking that way is that we’re rarely willing to follow the advice we so readily give.
Which brings us to outright hypocrisy. The United States, despite being willing to start wars in order to eradicate nuclear weapons in other countries, has a massive stockpile of such weapons; the United States refused to support the environmental Kyoto protocol signed by 37 industrialized nations. There’s a Wikipedia page dedicated to “American exceptionalism” — the theory that the United States is different from other countries in that it has a specific mission to spread liberty and democracy throughout the world.
Considering the fact that we in America definitely have our own economic and social issues to deal with, it’s extremely hypocritical of us to think it’s our duty to teach the entire rest of the world how they’re supposed to do things.
If we really want to make the world a better place, we’ve got to stop trying to throw simple solutions at intricate issues that we don’t necessarily understand.
As Teju Cole concludes, “The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.” He continues, “This world exists simply to satisfy the needs — including, importantly, the sentimental needs — of white people and Oprah.” We must understand that what really needs to be done in our world might not feed our desires to each feel like we’ve saved it. We’ve got to stop making believe we’re making a difference by doing things that are, although well-meaning, ultimately unhelpful to anyone but our ourselves.
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