With the continuous rise of activism in mainstream media, it is crucial to discern the difference between activism and saviorism and recognize the deeply ingrained savior mentality that middle-class and upper-class Americans and Europeans have adopted towards developing nations.
The savior complex is a subset of performative activism, in which a person of privilege attempts to resolve an issue or conflict that they have little to no experience or knowledge about and forces a short-term solution that may cause more harm than good. Despite the term “white saviorism” from which the concept of saviors emerged, saviors are not always white in skin color, although the word is derived from the white savior complex. One’s national identity and other privileges, such as gender or sexual orientation, can also manifest a savior relationship. Author Teju Cole describes the savior complex as an ongoing reality for Africa, “From the colonial project to Out of Africa to The Constant Gardener and Kony 2012, Africa has provided a space onto which egos can conveniently be projected. It is a liberated space in which the usual rules do not apply: a nobody from America or Europe can go to Africa and become a godlike savior or, at the very least, have his or her emotional needs satisfied. Many have done it under the banner of making a difference.” As an activist, one needs to discern if they are attempting to solve an issue to satisfy their own emotional needs or create a permanent long-term impact on the said issue. The people impacted by the problems are real people going through hardships, not objects to manipulate to their benefit.
These issues are not conquests for one to post on social media or use to ease their guilt. It has become easier for people to share and blog about their mission trips or service projects with social media. Mission trips and Service projects have become increasingly problematic as their history have come to light. These trips are a perfect representation of how savorism disguises itself as activism. Missionaries and colonizers worked hand in hand, leading to colonialism, genocide, and assimilation, all in the name of faith. Missionaries are often described in the past as heroes who bring salvation. Salvation to those in other countries who seem to desperately need their help according to them. The whole idea of a mission trip has been savorism from the start.
Modern-day mission trips are influenced by the neoliberal, empowering ideology that suggests Americans can and should fix other countries’ problems in the name of service, progress, and faith. Many volunteers are trying to “do the right thing” and give back to those in need while completely ignoring the neocolonial undertones their work produces. As Flaherty explains in his book No More Heroes: Grassroots Challenges to the Savior Mentality, the mentality cannot exist without turning people into objects who need rescuing. Alongside the problem within mission trips, it has become easier for people to share and blog about their mission trips or service projects with social media. Most commonly, mission trips or service trip posts often talk about how the individual has learned so much throughout their journey. Through social media, the self-serving side of humanitarianism has become more and more apparent. The trip’s motivation and the person play an important role in distinguishing the difference between activism and saviorism. Generosity drives many young Americans and Europeans to volunteer in developing countries despite lacking the skills and qualifications. It is essential to realize that posting about personal growth on the said trip, while necessary, gives the impression that the trip was only to serve for personal development instead of the issue they were trying to resolve. It is incredibly selfish to build a school in a community you know very little about because you are searching for a humbling experience. Renee Bach, a US Missionary, built a hospital in Uganda for her mission project, except she was not a doctor. She was a 20 year-old high school graduate who had no prior medical experience. Yet, she did not employ one single doctor in her hospital. When she took in over 940 ill children in her hospital, over 100 of her patients died. When interviewed by NPR, she simply stated, “It was a very, very profound feeling and experience. It’s kind of hard to even describe in words. Like there was something that I was supposed to do.” In an attempt to help the children because she believed that she, specifically, needed to save them, Bach ended up killing nearly ten percent of the patients she had, all while blogging about her profound life-changing experience on social media. There are many ways to experience humility, and some of them would get fewer likes on social media. Often, volunteers treat the people they claim to help in a culturally insensitive manner. Even thinking that it is appropriate in any context to take a photo with a hospitalized child or a group of children playing outside is such a blatant example of how Western imperialist ideas still exist. In Bach’s case, she had a blog for her hospital where she posted every week although children in her hospital were dying there every week. With activism, one is attempting to resolve an issue without doing it for their gain or satisfaction or the need to save someone. Real activism is doing something for the good of another community by bringing long-term positive change and understanding the depth and importance of the issue. Instead of a mission trip that builds a hospital in Africa, one could organize a protest to target the government to fund pre-existing hospitals. One brings short-term change while promoting saviorism, and the other provides long-term growth while bringing awareness to an issue. It should not be a need to save someone but rather empathizing with the people and their problems with the sincerity they deserve.
However, some might say that help is help, and people will take whatever they can get. Although some may accept whatever aid they may receive, they do not deserve to have their problems used as objects to satisfy someone else’s emotional needs. Help is help, but what are the intentions behind the aid that was given. In Bach’s case, her intentions led her to kill nearly a tenth of her patients. Intentions matter because how one acts on those intentions can affect so many people.
To help differentiate whether something is activism or savorism, check one’s privilege and real intentions before addressing an issue. As important as identifying it within oneself, it is equally important to call out others on saviorism and not to allow other people marginalize problems and issues.