No More Heroes: Grassroots Challenges to the Savior Mentality
US: Nov 2016
“We don’t need another hero” goes Tina Turner’s 1985 hit from the film, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. “We don’t need to know the way home / All we want is life beyond / Thunderdome”.
It would serve as a fitting soundtrack to Jordan Flaherty’s No More Heroes: Grassroots Challenges to the Savior Mentality. Two-parts reportage and one-part manifesto, the book takes aim at what Flaherty describes as the ‘savior mentality’—the increasingly challenged tendency of the privileged to impose their version of salvation on those they consider in need of it.
“The savior mentality means that you want to help others but are not open to guidance from those you want to help,” he writes. “Saviors fundamentally believe they are better than the people they are rescuing. Saviors want to support the struggle of communities that are not their own, but they believe they must remain in charge. The savior always wants to lead, never to follow.”
He’s not simply referring to American soldiers riding tanks over the bodies of those they’ve ‘liberated’ into ‘liberated’ cities they’ve reduced to rubble. His book focuses on the savior complex within movements that consider themselves progressive and left-leaning. Social entrepreneurs, ‘change agents’, ‘social innovators’ come under particular scrutiny, as do the non-profits, charities and well-funded foundations that have turned social welfare into a multi-billion dollar for-profit industry.
“The savior mentality is not about individual failings,” Flaherty writes. “It is the logical result of a racist, colonialist, capitalist, hetero-patriarchal system setting us against each other. And being a savior is not a fixed identity. Under the struggle to survive within capitalism, most of us are forced into decisions that contradict our ideals. Many people are involved in liberation movements in their free time while their day job is at a charity or other non-profit that does not challenge the status quo. We can be a savior one day and an ally the next.”
But unlike allies, saviors make sure to keep one foot solidly planted in the stream from which their privilege flows. “The savior mentality always looks for solutions by working within our current system because deeper change might push us out of the picture…”
Flaherty has put his finger on an important issue, and he tackles it with admirable pluck and effort. The greatest criticism the book deserves is that it tries to do too much, by tackling both the savior complex as an individual personality trait, as well as the savior complex on a broader systemic level. Both iterations of the savior complex deserve their spot under the microscope, but it’s difficult to do both in the space of a short and broad-ranging series of journalistic essays.
It’s the emergence of savior traits among social movement leadership that’s the most compelling aspect of the book, perhaps because it’s so much less studied and so widely prevalent. Flaherty explores the cases of so-called activist Brandon Darby and so-called progressive journalist Nicolas Kristof, and reveals how community-based organizing can easily become co-opted by the privileged (especially white men) and used for their personal self-aggrandizement, whether it comes in the form of status, power or wealth.
Flaherty’s exposés of post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans are also impressive, demonstrating the devastation that’s been wrought on the region under the guise of ‘rescuing’ and ‘restoring’ it. He weaves between the local and the systemic, showing how on-the-ground initiatives like Teach For America perpetuate the exploitation of marginalized communities by the privileged (privileged, largely white, college graduates essentially acting as out-of-state scabs for neoliberal regimes seeking to destroy teachers’ unions and the good jobs they provide for local community members) and how this is indelibly related to the broader problems of charter schools (which permit institutionalized racism and other forms of discrimination under the guise of enhanced learning outcomes).
His approach—based on reportage grounded in personal experience and interviews—runs into more difficult terrain when he tackles entire movements. Two chapters are devoted to the issue of sex work, and while they underscore his broader point, his efforts to expose the savior complex among prohibitionists and advocates of the Nordic model tends to compress and essentialize a much more complex debate. Why must discussion of sex work always polarize into extremes? Can’t we simply acknowledge that this is a complex issue, in which neither ‘side’ has a monopoly on the moral high ground? Proponents of criminalizing sex work (or criminalizing clients, as the Nordic model advocates) ignore the brutally harmful impacts their campaigns have on sex workers and how they increase the risk and poverty they experience; but likewise opponents of criminalization all too often tend to gloss over the nuanced layers of privilege which differentiate different communities of sex workers. Flaherty’s account slips into the former category, taking broad aim at the sex worker ‘rescue’ industry. The critique is a legitimate and important one, but it’s unfortunate that the short space of two chapters doesn’t allow for a more complex discussion of a complex issue.
This taps into another shortcoming of exclusively buying into the change-from-within model, unfashionable though it is to challenge it in today’s progressive circles. Uncritically accepting the demands of local organizers often means retrenching voices of privilege in local communities. Sometimes externally-driven change can serve the benefit of up-ending localized systems of power, allowing new and marginalized voices to emerge, and offering the new insight which only outsiders can bring. Everyone wants to think they have the answers, and in a disempowered community power is a scarce and sought-after resource, emerging through limited voices. Yet that doesn’t necessarily mean those voices offer the emancipatory solutions the community seeks. Both change-from-within and insight-from-without offer valuable strengths, and one must consider whether movements are perhaps strongest when these approaches are seen as complementary, not mutually exclusive.
The final two chapters look at the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter. Here Flaherty critiques a different form of the ‘savior’ mentality; the demand for structured movements and movement goals. The chapters essentially turn into a defense of decentralized organizing. Not having clearly articulated goals, or adopting extremely broad ones—one of the criticisms often leveled at movements like Occupy, Black Lives Matter, or the Indigenous-led Idle No More movement in Canada—can be a tremendous strength, Flaherty argues. Until a movement reaches its zenith no one knows what goals or demands might actually be possible to achieve, so why restrict a movement to minor reforms from the get-go?
Here too he has a legitimate point, which he argues convincingly, but it’s important not to romanticize the allure of structurelessness. Romantic and revolutionary as these movements might seem, it’s still worth debating whether they’ve actually dented the systems of violence and oppression which they oppose in any significant and long-lasting way. Self-organizing and putting off a massive action can produce a heady rush of self-satisfaction. But does it actually change anything? Opinions would certainly vary in response to this, but perhaps it’s useful to consider, as some have suggested, these mass movements as part of a broader ecology of change, which also includes structured groups and programmatic agendas.
Manifestos will never achieve anything without community-led mass movements to back them up; but likewise, community-led mass movements risk being little more than a blip on the historical record if they don’t consider how to institutionalize the change they demand. Again, Flaherty has cracked open an important issue, and he comes at it from a refreshing and challenging perspective, but it needs greater depth to do it justice. He seems to realize this too, acknowledging the dangers of Occupy-style movements replicating other movements that devolved into “a tyranny of structurelessness that allowed people of more privilege to rise to the top.” But how to do that? Flaherty doesn’t provide all the answers, but he does deserve credit for taking aim at the question in a more explicit way than most other contemporary writers on the topic.
Likewise, there needs to be a deeper discussion around the proscription that would-be ‘saviors’ ought to stick to working within their own communities. Certainly, Flaherty succeeds in demonstrating the violence of imposing outside values and goals on a self-organized community, and the need to listen to the voices of those affected and ask them what they want, not force change upon them from above. Recent history is full of examples of how disastrous that can be. But a broader scale of history reveals that sometimes external intervention can serve useful ends. The early parts of the 20th century saw tremendous internationalist organizing, ranging from military interventions by leftist militias and armies (from the Spanish Civil War to Cubans in Angola) to the anti-fascist networks that lobbied assiduously for western military rearmament against Nazi Germany. Flaherty does refer to the need for a “principled internationalism”, but it would be useful to have this idea unpacked in greater detail.
Perhaps the problem lies in imagining that there’s a single universalizable approach to movement-building that ought to be followed. Flaherty ably demonstrates the significant dangers and frequent failures of savior-like interventionism. Asking for guidance from local organizers and listening to the wisdom of elders is important—critical, even—but it’s not an automatic recipe for success, either. Local movements are often divided themselves about the best course of action; elders often possess great wisdom, but also cynical, outdated and reactionary attitudes. Perhaps movement-building requires instead a principled situationism: attentive to the dangers of radical intervention, but open to its possibilities.
These are, however, minor quibbles which underscore how important the topic is that Flaherty has taken on. The savior complex is real and it needs unpacking in all of its varied dimensions: from the paid (white, male) organizers who think they know best and wind up perpetrating violence and oppression on those they represent in an effort to strengthen their movements; to the charities that crush social change by inadvertently strengthening the status quo; to the broader conceptual problem of how to build mass movements that listen to, and respect, the local voices which are all too often ignored. Flaherty offers an excellent, pointed introduction to a discussion that urgently needs to be had.
Tina Turner’s 1985 hit single, critiquing heroes, also tackles the complexity of the issue in its own way. In many ways, Mad Max is the epitome of the savior Flaherty warns us about: the able-bodied white man who becomes the focus of our attention, instead of the people he is seeking to help. But then again, there’s another read of this bumbling adventurer who epitomizes masculine individualism. In the end, he’s remembered not for becoming a great leader, but for his role in facilitating the escape and self-organizing of the children who go on to rebuild a post-apocalyptic civilization. In the end, he fades into the dust of post-nuclear history. His fate remains unknown, his whereabouts somewhere in the wilderness, and while his contribution was important, the struggle ultimately goes on without him.
Looking for something
We can rely on
There`s gotta be something better out there
Love and compassion
Their day is coming
All else are castles built in the air
And I wonder when we are ever gonna change
Living under the fear till nothing else remains
All the children say
We don`t need another hero…
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