Thursday, March 22, 2012

KONY2012 and TOMS Shoes - Meditations on doing good.

Teju Cole penned this article for the Atlantic this week in response to the KONY2012 movement. I recommend you read it on it's own merit, but also to increase your understanding of my post.

Not wanting "Better" to be the enemy of "Good", I acknowledge the accomplishment of  KONY2012 in raising awareness of war crimes in Africa. This thing practically hit cat video status. However, it highlights an uncomfortable trend that I couldn’t articulate properly until reading Cole's article.

I know very little about the organization, Invisible Children. I understand there are questions surrounding their work, but it is their fundraising that struck me most. When I went to the web site I was flabbergasted at the number of KONY2012 products I could purchase. Offered were bracelets, T-shirts, and an ACTION KIT! I half expected the all important grocery bag, so to take with you on your trip to WHOLE FOODS. How else are you going to show that you care?

Well, while you’re feeling satisfied with your new Made-In-Africa graphic tee, knowing that you've helped stop a vicious war lord while being fashionable at the same time, STOP. Don't feel satisfied. Don't pat yourself on the back. You are part of the "White Savior Industrial Complex." But, know that you do look kinda cool.

Cole first coined that term on his twitter account. He characterizes The White Savior Industrial Complex as “...not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” He uses this term to critique Invisible Children, TED talks, and even Oprah. (Seeing as he critiqued Oprah, he probably will never get another job. She’s her own industrial complex.)

I extend this critique even further. I suspect that Cole would agree that The White Savior Industrial Complex does not end with activism and non-profits, but frighteningly is an increasing consumer trend. A trend that allows the selling of t-shirts as part of an effort to end the world's deadliest on-going conflict seem natural. They are all sold out by the way, but not to worry, imitations are available on Amazon.

Are they solving the world's ills?
Buying our way to world peace is an idea increasingly present in for-profit consumer companies. TOMS Shoes maybe being the most obvious. The sales pitch to consumers is as follows: Don’t just buy any piece of crap. Buy this piece of crap, and save a poor person at the same time! Guilt is simultaneously used and assuaged in this process. We look at our own excess in contrast to those poor kids with no shoes, and feel guilty. But not to worry, TOMS has a solution! Buy his shoes and those kids get shoes too! See, you’re a good person after all.

TOMS is not alone in selling the savior mentality. Basically list the favorite brands of hipsters, and you’ll get a nice sample. Apple, Starbucks, Fair trade coffee, Whole Foods, ect. These companies and organizations don’t just sell shoes or coffee, they sell redemption. We have been convinced that so long as each purchase we make goes towards doing good, we absolve ourselves of the sins of privilege and can identify as responsible citizens of the world.

The problem with all our efforts to buy “the right crap,” is that at the end of the day it’s still crap. It is our unsustainable consumption that leads to the exploitation that causes global poverty. I don’t think Tom, nor his shoes are sinister. He has noble intentions, and even the consumers of TOMS are mostly well intentioned. I take issue when we assuage the guilt of excess and privilege as a marketing campaign, with the red herring of a smiling child wearing a new pair of shoes. Owning five pairs of TOMS may give five kids a pair of shoes, but owning five pairs of shoes you don’t need is part of the reason those kids don’t have shoes in the first place.

Furthermore, what will help those kids more than shoes is food stability, access to clean water, and education. Similarly, Cole writes, “What Africa needs more pressingly than Kony's indictment is more equitable civil society, more robust democracy, and a fairer system of justice.”

Cole specifically points to the racial element of this phenomenon. While I agree on some accounts, I think “First-World Savior Industrial Complex” is more accurate. It’s not because we’re white that we think we can save these poor people, it is because we are RICH! and EDUCATED! We know better, so it is our duty to help them. We say this with out really thinking of who “they” are, and what we actually “know.” While we hold the best of intentions, we don’t really want to sacrifice. We don’t want to limit our ability to purchase natural resources at a price that does not reflect the true cost. We want to wear affordable cute shoes and feel good about it.

Cole’s article has brought me to critique my own participation in the Savior Industrial Complex. Both my consumer habits, and my Peace Corps service. I have been privileged in almost every possible way my whole life, so what am I doing living in Paraguay?

Increasingly I cringe every time I say, “I’m here to help.” What the hell am I helping with? I believe in the Peace Corps, not as an agent to change the world, but as a way to change people. Even if it’s just the volunteers themselves. I’m just not yet sure how my actions fit into the bigger picture. Am I just convincing people that America is an alright place even as we pass yet another Cargill plant on our bus ride? Despite my best efforts, am I doing more harm than good?

Recently I have been looking at my service merely as a job, and a pretty rad one at that. I don’t know how much I’m “serving the people of Paraguay,” but whatever I’m doing, it’s fun. I don’t make much money, but I keep my own schedule, work on cool projects, and get to see another part of the world. If the private sector had offered me that, I would have jumped at it.

However, maybe that last paragraph is my own TOMS shoes. Maybe that’s how I rid my guilt of using service to others as an excuse for adventure and validation of my own life. I don’t know if I am any different than the founders of Invisible Children. I can point to the fact that I certainly have less wealth and fame as a way to add a sense of saintliness to my work, but am I really that different? In the end we’re both Americans in a developing country “just trying to help.”

I hate to lend a critique without including an alternative. If the White Savior Industrial Complex won’t save anything, then what is a positive way to mend the world?  I would encourage a change in US foreign policy, and criticize global aid -both certainly have contributed to the world’s tragedies- but the fact is, I don’t know. I don’t know what the better path is, and there are a lot of smart people looking for that answer who don’t know either. I do, however, think it begins with respect.

Find Uganda on a map before you start trying to save Ugandans. Respect that a person built your  phone, using another country’s resources, before so cavalierly trading it in for a newer model. Respect that people of the developing world love their countries. They are not unlucky to be born non-American. They are lucky to be born Paraguayan, Ugandan, Sudanese. We as Americans are not their saviors. We do not hold some special power nor responsibility to act on their behalf, but there is one thing we can do. We can be their compatriots in trying to build a world based on respect for all individuals. If respect is a guiding principle in the decisions we make as a society and individuals, then maybe there will be less saving to do.

I know this post is not instep with my usual writings, but it is a theme that has been haunting me for some time. I could no longer hide behind my humor pretending that life in Peace Corps is just a series of funny anecdotes. Even in my relative comfort, a house with electricity and running water, I live in the reality of global inequity and the insights that brings on my country and my old life. I would be shirking my duties as a volunteer and a story teller if I didn't share that with you all. 

But don't worry, I'll be back with more funny in the future. I have a water stain in bathroom that kinda looks like Jesus I have to share with you. And really, this wouldn’t be a true Peace Corps blog without some lefty rant about the evils of consumerism. So go forth and purchase, Dear Reader. Just think twice before you do.