By Amanda Houdeschell
You’ve seen the phrase on T-shirts, tattoos, memes, and in social media bios. Those making this proclamation are typically vegans who care deeply about animals. But where do we draw the line between effective advocacy and human savior complex?
What is the Human Savior Complex?
- In a video for Everyday Feminism, Celia Edell describes the white savior complex as “… racializ[ing] morality by making us consistently identify with the good white person saving the non-white people who are given much less of an identity in these plot lines. It also frames people of color as being unable to solve their own problems. It implies that they always need saving, and that white people are the only ones competent enough to save them. This is very obviously untrue, and it’s a harmful message to relay.”
Just as the white savior is destructive to the cause of racial justice, the human savior is destructive to the cause of animal liberation. We are reinforcing a narrative of helpless, vulnerable victims, when in reality it is our fault that they are struggling. Implanting egg-laying hens, transporting elephants from circus to sanctuary, or saving someone from a slaughterhouse are not services we provide. They are reparations that are long overdue.
Edell’s criticism of white saviors taking away from the identities of non-white people is applicable to the animal rights movement as well. The current narrative is that animals do not fight for their own liberation, and we have conveniently decided not to correct this perception. We often say that the animal rights movement is made up completely of allies — but this could not be further from the truth. And yet we center ourselves in their stories. We’ve elevated animal rescue over animal care. We are taking up too much damn space.
The human savior complex reveals itself in our language. Christopher Sebastian, in his talk “Allies in Arms, The Danger of Wearing Veganism as an Identity,” responds to activists claiming to be the voice for the voiceless by stating: “Animals can speak. Implying that other animals don’t have voices is a speciesist and subtlely ableist aggression, and it erases their identities.”
When we analyze the damage a human savior can do, the necessity of anti-speciesist advocacy becomes apparent. Let us apply another problem exemplified by white saviors — giving more of an identity to white saviors than to the non-white people who are marginalized — to the animal rights movement. An example of this is a video of a hen’s rescue, with the captions “We found her. We rescued her. We showed her love. We brought her to safety. We treated her wounds. We gave her a name.”
Framing the entire video on the rescuers instead of the person who was rescued is a classic example of the human savior complex at play. As their allies, we have a responsibility to tell their stories, not ours. The last sentence is especially alarming. Naming is an act of dominance. Just because names have become a necessary part of our society does not mean that we should pride ourselves in this display of power over nonhumans. I have a daughter who I call Luna, but I know that her biological mother had a different name for her in their own language. I do not have the capability to understand Luna’s speech, and so she can never communicate with me what her real name is. We should acknowledge the gravity of this disruption in our relationship, rather than seize the opportunity to hoard control. Hana Low of The Microsanctuary Movement says it perfectly in their introduction of Bear: “This is my friend. I call him Bear. He has his own name, in chicken language, but I don’t speak chicken so I thought of a name for humans to call him.”
What makes nonhuman voices so different from ours that causes us to label them voiceless? Is it the lack of language? The lack of verbal speech? The lack of ability to communicate with us? None of these is sufficient because none of them is a blanket statement about all nonhuman animals, and all of them could be applied to certain humans in certain situations.
“Although they lack vocal cords, fishes of at least hundreds of species ‘talk.’ In ways that include vibrating their air bladder, grinding their teeth, and rubbing bony parts of their body together, they produce sounds ranging from buzzes and clicks to yelps and sobs,” Joan Dunayer writes in Animal Equality: Language and Liberation. Just as humans communicate with one another through body language, so do other animals communicate in many other ways beyond verbal words. One need not spend a long time with other animals to learn that they too verbally express themselves. Dogs bark in joy when their family comes home. Roosters crow to alert everyone of daybreak. We are so quick to separate ourselves from other animals, but are pigs not calling out to us in terror when they scream before their deaths? How callous we are to say they are without speech, while plugging our ears to their cries.
There are billions of humans who do not speak the same language as me, with whom I am unable to communicate. Just as humans are able to learn new languages, so are nonhumans. Washoe was the first chimpanzee to learn American Sign Language. Not only did she learn over 350 signs, she also taught ASL to her son, Loulis. To say that these individuals — and others like them — are voiceless is to also imply that humans whose only language is ASL are also voiceless. Where do we draw the line?
Understanding Systemic Silencing
We have not learned to speak nonhumans’ languages, but that is not the reason that humans aren’t listening. Oppressors have been speaking the same language as the oppressed for thousands of years, and yet today injustice still abounds. To assume that humans would grant animals rights if we could only understand their words is to demonstrate a lack of knowledge of other liberation movements.
“All the evidence suggests that if animals similarly demanded space and dictated the terms of their liberation, they would be met with all the same outrage that their human counterparts experience,” Christopher Sebastian says in the talk mentioned above. While it is important to understand that calling nonhuman people “voiceless” is senseless and untrue, we must also frame their oppression within the larger systems at play. No matter how many times slaughter footage is shown on the streets, there will always be someone who refuses to see. No matter how many times a cow verbally mourns for her kidnapped baby, there will always be someone who refuses to hear.
Changing the Narrative
“There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.” ―Arundhati Roy, The 2004 Sydney Peace Prize Lecture
This remarkable and often-quoted statement was made by author, actress, and political actress Arundhati Roy. The following sentences are also note-worthy: “I am a writer who cannot claim to represent anybody but herself. So even though I would like to, it would be presumptuous of me to say that I accept this prize on behalf of those who are involved in the struggle of the powerless and the disenfranchised against the powerful. However, may I say I accept it as the Sydney Peace Foundation’s expression of solidarity with a kind of politics, a kind of world-view, that millions of us around the world subscribe to?” (emphasis added)
I firmly believe that animal rights activists must look to other social justice movements in order for us to reach our full potential. Let us follow in Roy’s footsteps and not claim to speak on behalf of nonhuman animals but to stand in solidarity with them. Let us not claim to be the voices of the voiceless but to amplify the voices of the silenced.
Species Revolution aims to normalize anti-speciesism as a stance against injustice. To support our work, like our Facebook page, subscribe to our newsletter, and donate. Join us in the fight for animal liberation.