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Moral Outrage, Fanaticism, and the Value of Complexity

Moral Outrage, Fanaticism, and the Value of Complexity

What makes HBO’s Savior Complex remarkable is how it creates space for a complicated story to reveal deeper truths.
This is the second installment in a new series called What Makes This Remarkable. In the first installment, I shared my new favorite podcast, 60 Songs That Explain the 90s, and offered 3 ways that show is remarkable. Today, I'm taking a look at the HBO docu-series Savior Complex, directed by Jackie Jesko.

I do want to issue a bit of a content warning at the top—Savior Complex is a complicated story about missionary work, malnutrition, and the legacy of colonialism on the African continent. There's one brief description of a severely malnourished child.

This installment also frequently uses the term "moral outrage porn" as a critical framework. I'm not talking about actual pornography but the colloquial generic sense of the word "porn," the way we talk about food porn or cabin porn.

Alright, let's dig into what makes Savior Complex remarkable.
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I want us to wonder what stories we’re most hungry for, and why; to consider what forms our fears take; and to ask ourselves whose pain we still look away from.
— Rachel Monroe, Savage Appetites

Look, I don't mean to brag.

But I was into cults before being into cults was cool. I suppose that's to be expected of someone fascinated by religious beliefs and how they manifest in people's behavior.

I'm not going to regale you with my cult knowledge street cred. Suffice it to say that the recent deluge of cult-centered media has given me plenty to consume. Cults are trendy. And anything that has even remote cult energy is going to get its own docu-series on one of the big streaming services.

Speaking of remote cult energy, fundamentalism and its even funkier offshoots are also in demand. Last year saw the release of Shiny Happy People, which gave the world a look at the abusive doctrine and gender violence that gave us 17 18 19 Kids and Counting. At this point, I'm not easily shocked by twisted religious teachings. But that one left me agape several times. We've also had a steady parade of docu-series (and reality TV shows) about Mormon polygamists for more than a decade. Why yes, I was super-duper into HBO's Big Love.

And don't forget podcasts! There are plenty of podcasts too. Some resemble the docu-series and documentaries I've already mentioned—investigative, long-form pieces. Others interview cult experts and former cult members. And others, like Conspirituality and Amanda Montell's Sounds Like a Cult point out the cult-like dynamics of groups that are (a little or a lot) out in the open.

A Simmering Media Frenzy

Speaking of podcasts, I think true crime podcasts walked so that cult docu-series could run.

But also true crime podcasts walked so that true crime docu-series could run.

Anyhow, our voyeurism for cults and true crime have quite a bit in common. First, there's the way we gawk at deviance. But there's also the titillation at imagining oneself in the victim's position and the discharge of tension when one remembers they're safe on their couch. Both true crime and cult media scratch an itch that enough people have to keep green-lighting these projects.

It is in the midst of this simmering media frenzy that the HBO Original Savior Complex landed in my Max app. To be clear, Savior Complex is neither about a cult nor is it true crime, at least in the usual mode of the genre. But as a show, it's in conversation with both cult media and true crime media.

To me, Savior Complex is remarkable. I don't know if director Jackie Jesko made all the right decisions or portrayed everyone involved in an appropriate way or whether she was even the right person to tell this story. But what I do know was the Jesko achieved something that's worth reflecting on at multiple levels. That's pretty much my definition of remarkable.

Before I tell you what's remarkable about Savior Complex, let me give you the TL;DR.

Savior Complex tells the story of Renee Bach, a young woman who went to Uganda as a Christian missionary and eventually founded an NGO called Serving His Children (SHC). What started as a "feeding program" meant to make sure local kids got fed became an ad hoc medical facility where Bach and staff cared for severely malnourished kids. Bach had no medical training and believed that God was interceding to help her care for the children.

Eventually (and predictably), people begin looking into the high number of children dying while at Serving His Children. An advocacy group called No White Saviors began a social media campaign to get SHC shut down. A civil case is brought by the families of some deceased children. Bach leaves Uganda and heads back to the United States to escape the fallout.

A Rare First-Person Account

The first thing that stands out to me about the docu-series is the way Jesko's point of view is clear: criminal or not, some really shady stuff went down at Serving His Children. But this clear point of view is given a foil—Renee Bach herself is interviewed at length about her work, the families she believes she helped, and the prosecution she feels she didn't deserve.

As a connoisseur of media about religious people doing weird things, I can say that this is a remarkable way to tell the story. After all, we rarely hear from the perpetrators of religious crime or abuse outside of preexisting footage, often shot for marketing purposes. Imagine if The Vow featured Keith Raniere answering questions in real time rather than pontificating for publicity's sake. Or if Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar had answered filmmakers' questions for Shiny Happy People. Or if Warren Jeffs had answered questions for any of the many documentaries about the FLDS.1

Bach's testimony doesn't do much for her case. Very early in the first episode, she says, "I feel like I've taken the hit for every single white person who's ever set foot in Uganda." There are objective problems with even her account of events that she just can't seem to perceive as medically or morally wrong. Her white saviorism is so thick you could cut it was a knife. Her ignorance of the ways her behavior hurt people is galling.

But Bach's presence in the series is just a tiny component of what makes Savior Complex remarkable.

A Helpful Concept?

What was truly remarkable to me about Savior Complex was its meta-commentary on what philosophers C. Thi Nguyen and Bekka Williams have called "moral outrage porn." I'm guessing that you already have sense for what moral outrage porn is. If you’re imagining Instagram posts, tweets, or evening “news” segments designed to enrage or terrify through overly simplistic representations of injustice, you’ve got it.

But here's the backstory, which leads to a specific definition we can use.

Nguyen and Williams seek to define the recent emergence of "porn" as a generic term (e.g., "food porn" or "cabin porn"). They're interested in how these generic uses of "porn" converge with or diverge from sex-specific pornography—and what that might tell us about how people interact with media today. Porn, of any kind, they argue, is designed to provoke or used to experience a reaction (e.g., arousal, calm, desire, inspiration, etc.). Beyond provoking that response, it has no real value. They write:

Food porn, real estate porn, and ruin porn are unified in being shorn of context and consequence—in being used to satisfy some desire in a reliable, simple, and functional way. Our relationship to porn is sharply and straightforwardly instrumental.

Here's the "portable" definition they land on:

[Subject] porn is representations of [subject] used for immediate gratification, while avoiding the usual costs and consequences of actually engaging with [subject].

For example, cabin porn is images of cabins used for immediate gratification while avoiding the usual costs and consequences of actually buying a cabin.

So moral outrage porn is representations of (1) moral outrage or (2) scenarios that are morally outrageous that are used to provoke a reaction of righteous indignation while avoiding the usual costs and consequences of resisting the morally outrageous situation. Importantly, a representation can be moral outrage porn even if the situation it represents is, in fact, morally outrageous.

The question of whether or not it's moral outrage porn is in how the representation is used. Is the representation used merely to provoke a specific "gratifying" reaction? Or is the representation used to educate, for instance?

Now that we've defined moral outrage porn, let's examine two sets of communications that feature prominently in Savior Complex: Renee Bach's blog and No White Saviors' Instagram feed.


Blogging For a Cause

During her time in Uganda, Renee Bach blogged about Serving His Children as a way to solicit donations and keep in touch with donors. Bach frequently wrote about the children at SHC—often with before and after images—and offered explanations for their ill health. Reading through even just a few entries, Bach's condescension and white supremacist moralizing is stomach-churning. Stomach-churning in that second-hand embarrassment, “Girl, you need to stop,” kind of way.

This is not to say that I think she's necessarily a bad person, just that her ignorance is conspicuous.

Here is Bach’s description of one family from January 2013:2

I remember spotting his skinny little legs sticking out of a dirty blanket, and looking up to see his Dad’s downcast eyes, shameful of his Son’s poor physical condition.  The fact that his Son was 4 years old and yet only weighed as much as a small infant was likely what had kept him away from the health center for so long…shame of the neglect he and his wife had put their son through.  

After only a quick glance I knew why they had been so neglectful. [The child] has Cerebral Palsy.  In Uganda children with a disability such as this are not favorably looked upon at all. And yes, they are often left in unthinkable conditions.

Was the father shameful or sorrowful? Had the parents been neglectful or unable to access appropriate care? Had the child been left in unthinkable conditions, or have whole communities been subjected to unthinkable conditions as the lasting legacy of colonialism?

"The tone and language used to describe these children is often patronizing and belittling at best, and othering at worst," described Michaela Kwoka-Coleman in a 2020 analysis of SHC's Instagram posts. Kwoka-Coleman also highlights how SHC's posts "do very little to explain the issue of malnutrition." Either avoiding or, more likely, uneducated on issues of colonialism and systemic racism, Bach and SHC instead put the blame for children's malnutrition on "a mother's inability to recognize malnutrition."

Using the framework of moral outrage porn, Bach's blog posts and SHC's Instagram seems to have value only in its usefulness. They don't exist to educate the public on a complex situation that truly deserves moral outrage—a situation that implicates the very institutions that encourage ministries like Bach's. Instead, these depictions serve to provoke a response that leverages pity and moral virtue as a means to acquire financial support. Even the audience for these stories receives a benefit—as their worldview and identity are bolstered with instantly gratifying reactions like superiority, charity, and godliness.

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