Sober saviorism: The personal, cultural, and institutional projects that frame drug users as helpless victims to be rescued from themselves by non — drug using actors.
Drawing from “White saviorism,” the phenomenon of altruistic non — drug users guiding incompetent, unstable drug users from the margins to the mainstream in ways that are self — serving.
I have yet to see explicit comparisons made between White and sober saviorism despite their obvious parallels. For those not familiar, White saviors are those who feel good about “helping” racialized populations without critically reflecting on their complicity in race — based oppression. The term is derived from the poem “White Man’s Burden” by British novelist Rudyard Kipling, which was published in the late 19th century to encourage American conquest in the Philippines. Today, White saviorism manifests in several ways. Notable are transnational adoptions, wherein future parents believe they are “rescuing” impoverished children from their birth place, volunteer and mission trips by ill — equipped young people, many of which are flimsy veneers for religious colonialism, and social workers apprehending Indigenous children when their families don’t conform to rigid parameters of “responsibility ” imposed by Whiteness. It’s also a common film trope.
The White savior is not innocent, and they have a vested interest in maintaining the illusion of White supremacy.
As a Westerner, I have observed similar dynamics unfold between drug users and those who claim to care for us. Sober saviorism can look like the unwillingness to give money to panhandlers (who may or may not use drugs) because they’ll “waste” it or use to to “self — harm” via substances. The “enabling” myth — that is, the notion that loving drug users inhibits change — is also imbued with sober saviorism, as is the adjacent belief that harm — reduction encourages drug use and should be disallowed.
Sober saviors may mean well, but as with their White counter — parts (who more often than not are one and the same), sober saviorism is violent.
I have written about the notion that drug use is a rational response to macro — and micro — level traumas. Through this framework, “addiction” is life — affirming: I firmly believe that suicide rates would increase exponentially if drugs weren’t available, particularly among those existing at the intersections of state — sponsored poverty, racism, and colonialism. Preventing us from taking our medicine (which is sometimes the only medicine we have access to) without addressing the factors that make us need it is profoundly inhumane. From this premise, I also believe that all drugs should be legalized and regulated. This is the only way to stem the tide of needless overdose deaths that have ravaged my communities.
As with White saviourism, then, sober saviourism isn’t just interpersonal. It’s also inextricable from our political and economic systems.
Nigerian — American novelist, poet, art historian, and Harvard Professor Teju Cole coined the term “White savior industrial complex” in a sequence of seven tweets.
“…The White savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evenings…
…The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege…”
Adding “industrial complex” to a term means that when faced with a social problem, capitalism creates a profit economy from the solutions it proposes. Put differently, businesses become entwined with the problem and benefit from exacerbating it, even as they claim their actions fix it.
In the context of Whiteness, “aiding” the racialized other doesn’t just give White people warm and fuzzy feels — it directly lines their pocket books.
Take transnational adoptions, which are saturated with Conservative Christianity and its economic initiatives. Kathryn Joyce, author of “Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption” explains that adoptive parents have “added moral weight” to a multi-billion dollar adoption industry intent on increasing the “supply” of adoptable children. Data trends demonstrate that after imperialist wars, which are initiated by the (tacitly Christian) West, “boom” child economies appear in nations whose adoption regulations have been weakened and who are vulnerable to predatory adoption agencies. The agencies attract wealthy White folk who rip children from their parents (most of whom are alive but impoverished thanks to the West) and convert them to Christianity. Countries such as Uganda, Rwanda, and Ethiopia have experienced the “bust” that happens after abuse is investigated, and when adoption rates slow, the same agencies establish themselves elsewhere.
Western governments cause the problem, while government — backed corporations and their supporters make the problem worse — all while being applauded.
How does this relate to drug use?
Just as the West intentionally keep countries in the global south dependent on the “aid” we provide after we have decimated their ways of life, government — organization alliances at home introduce projects to address the ramifications of drug prohibition and poverty, even though they are to blame for these phenomena.
We refer to this as the non — profit industrial complex, which is a system of relationships between the state, the owning classes, foundations, and non — profit/NGOs. The state decides which social causes to endorse based on the extent to which doing so will maintain the status quo. It provides grant money and other economic support to organizations that “work on” these causes, and in exchange it dictates how they operate.
Addiction treatment is a quintessential example of this: Many are based on hybrid public — private funding models. This means that some attendees pay out of pocket or through third — party financing such as employment insurance, while others are publicly funded by the government or government — affiliated health bodies. A wealthy individual may pay between a few hundred to several thousand dollars per day, and the profit the centre accrues is used for staff salaries (some exorbitant), media campaigns, biased “research” that un — credentialed or dishonest academics conduct to “prove” the treatment model’s efficacy, and to supplant the cost of publicly funded clients.
Almost every treatment centre that receives government funding is abstinence and twelve — step based, even though this paradigm is stigmatizing, alienating for atheists, and empirically unsupported. The reason they have to mandate abstinence is because they would lose access to state funding if they promoted harm reduction or encouraged critical dialogue. A primary goal of the non — profit industrial complex is to de — politicize social issues (lest the government be blamed) and legitimize capitalism. Abstinence — based treatment does this by framing addiction as a personal problem, de — coupling it from the forces that produce it (i.e. poverty) and emphasizing that “recovery” is available to those who accept that drugs induce “insanity.”
Through this paradigm, governments are emboldened to implement policies that cause addiction by keeping people poor because they funnel public monies to non — profits tasked with “saving” those most impacted. Simultaneously, they push victim — blaming narratives about the “dangers” of drug use, and as the public observes new social services opening, they assume this glut of resources should meet drug users’ needs. Those who can’t get “well” are framed as stubborn or “too far gone” for abstinence, not as casualties of state and corporate greed.
It’s a brilliant marketing strategy, albeit one with deadly consequences.
This year, illicit drug toxicity deaths have increased exponentially. Many of these deaths in British Columbia were concentrated in the Downtown Eastside, colloquially known as “North America’s poorest postal code.” Here, an open — air drug market operates continuously, as do innumerable non — profits and addiction treatment programs. People see the Downtown Eastside as a cautionary tale — evidence of what happens when “mental illness” runs rampant and drug — fuelled lunatics become depraved animals that not even treatment can contain.
What people don’t understand, however, is that most in this neighbourhood live off of a few hundred dollars per month, have been deprived of stable housing, and are terrorized by police. Many are also activists is one way or another, whether that means advocating for drug policy reform, participating in protests, or keeping one — another alive through unsanctioned means (i.e. pop — up safe injection sites or back — alley peer support) because the state refuses to do so. Residents of the DTES are some of our most resourceful and politically engaged, but the public is rarely exposed to uplifting stories because to frame homeless drug users as anything other than “sick” would undermine state control.” They do need “help,” but in the form of sustainable housing, living wages, and access to a safe, licit drug supply — not institutionalization.
Much like the state — backed NGOs who bemoan conflict in the global south while omitting the west’s role in this conflict, non — profits and the state “support brutal policies” (drug prohibition), “found charities” to “manage” the victims of these policies, and are lauded by onlookers for their “compassion.” This cycle provides a “big emotional experience” for non — profit staff (most of them naive do — gooders whose formal education further distances them from clients on the bases of income and credentials) and other “helping professionals.” It’s a paternalistic circle — jerk, and it “validates privilege” by reinforcing the “us” versus “them” dichotomy intrinsic to neoliberalism.
If an iota of the taxpayer money that went toward non — profits and their colluders (the police, social workers, charity founders, consultants, “low — barrier” addiction counsellors) was directed instead to livable housing and grassroots healing initiatives, non — profits would be obsolete. This is exactly why this doesn’t happen – the construction of “addicts” provides a large under — class of “sick people” to transpose our own anxieties and self — loathing onto. It’s an effective form of job creation, it distracts from state incompetence, and it reassures us that as “good,” “stable” people, we have something to offer.
In “Black Skin, White Masks,” revolutionary Frantz Fanon, himself Black, reflects on the colonial foundations of anti — Blackness and explores how these phenomena become embedded in the psyche of White and Black people alike, informing their interactions with the other, themselves, and the social world.
He writes, “The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards,” meaning that within the structures of racism and colonialism, Blackness can be “redeemed” by aligning itself with Whiteness.
Similarly, there exists a rift between some “recovered” twelve — step advocates and proponents of harm reduction because the former have adopted values linked to sobriety. With all the fervour of born — again Christinas, they parrot dominant discourses about abstinence — namely, that it is intrinsically good — and in so doing, they separate themselves from active users. The accounts that twelve — steppers share, often publicly, are part of a “recovery narrative” genre that philosophers call “technologies of discipline;” they absorb and dilute progressive thought and with it, the emancipatory potential of drug users extending solidarity across sober/non — sober lines. Divisiveness does the state’s work for it, as having a vocal group of “recovered” addicts legitimizes government interventions deployed to “fix” individual drug users, however coercively.
With few exceptions, sober saviorism entails replacing solutions for poverty with initiatives for hiding drug use. Meenakshi Mannoe Viveca Ellis of Pivot Legal Society writes that before British Columbia’s recent election, party leaders dismissed the “lived and living realities of people who experience homelessness” by choosing to focus on its symptoms. For example, former Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan opposed safe — injection sites because they “facilitate harm” and create “chaos” in wealthy areas. He didn’t seem to realize that poverty is inherently chaotic, or that encouraging unhoused people to publicly inject won’t pacify angry homeowners. Others proposed de — camping voluntary tent cities and forcing homeless drug users into “secure” (locked) mental health and addictions facilities, citing their “vulnerability.” Politicians want to conceal the obvious effects of socioeconomic inequality without being willing to actually reduce socioeconomic inequality, and drug users bear the brunt of this.
Fanon asks, “Superiority? Inferiority? Why not simply try to touch the other, feel the other, discover each other?” It’s a sentiment I take seriously, and it has implications for drug users.
Rather than applaud those who are striving to “overcome” their stigmatized characteristic (sober people), why not approach abstinence as one option among many. What would it mean to point to the DTES not as an example of despair, but as a site of incredible resilience — to focus on the grass — roots activism, cultural diversity, and relentless optimism in the face of oppression? Drug users aren’t just wayward and lawless — we are organized, we have launched countless, co — ordinated attacks against the state, and we need a robust network of care that doesn’t rely on force. I’m not opposed to abstinence or even abstinence — based treatment, but sobriety can’t be chosen consensually if one’s only alternatives are violence, homelessness, and death.
This paradigm shift will also require outsiders to develop a critical consciousness of their saviour tendencies. White saviors are motivated by identities rooted in the normalization of White excellence, but scholars have concluded that destructive socialization can be made explicit and unlearned. We need to do the same for drug use. Lilla Wilson famously said, “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Drug users can benefit from the inclusion of non — drug users into our movements and our lives, but only if they’re willing to speak to us, not for us.
Otherwise, they are not our friends.