The bicycle is a pleasing and virtuous method of travel. After all, in the words of one anonymous wit, its passenger is also its engine. Desmond Tutu, also quite a wit and pro-cycling activist, had this to say on the subject: ‘Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime. Teach a man to cycle and he will realize fishing is stupid and boring.’ Both good for you and the environment, the bicycle represents clean air and freedom. In the cinema it has become a visual cue for childhood. Think of ET silhouetted against the Moon, Paul Newman messing about in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the von Trapps out and about in The Sound of Music and, for those darker moments, the terrifying Miss Gulch in The Wizard of OZ. This year, in The Silent Child, the bicycle reappears as a vehicle for salvation, carrying a social worker through leafy country lanes to rescue Libby, the titular Deaf girl, locked in a world without language. The cinematic echoes of kindly governesses dispensing soothing spoonfuls of sugar should be a warning that something unpalatable lurks in Libby’s world. Libby’s parents have problems. Libby’s parents don’t communicate. Don’t be like Libby’s parents.
The Silent Child is an intense story of hope quashed by injustice and deserved to win an Oscar. The media attention generated by the film has given its makers a platform to speak up for Deaf children like Libby and to celebrate sign language and highlight the struggle for its acceptance. But what if it’s not that simple, what if the film is actually a variant of the White Saviour Complex – a Hearing Saviour Complex? The White Saviour Complex has been identified in film and literature. It exists in the phenomenon of ‘voluntourism’ that has given rise to the satirical Instagram account of Barbie Savior and in the annual feel-good marathon known as Comic Relief. The blueprint for Comic Relief, Live Aid, delivered a classic case of White Saviour Complex in the form of Bob Geldof, producer, director and star of the greatest show on earth. We now know of cases where the Complex has led to sexual exploitation in the pursuit of charitable work, exposing a world of do-gooders turned do-badders. The writer Teju Cole coined the term White Saviour Industrial Complex to shift the focus away from the individual and onto the original acts of colonial exploitation and continuing acts of post-colonial underdevelopment. The White Saviour Industrial Complex prevents post-colonial countries finding solutions from within their borders and is essentially a barrier to emancipation.
The success of The Silent Child at the Oscars was followed by sign language week, followed in turn by the live transmission of the petitions committee at Westminster hearing the case for a BSL GCSE to be on the national curriculum. MPs were earnest, well-informed, even passionate in their support for the petition. Bizarrely, but not surprisingly, no one knew which Government department might be responsible for sign language – “Could it be the Department for Work and Pensions?”, asked the chair of the Cross Party Group on Deafness. Or perhaps The Ministry for Silly Walks? On cue, the Rt Hon Nick Gibb, Minister for (the deregulation of) Schools, stood up and responded to the petition: I’d like to congratulate The Silent Child on the Oscar, although I haven’t seen it yet (it’s £1.50 on GooglePlay and only twenty minutes long, Nick) and, basically, there are already ways to get a qualification in BSL, it’s such a long process to get a GCSE accredited, I’ve just fiddled with the national curriculum and couldn’t possibly burden teachers with more stress and…I can’t really be bothered. End of transmission. Nick definitely doesn’t have Hearing Saviour Complex. Don’t be like Nick.
If there is such a thing as Hearing Saviour Complex then it should share some of the characteristics of the White Saviour Complex. Both have roots in colonialism, colonisation, oppression and abuse. Paddy Ladd has written the definitive book on the history of Deaf culture in which he compellingly argues for the decolonising of Deaf minds from medical and social-welfare models. Central to this process is his concept of Deafhood. The meaning of Deafhood is hard to grasp. It seems to be a hidden, internal aspect of the state of being Deaf which is experienced collectively, consciously or unconsciously, by Deaf communities. Deafhood has the potential to bind together Deaf individuals, who intuitively share a collective concern and commitment to the future health of their community and culture. This collective concern “forms a core belief which should be heeded by those involved in the social and political policies which are enacted on Deaf communities” (Paddy Ladd). The social worker in The Silent Child couldn’t save Libby, just as Barbie Savior, Bob Geldof and Oxfam haven’t saved Africa. Salvation, if that’s the right word, starts with the decolonisation of the mind and is achieved by collective effort, not by well-intentioned actors on bicycles – that is the Hearing Saviour Complex.