Several weeks back Kony 2012 hit my news feed. For the past several weeks I have been thinking about it and a variety of wider issues related to it. Before turning to those wider issues in other posts I want to post my thoughts on Kony 2012.
Invisible Children and Kony 2012: A brief overview…
Invisible Children (IC) http://www.invisiblechildren.com/ is a non-profit based in San Diego that hopes to help the country of Uganda through awareness, advocacy, and development. The primary issue IC is concerned with is Joseph Kony, his rebel group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and their war crimes in Northern Uganda. Kony and the LRA have mutilated children as an intimidation tactic and have abducted young children to use as sex slaves and child soldiers.
IC’s first video (which is available in a six part series on Youtube starting here) was based off of the experiences of their original members of IC quite literally stumbling into this issue as they came face to face with the reality of thousands of young boys who were forced to flee their homes in an effort to escape the LRA. IC’s efforts have produced development projects in Uganda and led to President Obama sending in 100 U.S. military advisors to train the Ugandan army, primarily for the purpose of capturing or killing Kony.
Kony 2012 is IC’s most recent endeavor. It is an awareness campaign that is aimed at making Kony and his crimes famous through viral videos, posters, T-shirts and wristbands to encourage activism, primarily among the youth. The overall goal is to maintain awareness and interest in capturing Kony, especially among celebrities and policy makers, so the U.S. does not withdraw the advisors and military support it has sent to Uganda.
Here is the central Kony 2012 video:
I would encourage anyone who has not watched it to watch it before continuing with this post. I am not endorsing it, but it is only fair to IC to watch what they put out instead of forming opinions about it second or third hand.
Reactions to Kony 2012: Idealism, Criticism and Cynicism…
When this video went viral millions of people watched it in record breaking time. It was also hit by intense criticism from a variety of sources. IC has been accused of not being financially forthright, of financially supporting the Ugandan army (itself guilty of war crimes), of being used (intentionally or unintentionally) as propaganda for establishing U.S. military bases and presence in Africa to exploit its natural resources…
(Sidenote: That last one might sound incredibly paranoid but watch this video…
…and then read a history book. Empires are driven by national self-interest and the natural resources of the African continent have always been appealing and needed by countries that consume resources at unsustainable rates.)
…of over-simplifying the complex situation of Uganda, of presenting activism as easy and encouraging “slacktivism,” of wasting money on “awareness” instead of investing in sustainable development in Uganda, of soaking up finances and attention that would otherwise go to other agencies that are providing direct needs and services to people, of reinforcing the concept that Africans are helpless and need white Westerners to save them, of containing and perpetuating neo-colonial attitudes, of continuing and perpetuating the “white savior complex” and the contemporary incarnation of the concept of “The White Man’s Burden,” etc., etc. ,etc.
The criticism was so intense that IC released a video responding to the criticisms and has defended themselves in a variety of interviews, articles, statements and guest appearances.
Jason Russell, the CEO of IC and narrator of the Kony 2012 film, suffered what was apparently a mental break down and acted wildly inappropriately on the streets of San Diego. This was attributed to the intense criticism of his person and his life’s work. Russell was taken to a mental hospital for observation and was not charged with anything.
Just to be clear…
Before I go any further I would just like to note a few things. I am not against IC or Jason Russell. Whatever their motivations or flaws, the people that make up IC know more about Uganda than I do, have helped more Ugandans than I ever will, and I believe they are going about helping people in what they believe is the best way possible. Whatever the fruit of their work or the ideological basis of it, more people are talking about Kony than they were a year ago. I think some of the criticisms of Kony 2012 were unnecessarily personal and some went over the top. I do not think Russell’s breakdown was fueled by drugs or alcohol but truly was a mental breakdown as the result of intense criticism. I do not think he is a bad person and I’m sure if someone videotaped my worst day and put it on TMZ I would not look so great either. I do think what Kony has done is evil. I would like to see him, and all mass-murderers, experience justice in this life I would like to see him, and all who use violence as an intimidation tactic, stopped. I do think non-Ugandans can be helpful to Ugandans as they rebuild and repair their society in the wake of colonialism, dictators, and neo-colonialism.
That being said…
Many of the criticisms of Kony 2012 are valid, even some that were delivered in rather merciless ways, and any reasonable person or organization should be willing to admit mistakes, engage with criticism and grow from it, even if it comes from the vicious attack from an enemy.
IC and their defenders cannot dodge these criticisms by labeling their critics as cynics. Just because someone pointed out a glaring issue in your organization does not mean they are “just being cynical” and therefore you can ignore them and the issues they point out.
Likewise, having good intentions are also not an adequate defense for IC and their practices. While it is admirable that IC and their supporters want to help people in Uganda, their good hearts often impair their ability to think through the issue critically.
Teju Cole wrote a brilliant piece for The Atlantic that touched on this issue. He suggested that the emotional desire to help can impair their ability to “think constellationally.” People see the dire need and they understandably want to help. However, all they can think about is how to resolve the need instead of connecting the dots between the underlying issues behind the need. In this case, the incredibly complex historical issues that have given rise to Kony, the LRA and the incredibly intricate and much larger geo-political concerns at play in Uganda do not appear to have been considered or at least presented in this video.
I previously linked a TED talk by Nolan Watson but I should share it again.
Watson’s message echoes that of Cole’s. Sentimentality and compassion are good things but they can get in the way of working towards substantive long-term change. Acting purely out of sentimentality and compassion can even be counter-productive to doing good.
Simply put, idealism, compassion and sincerity are not overriding virtues that disqualifies all other concerns. Harm, even harm done with the best of intentions, is still harm.
On the next page I will move onto my personal criticisms and thoughts surrounding Kony 2012.