I won’t opine on Invisible Children (IC) or its co-founder Jason Russell, who, to the embarrassment of some and delight of others, managed to get himself arrested before Kony did. What I do feel is worth commenting on is the backlash IC, and its supporters, experienced.
Almost immediately after the video went viral, sneering and derisive articles made the rounds. Malicious, misguided, arrogant, oversimplified propaganda, irresponsible advocacy, riddled with misleading and inaccurate information. One of the most articulate and perceptive articles published arguing against Kony2012 was by Nigerian-American writer, Teju Cole, (The White Saviour Industrial Complex), who had previously tweeted: “Feverish worry over that awful African warlord. But close to 1.5 million Iraqis died from an American war of choice. Worry about that.”
Kony2012 is unnervingly slick and polished; something a for-profit advertising company would produce, resulting in what, many found to be, a moving film. But others found it banal, sentimental and laden with dangerous overtones of The White Man’s Burden. Many contemptuously dubbed it The Warlord Vs. The Hipsters.
Critics of Kony2012 attacked the intentions, the ethics, and the efficiency of IC, warning the gullible public to question everything about this movement.
People have the right to be sceptical; particularly when financial and political aid is asked of them. But what I – still, to this day- fail to understand is the venom. Why the over-the-top glee and smug self-satisfaction to prove Kony2012 wrong?
Whether you want to support Invisible Children or not, you can't deny that the organization has managed - in record time - to raise universal awareness of a serious issue and point the spotlight on a country that rarely gets media attention. How many people knew about Kony and his vile ways before watching that video? Now they know. They can choose to do something about it (in whichever way they see fit) or they can do nothing, because they question the integrity of the video producers.
Regardless of the intense criticism, “Invisible Children”, as Alex Perry of TIME Magazine writes, “already pulled off one of the greatest advocacy campaigns of all time, a true wag-the-dog story in which a small group of activists built massive momentum on college campuses across the U.S., then translated that into such vociferous political pressure in Washington that the Congress and the Senate passed a law mandating the U.S. President to act against the L.R.A. Barack Obama responded by sending 100 Special Operations troops to the Central African Republic, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.”
While I understand people’s misgivings and the need to be sceptical of what we read (whether in print or online), what irks me most is that the people reacting negatively to the video were - and still are- somehow under the naive impression that those, moved by the video to do something, are ignorant. That they are so easily influenced by trendy "causes du jour" that they somehow failed to acknowledge that yes, the situation in sub-Saharan Africa is complicated, and yes, wearing a wristband won’t solve war crimes, and yes, "liking" a Facebook page won't do much, other than perhaps raise awareness. I'm fairly certain most people already know this.
People have the right to be sceptical; particularly when financial and political aid is asked of them. But what I – still, to this day- fail to understand is the venom. Why the over-the-top glee and smug self-satisfaction to prove Kony2012 wrong? -
So what if IC sought to simplify the message? So what if Joseph Kony isn’t in Uganda anymore? So what if Jason Russell was caught half naked in Los Angeles in a state of psychosis? So what if he’s a closet homosexual, as many have alluded? Does any of this negate the issue and cancel out the need for more awareness? Kony is still a mass murderer. The L.R.A. is still a problem worth solving.
Without being anywhere near an expert on the subject, I’m certain that there are better ways to help Uganda (one of them being, as Cole astutely pointed out, evaluating American foreign policy, which Americans already play a direct role in through elections). But just because you’re a privileged Western college kid who wants to help, that doesn’t make you some naïve hipster who needs his “emotional needs” met by the sentimentality of being someone’s saviour. That’s an assumption that’s just as pretentious as thinking that problems as complicated as what’s currently occurring in the continent of Africa can be solved with a 30-min video.
Social cynicism and scepticism are not one and the same. Question the message, question the messenger, question the methods employed. But sanctimoniously questioning people’s intentions and social media’s role in, what author Jared Cohen calls “digital democracy”, doesn’t make you better than the easily influenced hoi polloi; it doesn’t make you better than the rest of us naïve fools who actually believe that social media does have the power to make a difference. No matter what the naysayers say, information is the true currency of our age. It can effect change. It already has…
American author Barry Lopez once wrote: “How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one's culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.”
“Leaning into the light” is all we sometimes have. I refuse to sneer at that.