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Pick a Side: Kony 2012 and the problem of “Good” vs. “Evil”

We all know who Joseph Kony is now. Does it matter how and why? And what does it say about us that it took Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video to get us here? 

Social media and identity

A few days ago I watched Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 video and felt a strong reaction swell within me– partially cerebral, partially emotional, complicated, complex, and even contradictory. I wondered how I’d fit this reaction on my Facebook and Twitter. I’d have just a sentence or 140 characters in which to express myself. I’d place a hashtag to send the small fish of my thought into a teeming ocean of ideas, most likely to be lost and ignored. And that’s the problem: Kony 2012 makes us believe that activism is just a click away. Nothing more is required of us than to be “aware,” to accept the message without question, and to pass it along without truly engaging with the ideas presented.

At the end of the video, “Jason” tells us to donate some money, to post some posters of Kony around my city to help make him “famous”, and most of all, to re-post the video online. We apply the word viral to what is happening with the video now, and there is a sickness to it. The way we become swept up in the group-think, the infection of belonging, the standing for something we believe must be right, not because we know whether it is or not, but because a carefully crafted media message tells us so. I don’t want to fault “Jason” too much. He has realized the power of narrative, of a story–as opposed to facts or numbers or arguments–to influence people, the way they think and the way they act. He’s also figured out that our identity is a creation and a mask even more than it’s ever been in the history of humankind. Why? Because we live in a state of hyper-reality, where who we are is not only our flesh and bone existence, but the profile we post online on Facebook, the stream-of-thought we tweet on twitter, the doubles of us who live on in videos and photos online. These copies of ourselves may seem real, but they’re only a series of 0’s and 1’s in binary code pretending at immortality and authenticity. We’ve all become performers and politicians. And that’s why I have put his name in quotation marks. He’s not Jason the person, he’s “Jason” the carefully crafted character created to represent his desired image– and one that happens to be distinctly proselytizing.

This is why my response is complicated. I don’t want to be the cynical person who calls Mr. Russell a misguided, egotistical neo-colonist who is shamelessly self-promoting in his “white-man-saves-Africans” charade. But when I listened to his self-righteous and simplifying “story” of Invisible Children, I felt indignant and ashamed of him. It’s all too easy to leave a privileged American existence for exotic Africa and to be shocked and fascinated and changed by what you find there. It’s not rare to come home and want to change some of the injustices you witnessed. But in many cases, those attempts are at best failures and and worst, they do more harm than good, breeding unintended consequences of the worst kind.

One thing glaringly lacking in Jason Russell’s video is historical perspective. Why do situations like Kony and the LRA happen in Uganda? These sad, innocent high schoolers shown crying and holding hands in the video are encouraged to see the conflict in a vacuum, like a movie or a video game. They aren’t led to believe they might be involved in it at all, except that they should chip in now and “save” the invisible children. But what about the worldwide economic and political systems that creates the conditions for child soldiers? What about the history of colonialism, oppression, division and poverty that has shaped Uganda and many African nations? And how can we all make more responsible choices, in what we buy, wear, and eat, and who we vote for, that could make the world a more just and peaceful place? What if we had to accept responsibility for war criminals, and not just give ourselves the warm fuzzy feeling that we may be able to defeat them by wearing a cool bracelet and making them recognizable to the uninformed masses?

So, this Kony 2012 phenomenon has implications for Uganda and the L.R.A. and this particular issue, but it also has implications for us as a society. We’re incredibly powerful and incredibly vulnerable, and social media magnifies those qualities of our character. We are interconnected, we are empowered, and yet we are increasingly at the mercy of the illusion of control because we don’t always admit how susceptible we are to being duped, by others, but even more importantly by ourselves. We all want to believe we are good, decent people. We want to believe we are creative and original. But if we’re not careful, our identities–even our moral identities– will be just another pre-packaged product that we purchase.

Ends and means

What worries me most is not that the Kony video was viewed and re-posted so many times, but that it was done so, by so many, with an alarming amount of naiveté and without apparent critical thinking. Then, when criticism arose, the authors of those critiques were disparaged for two main reasons, both lacking in logical soundness: 1) You haven’t done anything to bring Kony to justice, so you have no right to criticize someone who is attempting to do so; and 2) Right or wrong, factually accurate or not, the video succeeded in raising awareness and sparking debate among millions, so it was therefore an overal “good” and you should not criticize it, or the organization behind it, or its motives, aims, and record.

The first is an invalid ad hominem attack on the individual that makes the mistake of attacking the arguer instead of the argument. Whether an individual has taken steps to defeat Kony doesn’t affect the legitimacy of his or her critique of the Kony video, if that critique is logically sound and based in fact. The second is a logical fallacy called argumentum ad consequentiam, or the “appeal to consequences.” This fallacy occurs when the conclusion is supported by a premise that asserts positive or negative consequences from some course of action in an attempt to distract from the initial discussion. That is, the positive consequence of the video (widespread awareness), is not a valid response to a critique of the video itself. It fails to acknowledge that before Jason Russell and Invisible Children made and released the video, they had the opportunity to tell whatever story they pleased and could have crafted a much more nuanced and must less misleading video. To say that the video is wrong is not necessarily to say that the outcome is bad– but to hold Russell and his organization responsible for their poor choices in how they represented themselves, Kony, the conflict in Uganda, the Ugandan people, and the solution to the problem.

These logical failings in the ensuing “post-Kony 2012” conversation are demonstrative of  wider social phenomena that threaten the health of our society today. First, critical thought is itself in peril. We haven’t the time or the patience for it. People should do, and if you’re not doing, if you’re just there thinking and arguing, then we’ve no use for you. We have a lot fewer philosophers these days. We seem to have forgotten that while action is good, action without thought is dangerous. Second, increasingly we believe that the ends justify the means. Who cares if the Kony 2012 video perpetuates neo-colonial stereotypes, denies African agency, misrepresents facts, splits the world into a dangerous binary of uncontextualized “good” and “evil,” and could potentially endanger the peace that currently exists in Northern Uganda, as long as it leads to the eventual capture or killing of Joseph Kony? We don’t care, if it means we get the “bad guy.” We are a results-oriented society, but we stand on terribly shaky moral ground when we believe that immoral, unjust, or ethically questionable approaches are jusifiable if they produce desireable outcomes.

Imagining good and evil

We like absolutes. Certainty makes life easier. Ambiguity makes it tricky. It requires more thought and more words to describe. It makes it harder to look in the mirror when we admit our own mixed natures, our own complicity in injustice. We like heroes and villains. It is easy to pick a side. We like fast and easy, and that is why, as I search for the right words to conclude this difficult piece, I feel as though whatever I say may already seem to be irrelevant.

Yesterday the news broke that an American soldier killed sixteen people in Afghanistan, many of them children, all of them civilians. My newsfeed is eerily quiet about the matter. In Syria, Assad’s forces continue to slaughter his own people. Who has called his or her senator or tweeted to Justin Bieber about that?

We all know, deep down, that the world is a complicated place heavy with grief. It’s comforting to think that there is something concrete we can do about it, some small measure of good will to show that we care about the suffering of others, even if they are far away. Kony 2012 made that offer to us, and it was a tantalizing yet brief moment of reprieve from darkness. But instead of turning away from reality and accepting a sanitized, simplified, deceptive version of activism, it is up to us to peer into the deep shadows cast by the world’s injustices and find there– in the midst of great complexity– dignity, joy, and a better way forward for all of us.

***

Post Script: facing the unintended consequences

At this point, I have read a couple dozen reactions to the Kony video. Most of them focus on the video’s flaws in presentation and accuracy, the distasteful manner in which Jason Russell presents himself, and the implications of the social media explosion that followed the video’s release. I haven’t yet heard much about the actual, real-world consequences that the video may have for the U.S. mission in Uganda, the capture of Kony and the future of the L.R.A, and our relations with East Africa. The absence of this discussion in and of itself should be telling.

I’ve mentioned “negative unintended consequences.” In this instance, what might they be– not just for us, but for the various African nations and people affected by the L.R.A.? Before the video was released, Obama had sent a special envoy of 100 American troops to aid in the capture or killing of Joseph Kony. Russell says the Kony 2012 campaign will maintain public pressure to make sure the mission is not aborted (though there was never any suggestion that this was in danger of happening). It would seem that the advocacy work Invisible Children did before now may have led to the decision to go after Kony. But now that the decision has been made to send troops to Uganda, the publicity created by the Kony campaign may be dangerous to the mission, the troops, and the future of our foreign policy in the region.

Foreign intervention in an extremely sensitive endeavor that must be gone about in subtle ways. Think “Speak softly but carry a big stick.” Kony2012 is the equivalent of shouting in the streets carrying nothing but a smart phone with Facebook and Twitter apps. It will now be harder for the troops in Uganda to do their work discreetly. Any mistakes or failures that happen in the mission will be highlighted, making it less likely that in the future, Obama or any politician would risk going after a figure like Kony. It will also make many Ugandans more wary of our presence there, if they see it as an affront to their sense of pride and autonomy. Many African bloggers and journalists have condemned the Kony 2012 campaign and video, calling Jason Russell a paternalistic, narcissistic man with a savior complex and a knack for propaganda. They point out that the video asks us to pity helpless Africans, rather than recognize the dignity, hope, progress, and hardwork of the many affected by the L.R.A. These are common criticisms of our culture and government as a whole, and it’s a shame to play into them.

So, to summarize, this campaign could make it a lot harder for the US to do the work of capturing Kony by reducing local support on the ground in Uganda, by over-publicizing a campaign that needs to be discreet lest it lead Kony to either hide better or retaliate more, and by making it less likely that the US would risk this sort of move in the future against similar dictators and warlords because of the extreme media spotlight that will shine on any failures or mistakes. Even in the absence of mistakes, the US may now receive increased criticism for interfering with national sovereignty, which might have been politely ignored if done quietly.

***

The posts and articles about the Kony 2012 video that I found particularly interesting, insightful and/or well-written:

“The Soft Bigotry of Kony 2012″ in the Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-soft-bigotry-of-kony-2012/254194/

“Taking Kony 2012 Down a Notch” in the Justice and Conflict blog: http://justiceinconflict.org/2012/03/07/taking-kony-2012-down-a-notch/

“Joseph Kony and the Moral Ambiguity of the Modern World” in Good: http://www.good.is/post/joseph-kony-and-the-moral-ambiguity-of-the-modern-world/

“Joseph Kony and Crowdsourced Intervention” in the Kings of War blog: http://kingsofwar.org.uk/2012/03/joseph-kony-and-crowdsourced-intervention/?fb_ref=.T1fRnAUl3ng.like&fb_source=home_multiline

“Joseph Kony is not in Uganda and Other Complicated Things” in the Foreignpolicy.com blog: http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/03/07/guest_post_joseph_kony_is_not_in_uganda_and_other_complicated_things#.T1ft8wqNu14.twitter

“Let’s Talk About Kony” on the Securing Rights blog: http://securingrights.wordpress.com/2012/03/07/lets-talk-about-kony/

“Kony 2012″ on the Sober at the Ginnery blog: http://soberattheginnery.tumblr.com/post/18959199515/kony-2012

“Respect my Agengy 2012″ on Project Diaspora.org: http://projectdiaspora.org/2012/03/08/respect-my-agency-2012/

and finally, a post in Vanity Fair from April 201o about Kony, the LRA, and Sam Childers, an American set on killing Kony: http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2010/04/christian-vigilante-201004?printable=true

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10 thoughts on “Pick a Side: Kony 2012 and the problem of “Good” vs. “Evil”

  1. This is an excellent piece of writing. You make your arguments very clearly, ensuring that each point is developed and considered in a balanced way before moving on. I came across your blog through Jon Kalan, who I met while I was living in Dar last year. I should be back again at some point this year and I would love to meet up with you to hear what you have to say about Tanzania/east Africa.

    • Thanks, Gavin! I’m currently back in the States for a few months, but I’ll be back in Dar by the end of May. I’d love to get together. Keep in touch.

  2. Rebecca, this is one of the best pieces I’ve read about the Kony 2012 video and articulated for me why I was uncomfortable with it. I especially like your point about the 16 murdered in Afghanistan and the lack of moral outrage about the slaughter in Syria. Thank you for your passionate and well reasoned response to both this video and the underlying assumptions it represents.

  3. Hi Patty, thank you for posting the Op-Ed from the NYT. It provided the specifics that people need to know about the history of the conflict and the politicians who have also played a part. In terms of concrete things to do, I would check out http://www.charitynavigator.org/– a site that gives you more info about charities and rates them. AMREF USA, Doctors Without Borders, and Water.org are three organizations working in Uganda with great track records and high ratings.

    In general, I just think it’s important to do some independent research before you support an org/company/product that promises to perform a social good. Just looking a bit farther than their own website will often give you a great deal of insight– and all it takes is a Google search. Supporting micro-enterprise (via Kiva or a Microfinance institution) is also a great way to lend your economic support to economically impoverished areas of the globe.

    My litmus test is to look at how a problem/solution is framed. Does it ask us to pity or empower others? Does it oversimplify or mislead? Does it promote a sustainable, peaceful approach? Is it transparent and well-researched? What “story” about development, humanitarian aid, and poverty does it tell?

    The answers to these questions can really help you make decisions of whom and how to support non-profits. Hope this helps!

  4. Brilliant, informed and provocative writing Rebecca. Thank you for your investment in difficult things like my city and this issue. Today I am carrying more resolve and inspiration thanks to you.

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