To its detractors, the Kony 2012 viral media campaign is shallow and sententious propaganda, spearheaded by an irresponsible Christian advocacy group whose explicit calls for western military intervention in the central African region has sparked one of the most needless and un-necessary activist movements of the internet age. Invisible Children’s allegedly ‘dumbed down’, ‘misleading,’ and crudified take on guerilla leader Joseph Kony’s legacy in Uganda has not been the only grounds on which critics have attacked; the NGO’s wider activities and financial management have also come under scrutiny. These concerns are legitimate, necessary, rightly motivated and must remain visible.
However, their expression in public debate has been stunted by a reccuring elitism which rejects any value in the campaign on the basis that it is a “band-wagon” phenomenon and this view must ultimately be overcome. Given that the issues at stake here transcend fashion and our own sense of self and given that reasonable dialogue is the only way to develop creative and meaningful responses, we must begin by immediately accepting that all comments have a role to play, be they in support of or against Kony 2012.
The idea that it is possible to both support the ‘slick’ campaign and remain cynical of the organization behind it has been overlooked by the most vocal critics, who are more in favour of disparaging supporters as naive at best. The irony of belittling people as stunted thinkers on the basis of incredibly sweeping and unfounded assumptions about their level of knowledge is apparently lost. But you can’t lament people’s lack of careful consideration and research when you have no evidence to support this assertion in the first place. Some of these claims seem to be founded on a hunch that ‘the crowd’ are inherently less capable of understanding the issues involved and this is simply unfair. Nonetheless, critics have still managed to bring real and substantial concerns to the table.
Such concerns include the unsavoury reality of Invisible Children’s budget management. Approximately 68% of its turnover is siphoned in to travel, salaries and popularised marketing campaigns. Only a small portion reaches ground work in Uganda. Still, the commonality of NGO indulgence in advertising and marketing has eluded arguments in this vein, which suggest that it’s somehow possible that Invisible Children can spend all their money in other places. Whilst they exceed many peer organizations in their promotional spending, they are not an atypical example of charity work in the 21st century. If we place IC’s activities in wider context of the non-profit sector’s struggle to achieve justice for Africa’s stolen children, is it not possible that it’s actually a good thing that there are NGOs disproprtionately focusing on and thus specialising in advertising, whilst intensive groundwork is left to others? Advertising is a complementary activity and not one that in anyway detracts from wider efforts.
Furthermore, the style and narrative of the 30 minute video created by Jason Russell is not evidence that Invisible Children are egoistic and wilfully deceptive. Given that Invisible Children’s stated aim has always been to reach as wide as possible an audience in order to generate enthusiasm for their cause, it’s necessary to omit complex detail, it’s necessary to employ simple dichotomies such as “good” and “bad”, it’s necessary to inflate style around less plentiful substance. Would you have watched 30 minutes of excruciatingly dull policy information and historical detail around Uganda? If you answered yes, you’re in a very small minority. If we expect the public to act like expert political analysts then they would launch in the other direction and never want to hear about Uganda or Joseph Kony again. That was definitely not the reaction that the video was trying to provoke. I’d also suggest researching the Enough Project which has strong links to Invisible Children but informs its public literature and media with a more stringent focus on facts.
It’s hard to follow suggestions of intentional or deliberate misrepresentation of the issues when Invisible Children have been open to questions and have openly stressed time and again that some their videos tell are certainly stories. They have employed a standard tactic for pressure groups by sensationalising and stylizing the public media they create around the subject of the LRA. Why is this heinous when they have remained transparent and honest about their means? There have been further claims that Kony is no longer active in Uganda and that the charity lied about this in their initial video. Conversely, Invisible Children state in their follow-up video ‘Kony 2012: Beyond the Famous’ that the LRA are still active, having garnered 57 children since the first video, and are operating far beyond the Ugandan border. Why on earth would a charity that has spent years establishing its reputation and credibility have any motive to knowingly lie in a highly public video, when that lie could be so easily exposed and destroy the public credibility on which its existence rests?
The unimaginative charge of “Western colonialism” on which some critics have fallen back is ironically the most insulting thing towards Africans to have come out of the debate. This stance overlooks the fact that Africa is a sophisticated political organisation capable of thinking for itself. There is a reason that our era is periodized as “post-colonial.” Africa has a serious position on the world stage, which if still influenced by Western counsel, is far from being totally under formal Western aegis. Discussions on the Kony question between member states of the African Union concluded with a consensus on the need to deploy 5000 troops committed to his capture. Invisible Children are responding to popular support and governmental support for Kony’s capture within Africa and it is a sad reflection on society if it takes temerity to recognise both this and the tangible successes of Invisible Children in improving the lives of people in Uganda.
Indeed, our culture glorifies cynicism. The freedom and ability to be cynical is useful and empowering. But there is a difference between carefully applied cynicism which originally un-threads and reconstructs all the salient facts and those who simply pour as much scorn as possible over anything daring to display a hint of faith and conviction. Sadly, our culture seems to deify the latter and believing in universal social justice thus becomes the territory of morons. It’s absolutely typical that Charlie Brooker’s response on 10’o’clock live decrying the campaign a “shallow t-mobile advert shot by the pepsi max pricks complete with conspiracy style visuals” has become the holy battle cry of Kony 2012 cynics, who have incidentally informed me that his vitriolic brand of cynicism is the “smart thing” for “smart people”. I am still to be convinced.
The most distasteful view put forth by those happy to define themselves as ‘cynics’ is the widely circulated belief that internet activism is somehow degenerate. The nature of the Kony 2012 campaign is certainly indicative of a fad culture where politics is a lifestyle statement about being somebody rather than doing something. Some critics claim that it promotes a style of political engagement that is episodic and focuses on surface issues. People want to engage episodically and on their own terms. Expecting anything more is unfair and rather than cheapening the means of expression when people choose to participate in political discussion, we should be celebrating their willingness to speak at all, given that disengagement with politics is such a profound issue in advanced industrial democracies.
So what if this campaign is forgotten in a week? Who is anybody to suggest that this makes the momentary shift in people’s attention any less beneficial? Even if people are only supporting the campaign to feel better about themselves, we should be pleased that there’s a net increase in altruistic feelings; the kind that are conducive to a greater sensitivity to other human needs and future action. It’s a fad built around social action rather than mindless consumption. Whilst the feel-good feelings generated by support for this campaign will have a real-world and dangerous outcome in the possibility of casualties amongst Kony’s child army, I don’t believe that danger or risk is sufficient grounds for inaction upon an issue as urgent. It’s only in taking risks that creative solutions to this seemingly intractable problem will be found.
Joseph Kony has played a horrific role in the history of Uganda and is spreading his influence further afield. His capture and trial is necessary to begin the process of reconciliation that follows historical tragedies and allows devastated communities to rebuild themselves as peaceful havens that allow human potential to flourish. There comes a point where we have to start defining what we stand for rather than what we stand against. This isn’t just about one video and one charity, but is set in context of how we as human beings should respond to the systemic brutalisation of children and disregard for human rights in Central Africa and beyond. Where was the value in teaching me about the woeful mistreatment of children during the industrial revolution if we’re not going to assume as equally vigilant a stance as those who fought and campaigned against it? Where was the value in teaching me about the sanctity of childhood as perceived by William Blake if we don’t convert his philosophy in to action? Where is the value in preaching our most enlightened values to our own children if we don’t apply them to liberate the children claimed as one calculating and opportunistic man’s own personal political weapons? If believing that all necessary political and military force should be employed to repel the foul militia at the centre of a reckless waste of childhood potential is “naive”, “mislead” and a sign of having “having no concrete belief, just vague notions of bringing justice to a faraway country run by an evil little man” then that says more about the spiteful nature of political debate than it does about the worth of the Kony 2012 campaign itself.
Those interested in debating the issues further may be interested in attending an open debate being held by Southampton University Politics Association (SUPA) on Thursday 19th April.