By Axel Tonconogy
When I call Kony 2012 a “perfect” cause, I don’t mean to be glib. It is a cause that I believe is perfectly suited and adapted for our time.
Facebook and Twitter are more than facilitators for the exchange of photos, videos, and friendly updates. The platforms through which most people have accessed the Kony 2012 video are also, in many ways, an extension of our perceived identities. Facebook is as much about seeing as it is about being seen. In everything from the choosing of profile pictures to the posting of links, there is a constant process of redefining the self. It’s as if to say, “This is who I am. Look at the things I care about. I am a thoughtful, passionate individual, and my presence here is evidence for my generation’s capacity to enact change.”
Kony 2012 is an expertly-produced call to action, tailor-made for our world of mass-media entertainment. It fulfills all of the requirements for a cause to become massively popular: 1) Helpless children are being abducted and forced to do vile things. 2) The atrocities take place in a sufficiently-distant third-world country that we know little about, and couldn’t easily reach. 3) The main perpetrator is a universally despised and unambiguously evil tyrant. And 4) We believe we can do something about it.
This deconstruction should not be read as an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the movement, but rather an effort to understand why it has received such mainstream public attention.
The way Kony 2012 shapes the narrative is extremely effective. It contrasts activist Jason Russell’s cute, innocent, and privileged child with the poor, perpetually stricken African children. Look at this child, the film tells us. Would we allow him to be abducted and transformed into a vicious soldier? Of course not. No child should ever suffer this fate.
From the Ugandan side, the story centers on Jacob, a boy (now man) who lost his brother to Kony’s LRA six years ago and is now a spokesperson for Invisible Children. In one emotionally heart-wrenching scene (which had me holding back tears), Jacob bitterly mourns the death of his brother. One can’t help but quiver with furious indignity at the injustice of it all.
However, the video would be useless if it were only a depressing documentary on the savagery of African warlords and their wake of destruction. Right? Accordingly, the last third of the film transitions into an inspiring call-to-arms. And it does so in a brilliant manner—showing hordes of previously dispassionate high school and college students in developed nations coming together to spread awareness guerilla-style, plastering city streets with Kony 2012 posters and buying $30 “Action Kits.” Involvement promises to be simple and easy enough that we can all feel like we’re contributing to a great cause— without the added strain of actually doing much. It’s a simple plan; to not share the video makes one seem, at the very least, cynical and heartless. And so the video went viral, filling everyone’s Facebook newsfeeds with links to Vimeo and YouTube, reminding us all about the power of collective altruism. If Kony does get caught (the ideal situation, in the eyes of most people) we can pat ourselves on the back and bask in the glow of doing our part in justice being served.
Most, however, will not bother to investigate the true complexity of the situation in Northern Uganda. Nor will they inform themselves of the current panorama from a holistic perspective. Who could possibly argue that awareness of Joseph Kony should not be raised, or that every effort should not be made to capture and try him in a court of law? The goal, from the perspective of the creators and supporters, is far too definitive to dispute. This sets up a false dichotomy between the “good” of sharing the video (and buying the action kit) and the “evil” simply doing nothing.
“So what?” somebody might say. “Does that mean we should just sit back and accept what’s happening?” No, it doesn’t. But it also doesn’t mean we should unquestioningly accept one perspective. Those who promote asking questions and gaining a nuanced understanding are liable to be labeled callous skeptics, offering no alternative solutions. This is not an easy accusation to respond to. Those onboard with the initiative feel profoundly empowered and certain that they’re “doing the right thing.” Therefore, any attempt to reframe the conversation may be seen as malicious backlash.
Many have challenged Invisible Children premise, which supports the Ugandan army, on the grounds that the army has perpetrated atrocities of its own. The argument is that to enable them with arms and technology is irresponsible and short-sighted. Another issue presents itself: Kony protects himself with child soldiers–many of whom would undoubtedly be killed in any potential military campaign. Furthermore, the LRA has had a history of brutal retaliatory attacks following attempts on Kony’s life. Would people have a clear conscience if bloodshed ensues as a result of this initiative?
I don’t deny that Invisible Children is a noble cause and that its creators should be commended for their attempts to remediate a horrifying situation. I’m not saying people should not support this effort. What I am saying is that before jumping on the bandwagon of a popular cause, it’s imperative to do research and become fully informed of all the facts— including the potential long and short-term collateral damage. When the Bush administration sold the Iraq invasion on the premise of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, not enough people paused to question the narrative. The repercussions for the economy and for Irawi civilians were massive and unanticipated. Saddam was a power-hungry tyrant responsible for countless crimes against humanity, but did that necessarily justify the action taken by the U.S. and its armed forces? While these situations are not entirely parallel, they share a common fundamental concern. Too often, one-dimensional approaches have caused more problems than they claimed to solve; solutions are never quite as easy as they’re made out to be.