The Kony controversy

March 16, 2012

In the middle of the two or three-day period in which the Kony 2012 went viral, a note was posted on this blog linking to the video and recommending support for the campaign to arrest Kony. The world is now witnessing a viral explosion of criticism of the Kony 2012 video, which also deserves some comment. Aljazeera has devoted a section of its website to what it calls the “Kony Debate,” though it is less a debate than it is a collection of complaints against the film. Nonetheless, it is probably the single best source of information for understanding the criticisms of the film. The video below, from another Aljazeera program Inside Story, is also worth watching.

Some of the criticisms of the film seem misguided, like the idea that it is encouraging “slactivism,” the phenomenon of people feeling like they have done something important or noble by clicking on a link or buying a bracelet. See for instance, Andrew Bolt’s article Kony 2012: Just Empty Clicks. Slactivism is a problem but it is in no way unique to this video or this problem. Even the best campaigns for important humanitarian causes generally do little more than get people to click a few links, sign a petition, or donate a few dollars. And those who do usually feel better about themselves for doing so. Is that wrong? Should the makers of the Kony 2012 video be criticized for not getting people to do more? If so, then the same criticism would apply to virtually all public awareness campaigns and the entire body of socially relevant journalism. Surely it is better to raise some awareness, than none at all, about the conflicts in Uganda, the Congo, and the Central African Republic. 

A more important criticism of the film is that the awareness the film raises is superficial  and naive in certain respects. Part of the criticism is that Kony and the conflict are no longer in Uganda, but have moved on to the Central African Republic. Also, it is claimed that Kony is just one of a number of evil villains in a conflict that has been going on for decades. But that of course is no excuse for Kony or for doing nothing to have him arrested, wherever he may be. And in all of the criticism that has been raised of the film, no one is defending this monster.

The strongest criticism that I have read so far comes from Adam Branch, who writes in this article for Al Jazeera that Invisible Children, the organization behind the film, 

are “useful idiots”, being used by those in the US government who seek to militarise Africa, to send more and more weapons and military aid, and to bolster the power of states who are US allies.

The hunt for Joseph Kony is the perfect excuse for this strategy – how often does the US government find millions of young Americans pleading that they intervene militarily in a place rich in oil and other resources? The US government would be pursuing this militarisation with or without Invisible Children – Kony 2012 just makes it a little easier. Therefore, it is the militarisation we need to worry about, not Invisible Children.

This may well be true, and if it is true, then that’s a damning criticism of the film and the organization behind it, even if they have the best of intentions. 

However, there are two points worth mentioning here. One of the lessons of this whole episode is that one shouldn’t base one’s opinions on a single video or article. Research is needed. There is just as much (and just as little) reason to accept Blake’s criticism of the Kony 2012 video as there is to accept and act on the video itself. If one cares about the truth, one needs to go beyond both sources. 

Secondly, even if the most important concern is, as Blake suggests, the US militarization of central Africa, there really has been no better platform for that message getting out than the explosion of interest in the Kony 2012 video. Blake speaks of the video as a great misfortune, but in fact without that video, virtually no one would have paid any attention to the point he is now forcefully arguing. Though this surely wasn’t an intention of the makers of the video, it is one of the indirect benefits of the film.

Finally, Blake writes that:

In terms of activism, the first step is to re-think the question: Instead of asking how the US can intervene in order to solve Africa’s conflicts, we need to ask what we are already doing to cause those conflicts in the first place. How are we, as consumers, contributing to land grabbing and to the wars ravaging this region? How are we, as US citizens, allowing our government to militarise Africa in the name of the “War on Terror” and its effort to secure oil resources?

This is an important point, not only with respect to this conflict in central Africa but with virtually every other important social problem, from the environmental crisis to the labor conditions in China. Actually solving these problems requires more than just a “re-think”; it requires action. How can we reorient the lifestyles of people living in the affluent West to put an end to the environmental and human rights abuses taking place elsewhere in the world largely as a result of those lifestyles? That’s no easy matter. It’s the greatest challenge facing humanity today.


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