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A few words about “Kony 2012″

I have some small experience with skepticism on the internet and in social media. It’s usually a pretty hard slog, because people don’t like being corrected, especially when they’re passionate about something. So you’ll see people posting stuff that you find on Snopes, and you have to painstakingly explain to your friends and more gullible family members that it’s generally not a good idea to forward along things that are unsourced, particularly when they don’t pass the skeptical ‘sniff test’. And then someone gets into a fight over it, and it’s 2 or 3 days before it stops spreading like wildfire.

Yesterday, a friend sent me a link to a video called “Kony 2012” with the question “thoughts?” Now, as hipster as this makes me sound, I’ve actually known who and what Joseph Kony was for a few years now. I’ve even talked about him (obliquely) on this blog before. There is no question in my mind that Joseph Kony represents everything that is evil about humanity. I try to avoid describing people as ‘good’ or ‘evil’, in an attempt to recognize that the environment is a much better predictor of behaviour than anything that exists within us organically. Even still, the methods and actions of Mr. Kony are so beyond comprehension and empathy that I struggle to even see him as a human being. His only saving grace, politically speaking, is that he’s been allowed to commit his atrocities in a place where the rich and powerful nations have more or less ignored him.

This video, created by an advocacy and humanitarian aid group called Invisible Children, is designed to strip away the anonymity that allows Joseph Kony to engage in his grisly campaign. Their reasoning is that if people are paying attention, there will be sufficient political pressure to “do something” (which, in the case of Invisible Children, means hunting him down and either arresting him or killing him). The powerful imagery of the video, coupled with the shocking reality of the situation, immediately provoked huge reactions from people who had no idea that any of this had been going on.

Almost immediately, the criticisms came pouring in about the “charitable” practices of Invisible Children, whether slick and well-polished videos were the “best” way to spend money, whether the funding actually went to the children they claimed to be representing, whether social media was the correct way to bring about a campaign like this, whether Joseph Kony was even still in Uganda (he isn’t, by all reports), the list goes on. The predictable backlash against people caring about things and derisive calls of “slacktivism” arose quickly, and within the span of a day, the campaign had become a punchline against white hipsters. So it goes. I’ve had a day to roll this thing around in my head, read some analysis, and talk to a couple of people before arriving at an opinion, and I think there are some important issues for you to think about.

First of all, there is no doubt that Joseph Kony is a bad guy and I would not be sad if he was suddenly not on the planet anymore. That being said, he does not exist in a vacuum. The political reality of Uganda is far more complex than a 30-minute video (which isn’t even about Uganda) can bear out. Joseph Kony may be ‘the bad guy’ in the story, but it does not follow that the Ugandan army is ‘the good guy’. Furthermore, a military action that strengthens the Ugandan army at the expense of the LRA isn’t necessarily a net benefit for Uganda or its neighbours. The actions of the LRA are absolutely horrific, but the solution to the problems in Uganda lie in strengthening Ugandans: their access to secure food, education, economic opportunity. To the extent that Invisible Children does this, I support them. To the extent that the Kony 2012 video is not about those things, I do not.

Second, I see very little about the religious climate from which a Joseph Kony springs. The Lord’s Resistance Army is not accidentally or ironically named. Mr. Kony truly and devoutly believes himself to be on a mission from Yahweh, and he uses the same line of reasoning that William Lane Craig does to justify his use of child soldiers. This fact doesn’t make it into the video, nor does it come up in the public discussion of the campaign. As I said – Joseph Kony does not exist in a vacuum, and neither do his beliefs. Ugandan Christianity is a particularly odious brand, and it should not surprise anyone that an extremist like Kony can flourish in such an environment. No Gnu worth hir salt should let this opportunity pass – this is the harm of religious faith: it permits a Joseph Kony and robs us of the ability to understand him in full context.

Third, I cannot help but see the spectre of half-blind imperialism and colonialism once again rearing its ugly head. Most (if not all) of the African continent continues to bear the scars of generations of colonial occupation – understanding this fact is as easy as recognizing the fact that national borders were drawn by European powers, not the population. In fact, a new kind of non-state colonialism is the reality for much of the continent today, with large multinational corporations holding control over not only the land, but much of the political system. While people cluck disapprovingly about the “corruption” of African leaders, they conveniently omit the fact that the destabilization of African leaders is a consequence of the influence of these corporations, which sell their products to us. We may not have created Joseph Kony, but we certainly fund the system that makes him possible. For us to call for action to go in and kill him without recognizing the role that we played in his rise is an unforgivable amount of hypocrisy that will only result in a continuation of the underlying problem.

Fourth, I find it interesting how quickly the ‘debunking’ happened. As I said, I have some experience with social media skepticism, and I can’t think of any example where a meme like this fell into disrepute so quickly. Given that the whole purpose of the campaign was predicated on the ignorance of North Americans about Africa (borne, I argue, of racism), I cannot help but suspecting that this same racism is what makes us uncharacteristically ‘skeptical’ of this campaign. If I were being particularly cynical, I’d say that we were looking for a reason to dismiss this campaign because a) we don’t care; and b) we want an excuse to continue to do nothing. I don’t know how much of the response this cynical interpretation explains, but my understanding of the ways in which racist attitudes manifest themselves simply does not allow me to dismiss it as frivolous.

So to sum up, I am glad people are paying attention to Joseph Kony. He’s a monster, and one of the (thankfully) few examples of pure evil we have in the world. However, I cannot help but be frustrated by the fact that a problem as large and multifaceted (and critically important) as the problems of Uganda are being reduced to a level of simplicity worthy of a cartoon supervillain. I can only hope that at least some of the attention being lavished on the LRA spills over to the more pressing issues of economic and political stability that underpin everything in not only Uganda, but across much of the African continent. My concern is that, as in most cases of social media ‘activism’, this storm will pass without us having learned anything at all.

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Below, please find some worthwhile reading:

Stop Kony, yes. But don’t stop asking questions

Stop Kony: Activism or Exploitation?

Invisible Children and its Kony 2012 campaign in the spotlight

Viral video focuses debate on Uganda rebels