Sometimes Simplistic Messages Can Spur Positive Outcomes
By Gabriel Rom
Imagine the KONY 2012 campaign as a giddy toddler with snot running down his nose and a stupid gap-tooth, furiously blowing air into a straw in his drink at some respectable restaurant. Now imagine that drink to be a thick stew of politics, technology, foreign affairs, racial tension and imperialism — the cultural zeitgeist of America. The drink overflows, bubbles explode and liquid sprays everywhere. Each article that is posted, each fuming response we see and each Facebook conversation that we engage in is one of those issues bubbling and then bursting to the top of our national consciousness, all propelled by that immature kid blowing directly into the mix.
Teju Cole recently wrote an article for the Atlantic entitled “White Industrial Savior Complex.” Cole’s argument boils KONY 2012 down to a neo-colonialist project that takes agency away from Africans, a manifestation of Western privilege and racial ignorance.
To accuse the entire movement of having unintentionally racist motives is a serious claim. If Cole were correct in saying that any American charity engaged abroad is tainted by the transgressions of every colonial enterprise in history, the entire concept of foreign aid would be dead on arrival. Ugandan lawyer Norbert Mao had a more nuanced outlook: “This man [Joseph Kony] with whom I have had many encounters is now the subject of a powerful video that has captured the imagination of the world. Is the video a bad thing? I would say ‘no.’ Has it got gaps? Plenty.”
The debates and discussions many critics of KONY 2012 wish would take place are now occurring with more frequency and fervor than before, all thanks to one thirty minute video. No, the video is not perfect; you cannot pack an entire sociological and historical survey into thirty minutes. There is some ugliness behind it and some misguided intentions, but the end result is an unequivocal net-gain. The movement has stretched the boundaries of the public and political dialogue. It has given a previously unknown issue international importance within a matter of hours. Critics like Cole have created a false dichotomy between doing something about a problem in the immediate and doing something about its causes. The two can exist in harmony.
In fairness to KONY 2012’s critics, the video is indeed remarkably simplistic. The viral campaign presents clearly defined ‘good guys’ (the United States Government, NGO’s, Invisible Children) versus clearly defined ‘bad guys’ (Kony, Lord’s Resistance Army, Kony). This simplistic dialectic offers viewers an already assembled activist movement. All we have to do is click, and the rest is done for us. Staple a poster, wear a bracelet; the individual’s only role is to spread the message. Any cognitive tasks beyond that are left up to larger powers (I.C., AFRICOM, etc). There is no place for direct action.
The lack of individual agency in the KONY 2012 movement can be contrasted to Occupy Wall Street in which individual demands dictate where and how the movement shapes itself. These two examples are extremes and they are both inherently dysfunctional. A middle ground between pre-organized, simplistic narratives and anarchic, complex narratives would seem to be the most potent form for future social movements.
But there is a compelling explanation for why the video received over 85 million views and galvanized youth all over the world for a single cause. If the video were a more academic and sociological study of the region, the response would be minimal. Is that a problem? Maybe, but that is the way the world works and Invisible Children understood this reality.
Balancing a structural knowledge of other regions and being aware of privilege and perspective are integral to making decisions that benefit others. But sometimes simplistic messages can spur positive outcomes. Sometimes good intentions do lead to good results. Skepticism of American-do-gooderism is healthy, but unequivocal dismissal is not.
Apart from its videos, Invisible Children has created an ingenious tool called the LRA Crisis Tracker, which documents LRA attacks in and around Uganda and broadcasts troop movements over the radio so families can escape attacks.
While much has been made of the LRA’s diminished capacity, there were still over a dozen attacks this past month that killed four civilians. Critics calling Invisible Children neo-imperialists are off the mark as well because the group is not advocating further intervention; its goal is to keep the political issue of Uganda on the minds of international politicians and assure that the one hundred military advisers in the region remain there.
The morals behind a slick propagandist 30-minute video aside, its normative effects have spurred dialogue not only about Joseph Kony, child soldiers and the Lord’s Resistance Army, but about media itself and the subtle distinctions between civic participation and exploitation.
The movement has highlighted the power of media to blind people to nuance and complexity in global affairs, but it has also shown the massive potential for civic engagement.
How do we take this desire for civic participation and nurture it without turning off viewers’ critical faculties? How do we help people to be critical consumers rather than mass consumers? And when does simplifying an issue do more harm than good? These are vexing questions, but questions that are now part of the public dialogue as a result of the KONY 2012 campaign.