Addressing the Kony 2012 Controversy

“I’m sick of all these bandwagoners posting about Kony,” said pretty much everybody on Facebook who didn’t share the video. I’m talking about the viral video produced by Invisible Children, an organization dedicated to spreading awareness about crimes against humanity in Uganda. This video, which aims to “make Joseph Kony famous—not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice,” has generated over 15 million hits on YouTube and over a million shares on Facebook in the last three days. Mission accomplished, yeah?

Not quite. In the midst of this incredible online outpouring of support, a massive backlash movement has arisen. Although there have been many productive discussions that have been a direct result of someone sharing a video or their thoughts, unfortunately many of the responses seem to tap into a mocking “hipster activist” mentality: “I hated Kony before it got mainstream,” or “OMG can’t believe you guys have never heard of Uganda!”

This just makes me sad. Something positive is happening and so many of us choose to respond by putting down people who we think don’t know enough about the issue to make a statement. 

There’s a meme in circulation right now that really bothers me. It reads: “Watch 30 minute video, become social activist.” From a literal standpoint, I will admit I think the message is somewhat true. There are literally millions of people who have been spreading the message of Invisible Children for the past three days only because they saw the video.  

But how does this invalidate what they have to say? If they happen to see something so powerful and moving that they suddenly feel inclined to join a movement, must they do so quietly? I say good for them. Good for them for trying to be a part of something bigger than themselves, for trying to bring attention to a cause that really needs it, for provoking everyone they reach to take a moment to think.  

It doesn’t take a genius to pick up a sign and join the picket lines. It doesn’t take a defined social activist to join a march. And it certainly doesn’t take a human rights expert to share a video.

But it takes some serious thought to figure out where to go from there.

I think it’s great that, almost overnight, so many people suddenly became aware of a serious issue outside of their normal sphere of consciousness and wanted to share that experience in any way that they could. Who cares if they know nothing about the issue. At least they’re creating a discussion. 

On a similar note, American journalist Robert Quillen once said, “A discussion is an exchange of knowledge; an argument an exchange of ignorance.” While there have been a lot of discussions going on about Joseph Kony and how a single person can help to end his atrocious crimes, many online interactions that I have witnessed are blatant attacks and accusations of ignorance. Very few people seem to be actually listening to what is being said on both sides. Rather, the issue that Invisible Children marketed as “Something we can all agree on” has completely polarized us in a matter of days. We need to put away the rhetoric and start a conversation.

Invisible Children may not have the best game plan for how to stop child slavery or how to fix Uganda, but there is no question that they have launched an unbelievably powerful ad campaign. In 2008, Barack Obama’s presidential campaign almost had a similar ring to it. The bright, striking graphics, the simple yet poignant messages, the viral videos; let’s face it, Kony 2012 is the new movement. From a pure marketing standpoint, the people at Invisible Children have done something incredible. They’ve turned a social message into a symbol, into a trend, which is something that they do very well.

Many of Invisible Children’s critics point to the capitalist nature of the organization as a serious flaw. In 2011, the organization spent over 1.5 million dollars producing merchandise and marketing it through films and other media. I went to a high school with an Invisible Children chapter, and from time to time they would sell shirts and bracelets that were trendier than LIVESTRONG. The organization at times seemed to be less about a cause and more about an image. This is where I agree with many of the critics out there.

To counter this, though, I want to ask a hypothetical question involving a moral dilemma. Let’s say that a person sets out to find a cure for cancer solely for the purpose of obtaining a patent and becoming ridiculously famous. They have no interest in helping humanity; their motives are purely self-centered. Now let’s say that they succeed in finding the cure. Is the world worse off?

I do not mean to imply that the people behind Invisible Children are self-centered (although they sometimes come across as a bit pretentious). My point is, no matter how they’re spreading the message, shouldn’t we be happy that the message is being spread nonetheless?  

The issue still remains, however, of masses of people fully supporting a cause that they don’t know too much about. This is a serious problem. I am greatly opposed to anyone donating money, time or resources to Invisible Children simply because of the recent video. Before anyone makes a serious investment to a movement as monumental as this one, they need to think and talk about what they plan on doing. I’ve heard stories and I’ve seen real examples of people taking no time at all to jump in and start acting without really knowing what they’re doing. Worst of all, some of them genuinely appear to be acting only because it’s the “cool” thing to do or maybe it’ll look good on a resume.  

I think that’s what people are afraid of. It seems inconceivable that a social movement could take off like Kony 2012 has without a huge number of those bandwagoning types behind it. The concern is that there is a serious tragedy happening right now in our world, and even though people care about it today, they might not care about it tomorrow. The people who are upset by Kony 2012 are upset for two reasons: 1) they actually care about the human rights violations in Uganda, and 2) they worry that people don’t know enough and won’t bother to learn more.

Teach them. Have a conversation with someone about it. Start a discussion that isn’t based on talking points but aims to reach a communal understanding. Let somebody give you a new perspective. But at the very least, keep talking. So many tragedies in human history happened because somebody turned a blind eye. We have an opportunity and an obligation to do the right thing. Ultimately, this is truly one thing on which we can all agree.   

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