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Stop Kony 2012 and start apologizing to Ugandans

By in Features

The Internet is perhaps the most beloved of civilization’s most recent doodles. It is a delightfully chaotic but perfectly organic scribble of society’s collective thoughts, and like a six-year-old proudly parading a popsicle-stick sculpture, it is one for which we constantly seek validation. By and large, our pomp and arrogance is well deserved.

But last week something unprecedented happened — and I was left fearing, not admiring, the power of the Internet. I speak, of course, of the Kony 2012 campaign by Invisible Children.

In case you’ve been living under a rock (or a jungle — more on that later), the campaign aims to make Joseph Kony a household name by pressuring celebrities and policy makers to “take action,” and by plastering his image in every major city in the world through an aggressive guerrilla marketing strategy. The eventual goal of the campaign is Kony’s arrest and trial at the International Criminal Court.

Kony, of course, is head of the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army and believed to be responsible for the abduction, murder or enslavement of as many as 30,000 children over the past 30 years.

In the frantic race to be the first to re-post, tweet or share the meme du jour, the troubling subtext to the Kony 2012 campaign seemed lost in a misguided cloud of excitement. While the intentions of the nearly countless people who leaped at the opportunity to support Invisible Children’s mission are noble, good intentions do not make an act just. And if we are willing to contribute financially to a global manhunt that could easily result in an unforeseeable number of deaths, then I think we owe it to ourselves — not to mention the everyday Ugandans who would be most affected by such a campaign — to take a moment to analyze the campaign and its motives.

A Radical Over-Simplification of the Issues

In the eyes of Invisible Children, killing Joseph Kony means the end of the LRA, and a boost in the collective conscience of every middle-school American child who skipped piano lessons to be, like, socially aware for the afternoon and stuff.

Except that’s not how it works, ever. Joseph Kony is not the LRA, and although he is undoubtedly personally responsible for a lot of evil, he is also surrounded by many similarly-corrupted individuals who might spill a lot of blood in response to such a campaign. That’s how guerrilla groups work: they are based around an idea (a deranged and perverse one, in this case). And like Invisible Children themselves point out, “There is nothing more powerful than an idea.”

Joseph Kony is a monumental dickhead, and that fact has earned him the number one spot atop the ICC’s list of the world’s most wanted war criminals. No one disputes that he deserves to be brought to justice. But reducing the nature of the Ugandan conflict (or any conflict for that matter) into cartoonish terms of “good guys” versus “bad guys” — as co-founder Jason Russell does over the course of the video, so that his toddler son Gavin might better understand the heroic work his dad does — is not only inaccurate, but also dangerous and irresponsible. What Invisible Children is campaigning for is nothing short of a global manhunt, and I find the idea of re-packaging a military intervention in such a sentimental, simplified manner deeply unsettling.

Recruitment of Children

Kony is notorious for recruiting child soldiers. Invisible Children is targeting the same demographic, so to speak.
For all the apparent hatred that Invisible Children’s supporters seem to harbour toward Joseph Kony for his targeting of children, it seems easily forgiven that the organization is itself targeting a very limited and impressionable demographic.

Facebook was the primary means by which the Kony 2012 video was able to spread as quickly as it has, and it is also a domain where users as young as 13 (the minimum age for creating an account) spend an increasing amount of their free time. As Russell put it in an interview with Reuters, “The unique thing about this movement — which is really, really exciting — is that it’s led by the youth.”

I do not see it as a virtue that Invisible Children has targeted children and youth for their campaign. In fact, I find it quite revolting. There is a reason that, as a society, we exclude children from the political process — they lack the knowledge necessary to make an informed and free choice, and are vulnerable to coercion and manipulation. And as a result of Invisible Children’s violation of this norm, a child’s pocket money would go toward military action.

Who Is This Really About?

Ignoring the fact that most North Americans could not even locate Uganda on a map, the willingness that has been shown by the creators and supporters of the Kony 2012 campaign to take credit for the alleged discovery and rescue of “these children,” as Russell puts it, absolutely reeks of an arrogance that Kipling and Rhodes would have smugly clinked teacups over.

Behold, a smattering of typical messages left on one of the many Kony 2012 Facebook pages:

“SO proud of our generation right now!”

“This is our time. Let’s show the world what we can accomplish!”

“As soon as I saw this video, I dove in, bought the action kit. I felt human for a moment.”

Invisible Children evidently identified the incredible narcissism of the Facebook generation and decided to turn it against itself. Their website advertises the now sold-out Action Kit — containing an official campaign T-shirt, Kony bracelet, stickers, a button, posters and an action guide — by proclaiming: “People will think you’re an advocate of awesome.”

Similarly, the $10 Kony bracelet is available for purchase online, and is advertised as “the ultimate accessory.” Don’t worry, they’ve got you covered: now you can advertise your charitable nature in the real world as well as the digital one!

Condescension At Its Finest

The very name “Invisible Children” is a loaded one. To whom were these children invisible, and who has suddenly made them “visible”? The same answer applies to both: a previously preoccupied, primarily North American middle-class youth who have suddenly been awakened to their calling as saviours. Kony 2012 isn’t about collaborating with Ugandans in order to capture Joseph Kony — it’s about doing it for them.

Between co-ordinating the panning shots of American landmarks and college kids dressed in matching T-shirts, it seems Invisible Children just couldn’t find the time to include any Ugandan commentary. Over the course of the 30-minute video, the combined speaking time allotted to Jacob (one of “these children” whose story apparently prompted the launching of the campaign) and his unnamed and equally helpless pals amounts to one minute and 46 seconds.

Beyond the fact that Invisible Children’s entire leadership is composed of self-righteous mzungus, I grow suspicious of a charity that continually refers to Africans, on the whole, in the most homogenizing and generic terms imaginable. Congo, Uganda, Liberia — whatever, they just like, need our help, or something.

So if not at the heart of the official Kony 2012 campaign, where have the voices of Ugandans been this whole time? Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire took to YouTube almost immediately after the video began to collect hits and summarized her concerns thusly: “If you are showing me as voiceless, as helpless, you have no place telling my story. You shouldn’t be telling my story if you don’t believe that I also have the power to change what is going on. This video seems to say the power lies in America… and it does not lie with my government and it does not lie with local initiatives on the ground.”

(On the topic of Ugandan voices, you won’t hear any mention of Joseph Koe-nee in Uganda. It is correctly pronounced “Kohn” in Acholi.)

This Time, It’s Personal

Normally, the push to employ military tactics comes from within the military leadership and is met with resistance by all but the most gun-toting, trigger-happy members of the public. This time, however, the situation is reversed. Whatever additional adjectives one might care to tack onto it, Kony 2012 is, at the end of the day, a privately-funded lobbying effort for the disposal of human life.

The whole Kony 2012 campaign brings to mind the short-lived website live-shot.com, which offered the opportunity to hunt animals over the Internet. For a fee, a webcam-mounted rifle could be controlled remotely from the comfort of one’s living room. Shortly after its launch in 2006 it drew the ire of, well, just about everyone who has any sense of ethics; the main criticism was that it sold a censored and artificial version of an act that ought to be afforded a bit more consideration than the simple click of a button.

The similarities should be fairly self-evident. No matter how many kilometres separate the advocate and the instrument, the outcome is the same, and the responsibility resides with the killer — whether they pulled the trigger themselves or had someone else do it for them.


Photo: hdptcar/flickr

  • T for Short

    An exhaustive and well-written analysis; I’m relieved to see this recognized in The Sheaf rather than some naive, bright-eyed volunteer writing in how we ought to like, “stop this Kony guy, here’s the link to the movie and kit order page!”

    I especially appreciated seeing emphasis put on the fact that the Kony 2012 campaign treats issues in Africa as if they’re the responsibility of Americans to launch a military intervention, rather than supporting and empowering Ugandan leaders, journalists, and common citizens or at least hearing what they have to say about the issue. And boy do they have things to say:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/mar/14/kony-2012-screening-anger-northern-uganda?INTCMP=SRCH

    What I was disappointed to see no trace of in such a comprehensive article as you’ve written here, Mr. Borsa, is the fact that Kony hasn’t operated in Uganda for about six years now and is has in fact spread to other African nations (http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/reality-check-with-polly-curtis/2012/mar/08/kony-2012-what-s-the-story?INTCMP=SRCH). It’s astounding to see the Kony 2012 movement to be so ignorant to such obvious flaws in their efforts, as a military intervention would be utterly misdirected (even if it was not excessive, short-term, and counter-productive, which it would be). At no point in the Kony 2012 “documentary” was there any conversation with African diplomats in which the reality of Kony’s presence was discussed. Let’s not forget that there are likely countless other warlords whose behaviour may become quite desperate in the face of military man-hunts for their neighbours.

    All-in-all, great article. Just felt I had to add some pertinent details. If anyone is interested in an article that discussed Kony back when he was in fact in Uganda, Christopher Hitchens wrote one back in 2006: http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2006/01/hitchens200601?new

    And if all of this is too heavy for you, here is the hilarious troll campaign to post photos of Carl Weathers (from Predator) on facebook just to see how many people think it’s Kony: http://www.buzzfeed.com/daves4/people-who-think-carl-weathers-is-joseph-kony

    • T for Short

      and has in fact*

      Fucking typos. There’s always one.

    • Tomas Borsa

      Although I won’t pretend it was a completely deliberate omission, I felt that the more factually-grounded arguments against the campaign were deserving of a separate article altogether, and wanted to focus more on the ethical qualms I feel toward it. (By that I mean – Invisible Children’s incredibly shady finances, the logistics of launching a military intervention, the fact that the LRA isn’t in Uganda, the fact that the LRA doesn’t number more than several hundred, etc.) Great Hitchens article, by the way!

    • T for Short

      Well said. I’m glad you seem quite privy to all this and I respect your choice of theme :)

  • Afq895

    One of my favorite articles published in the sheaf this year.

  • Yorkunderwood

    Great piece.

  • Sean

    Just saw this. All around phenomenal article, Tomas. Captures it perfectly.

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