A couple of nights ago, I posted what has come to be known as the Kony 2012 Video as my blog post. I learned of it through my eleventh graders. One of them was in a documentary studies class I taught last year in which we watched “Ghosts of Rwanda,” a Frontline piece looking at the Rwandan genocide ten years later and “The Devil Came on Horseback,” which is about the human tragedy in Darfur. They know I grew up in Africa and that I am moved by stories of a continent with which I identify; they were moved by what we saw last year. And so, instead of the work I had planned, we watched Kony. They had lots of questions, not the least of which was, “Why don’t we do something to be a part of this? It seems important.”
I came home and made it my blog post on the basis of the residual sadness and anger I carry because Africa does not really matter to Americans as a general rule (as demonstrated in Rwanda and Darfur and mostly because our media have chosen to make connecting us to Africa less important than most anything) and because of the emotion I shared with my students in class. I had heard of Invisible Children but had not done any research on the organization. I knew of Joseph Kony, but not in any current sense. I was moved. I responded – just as the folks who made the video wanted me to do.
This morning, one of the folks I work with at the computer store posted this graphic
with the caption,
For all of you who posted the Kony video, rather those about to post the video…
Then, from a number of sources, I began to read insight from folks who had also been moved by the video but who didn’t allow their emotion to control their first move. They asked good questions and looked beyond the well crafted call to immediate and specific action. Some of the questions were about the organization, some were about the veracity of the information, some were about the perspective from which the story was being told, some were about the choice of solution being offered. I offer three perspectives that are speaking to me today, all of whom are seeking to do more than criticize or cast suspicion and all of whom have personal ties to Africa.
I was pulled, in particular, by this video of a Ugandan woman who challenged those who would tell a story that is not their own:
I’m starting to wonder if this is a fundamental limit to attention-based advocacy. If we need simple narratives so people can amplify and spread them, are we forced to engage only with the simplest of problems? Or to propose only the simplest of solutions?
As someone who believes that the ability to create and share media is an important form of power, the Invisible Children story presents a difficult paradox. If we want people to pay attention to the issues we care about, do we need to oversimplify them? And if we do, do our simplistic framings do more unintentional harm than intentional good? Or is the wave of pushback against this campaign from Invisible Children evidence that we’re learning to read and write complex narratives online, and that a college student with doubts about a campaign’s value and validity can find an audience? Will Invisible Children’s campaign continue unchanged, or will it engage with critics and design a more complex and nuanced response.
That’s a story worth watching.
Dan Haseltine of Jars of Clay writes,
Most people don’t want to feel like they are being rescued. That can be humiliating. So… what do we do with a movement that does not work toward dignity?
Do we simply applaud it for the marketing genius that it is? Do we buy into it and support the cause even if it turns out to be misguided or misinformed because we don’t want to be the poop in the punch bowl?
In closing, I do applaud the western world for looking at this situation in the world. It is far beyond our backyards and it does not encroach on our drive into work, or our gaming, or general lives… We have shown in our immediacy that we do have pulses and hearts. We have shown that our reflex toward justice is still strong. What we should do is match our passion for justice with wisdom and humility. It was Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, who told me, “ Justice without mercy is tyranny.”
Thank Invisible Children for bringing this issue into the public conscience. Please take a breath and walk humbly into the realm of action.
How do we keep the work from hurting more than helping? These are the questions that we must ask. These are the questions that I wish Invisible Children was asking before they launched this campaign to coincide with our election year. It is a good marketing idea. It just isn’t a great and dignifying form of action.
Loving kindness, doing justice, and walking humbly with our God calls for us to live in the creative tension between immediate response and thoughtful action; it also calls us to learn how to let listening be our primary posture. (You realize, I hope, I’m talking mostly to myself here.) I’ve written recently about wondering what Jesus would ask; I wonder, in this case, if the questions might include
Who is telling the story? and
To whom does the story belong?
Then I can ask — ask them and ask God, “What is my role in their story?” and become a part of the cast.