Kony2012 edumacating us about Africa

The time has come, the walrus said, “To talk of many things. Of Joseph Kony’s awful acts and little beads of string. And the limits of our caring tweets in the face of complex things.”

IT TAKES A LOT to make a child soldier.

Given a choice, many an abducted child would seize the first available opportunity to escape and return home, making it difficult to raise an army of hardened soldiers from kidnapped children. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) solved this problem years ago by making kidnapped children kill or mutilate their parents and siblings — often publicly — to ensure that they would never be able to return to their communities and be accepted again.

Cut off from a family that you were forced to kill, and a community that would never really be able to forgive you, it becomes easier as the months go by to make the most of what you have. It’s a twisted kind of stockholm syndrome that keeps individuals — men and women — fighting in the LRA, often for years.

It’s obvious that Joseph Kony is a grade-A nasty fucker.

It’s obvious that Joseph Kony is a grade-A nasty fucker. But realising that there is a problem doesn’t automatically make the solution obvious. And outrage, while fantastic at getting people off their couches and out onto the streets with banners and bracelets is, almost by definition, not an intelligent response.

Kony2012, frankly, is the wrong solution, pursued in a deeply manipulative, ethically compromised fashion. Yet even in getting slammed hard by op-eds across the Internet, it may inadvertently be able to do what it really needs to. To not realise the grossly simplified logic of its proposed solution, but to get a greater number of people thinking about at least two very important things:

  1. how we think about Africa, and
  2. how we think about the problem of Joseph Kony.

Maybe, when the tweets die down, nothing changes. But maybe, just possibly, Kony2012 could be the cinematic shtick that pokes a very large bear of a debate about central Africa. The stick bearers themselves might not appreciate the consequences, but it will have put something large and useful into motion.

There are really two key issues here — the way the video itself represents the situation, and the solution to the ‘Kony Problem’ it proposes. Well, actually, there are a whole bunch more questions than that, but there is only so much coffee in the world, and it is best spent on core issues.

So what’s wrong with the video?

Is the story a problem? And if it’s a problem, do we really care, as long as it results in catching Kony? Unfortunately yes, it is a problem, and, yes, we do.

The catalogue of offenses that the video stands accused of is long. It’s a narcissistic reinforcement of the idea that only the white Westerner can save Africa. It fails to acknowledge that Kony is no longer in Uganda, or even in the DRC, as far as anyone knows. We think he is in the Central African Republic (CAR — and yes, that’s a country), but nobody has really seen him in a while. That’s what happens when you are the #1 most wanted criminal on the International Criminal Court watchlist.

The producers also appear to have incredibly suspicious ethics when it comes to interviewing traumatised minors, and depending on what your views are on the profitability of working at a not for profit, Invisible Children may or may not pay its founders too much money for creative work.

On this last point, there are actually two divergent strains of angry objection. The first is that the IC founders earn too much. This is really for you to decide. The second is that they don’t spend enough money “doing real stuff” like building schools and other on-the-ground-projects in Uganda. This latter argument, though, assumes that every NGO should be judged on the basis of whether or not they “do real stuff,” and implies that advocacy and media (which is where a good chunk of IC revenue goes) is not real stuff. That’s wrong.

Whether you think they executed the Kony2012 campaign well or not, advocacy is a valuable activity when done correctly. Subject to a whole host of other variables, media exposure can have an effect on both policy decisions and humanitarian response. So spending money on making films may seem like first-world decadence, but is actually a useful tool in shaping responses to issues.

How useful depends on how you tell your story, and it’s here that the video moves from being an embarrassing outpouring of postcolonial caring to something actively harmful. Because stories, you see, construct the ways in which we understand the world. The more stories you hear, and the more detailed they are, the more likely that you acquire a complex understanding of the world being described. The fewer stories, and the simpler they are, the less you understand.

…it’s easy to believe that all we need to do is overcome some sort of political constipation in Washington in order to apprehend some jungle-bound Hitler.

That offensively obvious observation has profound implications for how you are able to react to problems like Joseph Kony when Invisible Children, to a large degree, frames your understanding of the issue. Unless you are being deliberately critical, or know something of Uganda, the DRC, and the LRA for yourself, it’s easy to believe that all we need to do is overcome some sort of political constipation in Washington in order to apprehend some jungle-bound Hitler. Then all will be well.

It won’t?

No, because what’s left out complicates the picture. And the video leaves out a huge amount. Most obviously, as others have pointed out, Kony is not in Uganda anymore. He hasn’t been for years. Gulu, in Northern Uganda, is as safe for visitors as Luang Prabang. And probably has better beer.

He isn’t even in the Democratic Republic of Congo anymore, actually. So catching him will be a great deal more complicated than a simple hop across the border by the Ugandan military.

This child is adorable. He is also a very poor source of foreign policy. From Invisible Children

Also left out is what happens when the Ugandan military does hop across the border to the DRC — whether to catch Kony in the jungle he is not in (according to the IC version) or on the way to the CAR (in reality). The UPDF (that’s the Ugandan army, for acronym junkies) has a terrible reputation in the DRC. It includes arming local groups in Ituri district in 2003, ensuring a massacre when they left, and having an ongoing habit for sneaking minerals and rare timber across the border. So it is not at all clear that allowing them back across the border would not be the strategic equivalent of placing a large, kleptomaniac bull in a fragile post-conflict china shop.

Finally, the LRA is more than Joseph Kony. As far as anyone can tell, the LRA is a distributed, guerrilla army made up of multiple semi-autonomous bands of troops. Will capturing Kony make them cease activities? The truth is that we don’t know, but it seems unlikely.

The video hides these issues, and so much more. Because the more you know, the more troublesome the mantra of “catch Kony” becomes.

To which the anguished reply of the bracelet-wearing will inevitably be “at least we are doing something,” smugly clothed in a warm blanket of self-assurance that an impassioned something is better than the status quo. The problem, though, is that a great number of people who have lived or studied the history of the LRA have actually been doing a huge amount to repair this part of the world.

It’s this work that created the psychosocial support networks to rehabilitate returned soldiers, and the demobilisation campaigns that brought them out of the bush in the first place. They are also the people hung up on the debates about whether it is more important to bring Kony to justice, or to negotiate with him to shut down his operation — all of it — for good.

These debates are difficult. Difficult because of history, because of politics, because of the memories of the families who lost so much to the LRA. But they must be had if the scourge of the LRA is to ever be properly ended. The simplified understandings of the “do somethings” are the very opposite of an inclusive, considered approach. Ugandans have no voice in their solutions. Affected communities in the DRC and further north are irrelevant, except as silent victims in whose name we are commanded to tweet. Nobody, except millions of outraged middle-class Westerners, has a voice and an opinion based on a 30-minute summary of something so very much more complex.

Raising an army is much easier when the issues are fun and simple.

Passion and outrage is good insofar as it can push politicians to engage with the issues. If it can force the US to endorse proper procedural justice for war crimes offenders such as Kony rather than targeted killings, that will be an important, if small, shift by the country towards participating in a less hypocritical system of international law. If the debate between pro and anti Kony2012 camps forces both to go out and understand the history and politics of Northern Uganda, South Sudan, and the Congo wars, then perhaps an intelligent, educated activism can emerge.

If it turns into a war of memes and counter-memes, then Invisible Children has succeeded in little more than turning what should be a major humanitarian concern into a vehicle for narcissistic Facebook castle building. Part of engaging with the problems of Ah-free-kah is understanding that it’s not a single, exotic place, onto which the West can project its worst postcolonial fantasies and photoshopped jokes involving black children and Kony2012 references.

The video was the elegantly produced historical baggage of the West’s problematic ideas of Africa. But Joseph Kony does exist, and he is a royal arsehole deserving of a powerful reaction by any right-thinking individual. But taking a stand and making a difference is going to start with understanding what is actually going on, and pushing for an appropriately intelligent response.

It’s a lot less cool than a wristband and an activism pack, but your money would be much better spent on a book or two. It’s a bit more like hard work, but that’s what changing the world sometimes demands of you.

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  • Rob

    Great piece. Thanks for digging deeper into the issue.

  • mutyang

    This has been trending in my social networks lately. Great piece of work.

  • Kbaker1121

    Westerners often think the solution should be this – fill in the blank. Many of our ideals have led down paths that are potentially as destructive as what has already taken place in Uganda. This man and his actions are absolutely horrendous; the awareness is great. But let us not be ignorant. Let us not be lazy.

  • liz

     I think that they idea of Kony2012 is way too simplistic. Selling a bunch of wristbands and t-shirts isn’t going to do much. I’ve seen countless videos promoting kony2012 by young teens and young adults who act like they are passionate about the cause without even understanding or researching beyond the IC video. 
    I will say this, years ago I heard about the LRA through IC and have been researching since then. Yes, it’s improved my knowledge of Africa and made we want to read more about Africa but it hasn’t done much in way of solving the problem. Sure, it might influence kids into wanting to help but the governments on all sides are too corrupt and anyways politicians in Washington already know about this – Obama sent a group of advisors last year to central africa. But,Western governments do little unless they have some stake in the matter.

    So I don’t think this is very effective although I want it to be. So if this does something to help, well then money well spent. But I doubt it will. There are people suffering all over the world. I think what irritates me about their campaign is that the average person donates thinking the money will go to help the victims. They need to make that a little more clear – that 70ish percent is going to the video and travel and salaries and so on.

  • http://kharlamovaa.wordpress.com Arina Kharlamova

    This is one of the best pieces I have read on the KONY2012 debacle. I have so many things to say about this, it’s incredible, but I keep not wanting to write anything because I want to have all the facts. Here’s my response to a few points in your article, at least:

    1. I know that catching Kony will most likely not stop the LRA. Guerrilla groups tend to have a way of rebirthing themselves, but the International Criminal Court DOES want to catch him, and I don’t know any reason that someone would NOT want to support the international criminal court, or to catch a monster and never let him see the light of day. That being said, IC seems to be supporting the ICC in their mission, which is fine, but … isn’t the ICC doing that? I agree that advocacy helps a lot, and it shouldn’t be discounted, but their focus is on the children, right? So I agree that maybe helping the rehabilitation of the soldiers would be a better focus for the group. That being said, I am not the leader of the IC, nor am I the main decision-maker. I just think that maybe they are focusing on the wrong thing, like you seem to have pointed out. 

    2. My enduring question is mainly about the White Man’s Burden reference that everyone and their mother is bringing up. I realize that the men that started the organization are Middle Class White Males, but the people in their organization aren’t — not all of them. There are hundreds of people involved with the IC and I’m sure many of them are lobbying government with a pretty strong knowledge about the situation. While the video may featured the main founder a lot, that seems to be more a video technique – than anything meant to harm or detract from the importance of the child soldiers. They made the video so that it would go viral – and in this age, that means that a lot of people need to be able to ooh and aah at the video techniques made for emotional effect as well as for the message. Plus they mention that they WANT a lot of people to see this and get affected by it – they want a lot of people to get amped up and do something, talk to somebody, find something out about this problem – how that is a White Man trying to Save Africa thing, I don’t know. To me, that’s someone who cares about what is happening trying to get people interested. But maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I don’t get something. I just wish that somebody would explain to me why it’s wrong for people (white, black, indian, chinese, anything) to care about what’s happening in other countries.

    First, people say we’re insulated in North America and are apathetic and don’t care, and then when we do we just retweet and buy bracelets. When someone tries to do something, we say it’s imperialistic and offensive. I just don’t get it – can white people not sympathize and understand the conflict in other countries? Does that make us racist? If we try to help, is that racist? I understand that throwing money or military at the situation without full understanding is offensive, because it’s like walking into someone else’s family and saying, “you’re doing it wrong”, but what if you’re NOT uninformed. Personally, I wouldn’t lobby the American government to do anything, because that’s too political. I don’t know.

    Overall, I think it’s great that they’ve found a way to get this situation more screentime. It doesn’t seem to me that they meant harm by this, or meant to simplify it. I don’t see how a non-profit would garner so much support and interest only to make itself popular. Maybe I believe in the idea that people do things for good, honest, genuine reasons, too much, but that’s my fault.
    At least everyone is talking about it.

    • Mtmclemore

      The reality is I did not know who Kony was before this video although I had heard about child soldiers. One goal stated in the video is to make Kony (in)famouse. This is happening. Yes, there may be omissions of facts, for whatever reason. There may or may not be questionable motives. However, what a lot of critics seem to maintain is that  people viewing and emotionally effected by the video will accept at it face value. This seems an arrogant stance to take. I for one was emotionally drawn in by the vid. and at the same time saw that it was propaganda and so, I questioned it and have done some research…and is the reason I am reading this. I want to educate myself on the issue. So,  this is a positive effect of the campaign, no? Criticism is easy but I would like to ask you Richard Stupart (writer of this article). Have you done anything to bring attention to the  problem of Kony in a constructive way previous to this article? If not then I would say that the film has inspired you and in that…there is merit. My only real complaint about the film is that it was not made 25 years ago when Kony began his monstrous campaign. 

    • Mtmclemore

      I am sorry, My comment was  not meant as a “reply” to Arina Kharlamova’s post…it is meant as a response to the article but I pushed the “reply” button by mistake…apologies.

  • Michelle Schusterman

    Dead on, Rich. This was really well-said. (Also – best subtitle I’ve ever seen, hands down.)

    The idea of condensing an incredibly complex and nuanced issue down to one “easy to digest” tidbit for the sake of going viral actually bothers me quite a bit. It seems like it’s not just a result of, but also the CAUSE of our society’s increasingly short attention span. Boom! The bad guy’s dead, problem solved, moving on, where’s the next YouTube sensation?

    When I watched the documentary, I was bothered by the presentation, and especially by the “activism kits.” But I tweeted the link anyway, because I told myself the cause was still just. Then I began to research the topic more.

    And now the whole “oh, but at least it’s getting the word out” thing doesn’t settle right with me. Unless, as Rich suggests, it leads to people putting in the work to educate themselves on the subject, which is (as he said) really hard work. But if millions of people are coming away with this with one simple idea – Kony must die – then no, I don’t think it’s a good thing at all.

    • liz

      Thats what I feel – that if it has the impact of inspiring people to learn about this issue and Africa in general, if it inspires change then thats awesome. But their idea is way too simplistic. However, IC came to my school almost seven years ago and I’ve never forgotten about joseph kony and ive been researching the lra and africa since. Also in part it has made me want to work in Africa. But the idea that killing one man will end the war is naive and I think they understand that but its the only way to get the worlds attention. 

      • Michael

        I don’t think anyone said that killing Kony will end the war, but it is a start. 

        People say “cutting the head off the snake” won’t work since there will always be another snake to take his place is wrong in my opinion, since you can always cut the next snake to pop his head up off too.  Sooner or later the rest of the snakes will get the idea. 

        If the video gets the world talking about the problems in Africa, I say get on board or get out of the way.  Nobody has the perfect answer to this or it would have been solved already.

  • Kathryn

    Actually the video clearly states that he is no longer in Uganda. At least watch something before you attempt to correct it.

    • Richard

      It does seem to believe that he is in the Congo. Which he is not.

      • Michael

        To be fair, noone can say where he is or isn’t until he is found.  It is all speculation.  Noone knew where Bin Laden was until SEAL Team 6 knocked on his door. 

  • http://saffakidlife.blogspot.com/ jenna

    thanks for adding some perspective on this rich!

    as you said, i don’t think the issue is whether or not the cause is right or wrong, but more a matter of the way it is presented.

  • Mtmclemore

    The reality is I did not know who Kony was before this video although I had heard about child soldiers. One goal stated in the video is to make Kony (in)famouse. This is happening. Yes, there may be omissions of facts, for whatever reason. There may or may not be questionable motives. However, what a lot of critics seem to maintain is that  people viewing and emotionally effected by the video will accept at it face value. This seems an arrogant stance to take. I for one was emotionally drawn in by the vid. and at the same time saw that it was propaganda and so, I questioned it and have done some research…and is the reason I am reading this. I want to educate myself on the issue. So,  this is a positive effect of the campaign, no? Criticism is easy but I would like to ask you Richard Stupart (writer of this article). Have you done anything to bring attention to the  problem of Kony in a constructive way previous to this article? If so bravo.  If not then I would say that the film has inspired you and in that…there is merit. My only real complaint about the film is that it was not made 25 years ago when Kony began his monstrous campaign. 

    • http://www.wheretheroadgoes.com Richard

      I have, but that is really ancillary to the point here. It’s not an issue of trying to outcare each other, but about channeling the desire to do something in a way that doesn’t produce a short-sighted, populist result. 

      I absolutely dig that you are looking beyond the video to find out more for yourself and really engage with the issues. The more people that do that, the better the quality of action that can come from it.

    • Habbit

      And the biggest problem is that you still don’t know who Kony is. 

    • http://matadornetwork.com/ Carlo Alcos

      Unfortunately I think that most people won’t do as you do in regards to researching more…I’d say most people will take that at face value – we are emotional beings and when those heart strings get tugged like that we react on emotion; rational/critical thinking all of a sudden takes a back seat. You’re right though, if it wasn’t for this video this issue wouldn’t be front and center and it wouldn’t be being debated…ironically the critics of the video wouldn’t have a voice, but they do now and they’re being heard. The video oversimplified things but a side effect of it is that it’s sparked a big conversation. 

      I’ve read a lot of feedback to articles that are being critical, and the feedback is generally very defensive. It’s as if they’re not really defending the video, but defending their own reactions to it. People are taking these criticisms very personally. All they should be doing is saying, “wait a second, let’s have a closer look at this and think about it.” That should be the reaction to everything we see and hear.

  • Andrew S

    Removed because this all ridiculous.

  • Andrew S

    Removed because of the same reason as below. Do not know why I even wasted my time.

  • JR

    While I agree with a number of your points, would any one have read this article about the “real” problems in African countries with out the Kony film. Like it not this film has brought the subject to the fore front of the media and it has prompted a lot of discussions like this one that would not have happened with out it.  

  • Matthew Kent

    Fantastic article.  A very ‘integral’ approach to the situation and thanks for all the links to other thought-provoking articles.  I shall be sharing this!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=4300940 Anne Hoffman

    Also, it’s my understanding that if you want to work for Invisible Children as an “intern”, you have to raise a ton of money from your local community orgs to go around the country and raise support. I knew a girl tangentially who was “chosen” to pay lots of money to this org so she could “work” for them. Pretty scary ethics.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ckoukkos Christina Koukkos

     I have to say, I’m perplexed at the backlash this is getting. In the video I watched (which I’m half-convinced *must* different from the one described above. though it’s not.) the ICC is trying to accomplish one simple thing: Arrest (not kill!) the #1 most-wanted war criminal in the world.

    It does not say that doing so will “fix Africa” (or even Uganda!). It does not claim doing so will end the LRA and its atrocities. It does not say, to quote the author, that in doing so “all will be well.”

    It is simply asking Americans to get the US government to find political will to provide military support on a purely humanitarian basis (ie not for national security, oil or other financial reasons). Wouldn’t that be amazing, regardless of where in the world such force was deployed?

    And if Kony is (at long last) captured and tried and convicted as a war criminal, won’t that set a wonderful precedent for all the other at-large war criminals around the world? That the PEOPLE of the world will not stand by and let them get away with it?

    Regarding the “only the white Westerner can save Africa” point. I’m far from an expert, but I do appreciate that the way Africa and citizens of all African countries are portrayed in Western media is and continues to be a huge problem. The condescension also is reflected in how outside relief and development efforts are conceived, deployed and managed. But the tone of this video didn’t seem  neo-colonialist to me. The POV was, “We are all human beings, and we should help each other if we can.” A man saw a huge injustice happening and is marshalling efforts to try to stop it – despite the fact that it isn’t happening in his own back yard. Disagree with the effectiveness of bracelets and posters if you like, but how is that neo-colonialist? Is your reaction a result of  the above-mentioned baggage from all the neo-colonialist BS that has come before? Or am I being naive?

    I think of it this way: during the Bosnian war, when so other atrocities were happening on all sides,  the international community howled and howled until Clinton finally got involved. How, exactly, is American involvement to halt genocide in Serbia OK, while the same (or similar) effort to help stop rape, murder, abduction and war – not to mention a madman – is “neo-colonialism” in central Africa?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ZJRXQ6RHS5QPRP3QX5HZDKRZLE Jeremy

    Don’t jump on the KONY bandwagon, it was proven FRAUDULENT.  The charity organization that runs it took 6.4 million of the 9 million the STOLE from people, and spent it on themselves.  Plus, if you think about it, this is the perfect ploy to keep growing the military industrial complex, and if Mitt Romney and Santorum jump on board, then you know it’s bullshit.  Not to mention there are like 5 other warlords just as bad as Kony, the difference is they don’t oppose us sharing in their oil, like Kony does.  Pay attention, do some research, the only time the US government gave a FUCK about these poor children was when they discovered oil in Uganda, and now it’s all in our faces, come the fuck on people… Wake up.  Kony is bad, but a bullet is cheap, don’t blow this fucking thing into a goddamn citizen backed war like Iraq.

    • Neyvusdycerion

      Please, take a class. Learn a little proper English before you show us all how ignorant you are: Profanity only shows your ignorance. Are you accusing IC of embezzlement or fraud? If so, perhaps their legal advisors may wish to talk to you. Why don’t you read the IRS documents, and the auditors’ records. Or go fuck yourself- either way, you really don’t matter until YOU DO SOMETHING. 

  • Brian

    I would argue the video was produced cleverly.

    Invisible Children’s targeted audience for the video was youth… look at the way the film was edited, who the video portrayed as being part of the movement already, and the songs used throughout the movie. It definitely wasn’t targeted for anyone over 30. 

    The filmmakers wanted to include  just enough information on the subject to invoke a stirring feeling in youth, enough for them to want to share the video, put up posters, or do something about it. The technicalities of the situation in Uganda weren’t necessary, nor important, for the filmmakers and their intended purpose.

    They wanted to let people know about Kony, get him arrested, and then that’d be the end of the LRA. Yes, it is oversimplified and defies basic logic in some cases, but the filmmakers did everything for a reason. They could have spent more time on the issue and technicalities of it, instead of showing the filmmaker’s son and his “cute” responses and reaction to what his father was saying, but that would have bored the intended audience and they would have turned it off. That’s the sad thing about youth, and people in general, but I won’t get into that. 

    So, is the video going to set off a chain reaction that will end in Kony’s arrest and fix the problems of the Ugandan children just like that? Probably not. But the filmmakers included and excluded what they did for a reason, and while there may be flaws in the overall logic of it all, I’m sure they invoked the intended reaction from the audience. 

    *I’m 17 years old; I know what would provoke myself, friends, and peers into action. 

    • http://matadornetwork.com/ Carlo Alcos

      Everything you’ve said is true, but the question is what is their responsibility as far as telling the whole story? Was it ethically responsible what they did/are doing? If you haven’t checked this out yet, please do, some reactions from actual Africans: http://www.boingboing.net/2012/03/08/african-voices-respond-to-hype.html

  • Javier

    I’m surprised “edumacating” was allowed in the title in this PC environment…

  • Fony

    The real Hitler raising an army may be Invisible Children itself. 

  • SuzanneFisher

    I thought this was really interesting and thought provoking. I have also analysed the video (including the storytelling) in my blog, and come up with more questions than answers. Would be interested to hear your thoughts: http://www.suzannefishermurray.com/five-things-to-know-about-kony-2012/

  • meda b

    Gulu does have pretty good beer! Cheers for Nile Specials ;) 
    I really appreciate your article. After all, I first learned about the LRA from Invisible Children several years ago, and they did spark an interest in me to do more research and eventually spend 5months in Uganda with more plans to pursue learning and guide my passions with intelligence and truth.. and also to return for the beer (jk). Let’s all work towards a healthy balance/cooperation between “righteous seizure” and “ethical paralysis.”

  • Baaimrmit

    Africa: 0 Facebook: 1

  • Adam Roy

    Most thorough, thought-out piece of writing about Kony2012  I’ve seen so far. The “it doesn’t matter if my facts are right, as long as people are moved” bandwagon seems to be gaining steam lately, which is disturbing.

  • Tori

    Richard, what a well written excellent examination of the current and potential effects of the Stop Kony film. Thank you for sharing your viewpoints. Knowing very little about these issues, I decided it would be best to buy a book. Thank you for the suggestions.
    My favorite line in the article was, “It’s a narcissistic reinforcement of the idea that only the white Westerner can save Africa.” So dead on!