Kony 2012 and the Attack on Idealism

My experience with the Kony 2012 debacle started out as casual interest when the Kony 2012 video first began circulating, evolved into casual disgust when I began seeing the intensity of the criticism Invisible Children was receiving, and turned to utter horror when TMZ posted videos of Jason Russell’s breakdown and the criticism only intensified.

Invisible Children has been demonized for more reasons than I could list, but some of the main issues seem to be that Invisible Children does not have an external auditor and spends most of its money on marketing, it’s oversimplified the Joseph Kony narrative and has cast Uganda as a helpless child that the powerful United States needs to rescue, it monetarily supports the Ugandan military, and it’s convinced millions of uninformed young people that changing the world is easy and that they have the power to do it.

I’m mostly interested in the last point, because I believe it’s the key to the others (though I do want to mention that Invisible Children’s main strategy is marketing. Marketing is Invisible Children’s chosen vehicle of change. Criticizing a non-profit for spending the bulk of its money on its main purpose for existing is ridiculous). A leader in a Christian missions organization posted this meme on Facebook recently, and it pushed me over the edge on this issue:

The cynicism of this just kills me. The cynicism of all of this just kills me. The author of the anti-Invisible Children blog Visible Children wrote in a recent post that people shouldn’t support KONY 2012 “just because it’s something. Something isn’t always better than nothing. Sometimes it’s worse.” That’s an insightful comment, and it’s true. But this is clearly not one of those cases. Nothing is not better than something, when it comes to a man who has abducted thousands of children, forcing them into sex slavery and murder. This is just…so…not one of those cases. Let’s imagine, for a moment, that every one of the criticisms of Invisible Children that I’ve outlined above is valid. Let’s say Invisible Children wastes much of the money it raises, it’s exaggerated the atrocities or distorted the timeline of Joseph Kony’s actions, it’s imperialistic in its awareness-raising, it supports a Ugandan army that has its own problems with raping and looting, and it has convinced young people that changing the world is easy, when it is really very hard. Even if all of this is true, nothing is not better than something, in this case. A friend of mine wrote today, “There’s a quote floating around this world that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. But it seems that right now in our world, we would rather see evil triumph than see good men do something.” I couldn’t agree more.

It’s not that I think the basis of our disdain for Invisible Children is that we want to see children suffer at the hands of Joseph Kony. I think it’s that we feel above it all, above the impossible idealism that Invisible Children embodies. We are too world-wise, too afraid of being thought fools to have that kind of hope, so we latch onto anything the internet provides us with that can validate our sense of self-righteous condescension. I submit that many of us adopt the criticisms of the negative articles because of our inherent fear of looking foolish, because of the murderous intent we hold for idealism in our hearts, and not vice versa. We don’t move from reading the articles to being skeptical of movements like Invisible Children. We begin at that place of cynicism and adopt seemingly reasonable explanations for why we feel the way we do.

It is no easy thing to be an idealist. It takes a degree of bravery that I find increasingly rare. I wish every teenager would watch a thirty-minute video and become a social activist. I wish every human had Jason Russell’s activist, idealist heart. And I wish that every cynic could see that theirs is the path of the coward.


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14 responses to “Kony 2012 and the Attack on Idealism

  1. still love reading your thoughts, sarah. thankful for your perspective and that you have shared it with us :)
    -taylor smith

  2. Hannah

    Yes. Exactly my sentiments.

  3. Mephibosheth

    My thoughts exactly. I could not believe some of the criticisms I saw coming out against Kony 2012 because of what seemed to me was just knee-jerk iconoclasm. Thanks for this.

  4. Thank you for blogging on this. As a continually rejected optimist (who understands bitter reality), I could sing your last line: “I wish that every cynic could see that theirs is the path of the coward.”

  5. Connie D'Alessandro

    You have given voice to what so many of us have and feel in our hearts. The real atrocity is the apathy….that evil can just flow and no one will even attempt to get in it’s way. And then to kick the ones who are trying to make a difference in the world. Sidenote….it’s most likely that those behind “visible children” can ONLY get noticed by being anti a huge and important ministry that has touched so many hearts and gotten so many off their seats and into the streets to stop this evil abduction of the innocents. They will fizzle along with their judgements.

  6. There’s definitely something to what you’re saying. Aggressive indifference is ugly. I’m not a cynic or indifferent, though, just cautious (and idealistic!). Idealism is fine and good when clothed in knowledge and responsibility (you’re not giving nearly enough weight to “Something isn’t always better than nothing. Sometimes it’s worse.”). Idealism shouldn’t be squashed or mocked.

    But the kind of “idealism” that finds expression in internet slactivism is dangerous. It’s self-righteous and impotent and its most likely results are either absolutely nothing (leading to cynicism) or the empowering of the military to create piles of corpses.

  7. Robert, part of my perspective on this is that you can’t possibly know that “internet slactivism’s” most likely results are either absolutely nothing or the empowering of the military to create piles of corpses. But you still assert it so confidently, and that’s what I don’t get.

  8. nicole

    OK, I’ve read some more about the issue, including the “Unpacking Kony” post found here: http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2012/03/08/unpacking-kony-2012/. I haven’t visited Visible Children yet. Right now, though, it seems to me that critics of Invisible Children aren’t criticizing idealism but are instead saying that campaigns like this one can have drastically different outcomes than those foreseen by well-meaning twitterers. Whether those outcomes are desired by the organizers remains to be seen. For example, Uganda is embroiled in a frightening conflict over sexuality. Homosexual acts could become punishable by death. Invisible Children would have the US get into bed with a government that supports such policies. Central African anti-gay lobbies have gained support from American Christians. Are those same Christians fueling IC? Anyway, so the issues are much more complex than IC suggests and their solution, awareness+Ugandan military does not suit them.

    Then there’s the issue of imperialism. I’m reminded of my Guaytri Spivak (and many others) when I see White America swooping in to rescue Africa from the Africans. Few things disgust me more ideologically than the white knight perspective. I’m not saying that American aid is inherently malevolent but rather that it should be just that: aid. Auxiliary. Supportive, not directive. And only where it is welcome.

    So what I mean to say is close to what I said on Facebook. It is not better to do nothing, but what IC proposes is simplistic, short sighted and stinks of imperialism. It should be reformed dramatically.

  9. Depends on the issue, of course. I’ve seen internet activism, to name just a few examples, raise awareness of and mobilize people to help the homeless in their community, to stop an evil development project, to help a neighbor who’s house burned down, to help a family with a child with cancer, etc. Those things, though, are all tangible and within the power, purview, knowledge base, geographic reach, and ability of some subset of the internet community to actually do something about. Awareness can lead to and calls one to action.

    God has blessed those whose hearts were broken rather than hardened by learning of the evil of the LRA–you’re absolutely right about that–but liking a movie on Facebook and really, really wanting things to be different in Africa is a different beast than that above. It’s the only healthy response but it’s not directly actionable and very easily manipulated by those with the actual means to do something.

    Just think of the actual results of mass outrage. 9/11 -> War on Terror and invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq; Muslim conquest of Holy Land and blocking of Christian pilgrims -> Crusades; crazy cult in Waco brainwashing people -> government slaughters them; Dutch newspaper publishes foolish cartoon portraying Mohamed -> Christians in other lands are murdered and their homes and churches burned; fundamentalist Mormons in TX living polygamous lives -> government takes the families’ children on trumped up charges; the Acholi people are oppressed by the Ugandan government -> the Lord’s Resistance Army forms.

    Outrage is dangerous and isn’t the same thing as idealism.

  10. Nicole, I agree that it’s a complicated situation. I don’t know much about the Ugandan government, but if it is the best vehicle for stopping Kony, then its being the lesser of two evils doesn’t strike me as a reason to forego joining forces to that end. The US is and has been in bed with lots of governments that commit horrendous atrocities, and the US has plenty of blood on its hands as well. There’s no perfect solution to this. There’s probably not even a great solution to this.

    I find your imperialism argument compelling. What would supportive aid look like in this situation, if it doesn’t look like giving aid to the Ugandan government?

    • nicole

      There are organizations within Uganda and the DRC devoted to ending the horrific abuses perpetrated by Kony and his ilk. Supportive aid might mean opening a dialogue with those groups and asking them what they think are the best practices, what they think is the most positive outcome. Asking what we can do and being willing to do what is asked of us is a good starting point.

  11. Robert,
    I don’t believe outrage, even mass outrage, is somehow inherently dangerous; the proper response to evil is outrage, mass or otherwise. I agree that outrage and idealism are different things, but I think outrage is practically a necessity for living a holy life in a fallen world. If we are not outraged by many of the things around us, we are only half alive.

    Yes, outrage can be manipulated. But that doesn’t mean we should avoid being outraged. It means that in our outrage, we should be wise and discerning. The answer is not avoiding that emotion; it’s directing it where it properly belongs.

  12. And let’s not forget that it was the same type of slactivism that exposed Komen for what it is and got them to change their policies. (And personnel)

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