Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Cynic's Progress or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love #stopkony

Joseph Kony is now famous: if you haven't heard of him, then you and I clearly don't travel in the same circles. And I'm not sure what circles you hang in, actually, since the half-hour YouTube video that made him famous now has over 76,000,000 views since it was posted on March 5th. (By comparison, an American Idol episode this season gets about 18 million views.)

I actually was introduced to the phenomenon in a work capacity: at Google, a group of us catalogue some of the trending videos on YouTube as part of a weekly summary email, and Invisible' Children's video shot straight to the top. A bunch of people in the office were buzzing about it, and of course saying how awful the situation in Uganda was and how they had already ordered their awareness kits.

I don't know what awful thing this says about me, but every neuron in my brain started firing the same message, "BULLSHIT!" So I watched (ok, skimmed) the video, and saw that the big plan was to plaster a bunch of posters all over the country ("70% of these things are going to be hung in Williamsburg", my terrible brain whispered to me) and, by bringing awareness to the issue, help finally track down Kony in 2012.

So, cynical bastard that I am, I went looking for evidence that this campaign was, in fact, some poorly thought out hipster crap. And it wasn't hard to find. There's even an entire blog that popped up to criticize the campaign. As the writer puts it:
Still, the bulk of Invisible Children’s spending isn’t on supporting African militias, but on awareness and filmmaking. Which can be great, except that Foreign Affairs has claimed that Invisible Children (among others) “manipulates facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony — a brutal man, to be sure — as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil.” He’s certainly evil, but exaggeration and manipulation to capture the public eye is unproductive, unprofessional and dishonest.
They've even caught some flack for posing with the guns of one of the groups fighting Kony, and in general behaving like wealthy white people parachuting in to solve Africa's problems. (As a random aside, if I'm doing humanitarian work that brings me in contact with a militia, and they'll let me pose with their RPG, I'm taking that picture every time. You're telling me you're not? I call shenanigans.)

Before I go on, because I feel myself getting into the weeds here, and I have about twenty other links I could share, let me refocus myself by saying this post is not, primarily, about whether Invisible Children are a good and noble organization. What it is about, primarily, is why I would react the way I did, and why some people are so willing to embrace a cause like this uncynically while others are so quick to point out the flaws and potential downsides.

My short answer is that some of us embrace (and are often crippled by) complexity. We want to think things through, look at all the angles and - most importantly - not get caught up in the crowd. But what we end up doing is identifying with the fellow "sophisticates" who also see through the simplistic story that our peers are so passionate about. Let's be honest, this is more about our identity than the rightness or wrongness of the cause in question. For example, check out this post: it all but screams, "I'm informed, I don't just go along with the crowd, respect my intellect!"

I was doing the same damned thing, I realized. And I realized that it was OK not to love everything about what Invisible Children was doing and still have respect for their passion and their skill in bringing needed attention to an obscure cause. I was inspired by Chris Blattman, who was hating on Invisible Children before it was cool, with this post three years ago:
The new IC film clip feels much the same, laced with more macho bravado. The movie feels like it’s about the filmmakers, and not the cause. There might be something to the argument that American teenagers are more likely to relate to an issue through the eyes of a peer. That’s the argument that was made after the first film. It’s not entirely convincing, especially given the distinctly non-teenage political influence IC now has. The cavalier first film did the trick. Maybe now it’s time to start acting like grownups.
This post, cited by many of Invisible Children's present-day critics, combines an aesthetic critique (do they really have to express their cause through t-shirts?) and a worry about the unintended consequences of unleashing poorly informed activism on the world. Well, now that the commentariat has picked up on this complaint, Blattman seems to have had a qualified change of heart:
To give credit where it is due, scratch beneath the surface, and Invisible Children take a more nuanced view than they get credit for (or showcase). Their self-defense is here, and it’s a reasonable one. Also, my (admittedly limited) experience with their programs on the ground is that they are better than the average non-profit in northern Uganda. The bracelets are silly, but you could do worse than to support their field programs.
So, as my parents would say when I screwed up, what can we learn from this? Well, first, that we shouldn't let our predispositions or our aesthetic judgments cloud our view of what a person or group is trying to accomplish when they're out there advocating for a cause. We should judge whether their cause is just and whether they are pursuing it in a supportable way. In this case, I think the words of Michael Gerson are wise:
The criticism is sometimes made of advocacy groups – on Darfur, or conflict minerals, or the LRA – that they oversimplify complex issues. This charge is often leveled by foreign policy experts who multiply complexity for a living. One gets the impression they would rather ignore meddling idealists and write their white papers in peace. But experts and advocates both have important roles. The views of experts should inform the policies of public officials. But advocates help to push officials toward decision and action.  
Second, that what we think of as sophistication is often so much intellectual preening. What good are the Invisible Children critics doing at this point? They aren't putting the #stopkony genie back in its bottle. Unless Invisible Children is misusing funds (a charge that is hinted at but not actually leveled or supported), anything they do to help bring Joseph Kony to justice is a good thing. And while you can argue that there are more worthy causes or better ways to help the people affected by Kony's LRA, it is unfair to expect Invisible Children to care about the cause you care about or do things the way you would do them.

Third, this campaign laid out a blueprint for how to engage a groundswell of support for a cause that a lot of people can learn from. They told a simple, powerful story and gave their viewers some simple actions they could take after hearing the story to lend their support and feel like they did something. Now, I know a lot of people think the Invisible Children's version of the Kony story is too simple, but that's a really unfair criticism. The simplifications they made in telling their story are not lies, they are simplifications made in the interest of telling a clear and compelling story. If you want to inspire people, that's critical.

In the end, I will remember Joseph Kony's name for a long time. If writing a letter to my congressman can help keep the pressure on to bring him to justice, I'll do that. Millions of people have gotten that message on YouTube, instead of watching another cat video. I'm still a cynic, still a bit of a snob, but I nevertheless salute Invisible Children for their creativity and dedication. Let's hope they succeed, and 2012 is the last year the world has to worry about Joseph Kony.

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