These notes were taken at a “#Kony2012 Discussion Evening” organized by the ‘International Development Society’ at the University of York, UK on 15th March 2012. At the risk of mis-quoting the speakers, I have simply written my notes into an narrative which both Audra and Lars have read and commented that this article captures their standpoints accurately. It includes arguments presented in the speakers’ presentations as well as their answers to some follow up questions. The purpose of this article is simply to continue the discussion of this campaign.
Audra Mitchell (Politics Department, University of York, UK)
The Kony2012 campaign has been questioned over it’s credibility (for example, what they spend money on or whether the charity are ‘in it for the right reasons’). But are these criticisms of credibility actually detracting away from an important issue? Should we not be focusing on the content of the campaign rather than pitching ourselves against the charity’s processes?
The campaign definitely has its flaws. For example, it takes Joseph Kony completely out of context, portraying the situation in a post-9/11, ‘good guy vs. bad guy’, ‘Star Wars’-style narrative which is grossly over-simplified. It fixates on Kony despite the fact that the LRA has survived for 30 years, split into many factions and has a large and complex chain of command. In other words, getting Kony is unlikely to dissolve the LRA.
There are ethical issues with the campaign. For example, because the campaign is so ‘noisy’ it may actually get over-represented when compared with other worthy causes leading to a disproportionate expenditure of scarce political and economic capital.
There are also several moral questions. Does making Kony internationally famous send the message that, if someone wants to achieve notoriety, they should become like him? Is it right that Jason Russel can become a cult figure off the back of directing and starring in the video? Will this campaign create activism or will it be a case of ‘reactivism’ (where all the talk doesn’t actually translate into action)? Awareness doesn’t necessarily mean action and commitment derived through an emotional campaign may not create deep involvement in the cause.
We could use #Kony2012’s flaws to spark public debate and progress towards actually solving the issue.
But could it be that, at the moment, we are avoiding the difficult questions raised by the campaign in talking about its flawed process rather than its content? Could it be said that the medium is compromising the message?
We could use #Kony2012’s flaws to spark public debate and progress towards actually solving the issue. By moving beyond ‘us vs. them’ when thinking about Invisible Children and instead acting on the issues it raises.
Lars Waldorf (Centre for Applied Human Rights, University of York, UK)
The publicity achieved by #Kony2012 is incredibly impressive; but should Kony currently be a human rights priority? The question that is worth asking is: why Kony and why now?
The truth is that Kony has public appeal. He is an easy target for us to hate: he commits crimes against children, he has no coherent ideology or political project and he has recently lost some of his grassroots support. Kony is a natural enemy for a human rights campaign.
Human rights campaigns, to some extent, have to simplify the issues to make them presentable; but there is always a risk of oversimplifying. Thinking Kony is an easy target is a big mistake. And by setting a deadline (the end of 2012) there is a risk that the expectation has been set too high which might lead to disillusionment when he isn’t caught.
However, #Kony2012 is creative and interesting because it chooses to put the focus on Kony rather than his victims. The campaign clearly appeals on a ‘get the bad guy’ level rather than traditional emotional charity campaigns. People are tired of the ‘poor African child’ images and have become desensitized to them and therefore they are no longer effective in creating action.
This campaign is an experiment in going beyond the manipulation of pity, and if it spurs people to act then it can only be a good thing.
But does this approach risk detracting attention away from the victims? The target audience is clearly the global north. And as we have seen by the reaction in Uganda, this film does not speak to or for the people there. Playing the ‘white man’s burden’ card may be useful in accomplishing goals, but it reinforces stereotypes that are not helpful.
There is an ethical duty for human rights activists to be true to the people’s stories they are telling, but would it have been less effective if it had been? This campaign is an experiment in going beyond the manipulation of pity, and if it spurs people to act then it can only be a good thing. There is value in keeping pressure on political leaders to sustain intervention and creating ‘noise’, but the question is whether this awareness can be transformed into action and empowerment.