I’ve been thinking about the Invisible Children campaign and their most recent KONY 2012 video. There are claims being made all over the place about how Invisible Children is either financially responsible or irresponsible, whether they help fund the corrupt Ugandan military or not, and whether the campaign is, in fact, a legitimate avenue for positive change in Central and East Africa. I am not going to address these claims directly, but rather think about what it means to be an activist and to advocate for political change in a highly complex situation that you are not directly a part of.
One of my primary concerns regarding specific issues of ethics like this is whether I am well-informed enough to make a measured, morally justifiable response or not. A common criticism (that I endorse) about the Invisible Children campaign is that they are not a balanced or even reliable source of information. They paint the conflict in Central and East Africa as one-dimensional: there is a bad man and you can help stop him doing bad things. Go out and do something. They explicitly want people in the United States to poster their cities and pressure the government to take action in a part of the world that almost none of them have been to or have any direct knowledge of. The good intentions are clear, but I am strongly opposed to isolating the moral worth of an action to its intentions and saying nothing of the effects. As I understand it, the area that Kony and the LRA operates in is highly sensitive and potential responses to direct military action against Kony could do much more harm than good. (Such military action is, by the way, what Invisible Children supports). I can’t pretend to fully comprehend the wars going on in Central and East Africa, but I do know that by answering Invisible Children’s call to duty, many people are (likely unknowingly) advocating for what could be a devastating move in a dangerously unstable region. This is why I see the Invisible Children campaign’s call to action as potentially harmful and morally irresponsible.
But let’s say that there was no call for military intervention. Let’s say that they simply wanted to make people aware of an issue that had affected them emotionally, and they are not heroically shouldering the white man’s burden to solve all the problems in Africa. Let’s assume the intent is purely raising awareness for its own sake. I’m not one to downplay the importance of knowing what’s going on in the world. In fact, I think it’s crucial to one’s moral character to be politically conscious and up to date on current events. In light of this bandwagon, then, I would have to ask: Why Kony? Why are we focusing so heavily (over 32,000,000 views for a video about Kony and the LRA in four days) on someone who plays a relatively small role in a massive conflict with many complex and moving parts? Why do we temporarily repurpose ourselves to make Kony known around the world? What is it about him and the LRA, specifically, that makes them of the utmost importance to our nations’ ethical agendas when there are baffling atrocities being committed in many other places on this planet, many of which are as equally appalling as Kony’s use of child soldiers? In the scope of all this, the Kony 2012 movement seems like a rather arbitrary cause to put one’s weight behind.
I get that Kony deserves to be condemned in strongest possible terms. But if we have a moral obligation to raise awareness about what is happening in the world, don’t we also have an obligation to actually understand the issues we are getting fired up about and realize that things like this cannot be solved as a series of isolated cases? Isn’t it imperative—now that Kony is about as famous as any minor warlord can expect to be—that we focus on other people in his game that are having a bigger impact and try to figure out how to solve this multi-faceted issue in tandem? What I see is a knee jerk reaction to propaganda that plays on peoples’ altruistic fantasies of “making a difference” in the world. But knowledge is paralyzing. The more you learn about almost any issue of this magnitude, the more complex it becomes and the more moral grey areas there are to sketch out. I want my emotional connectivity to other people on this planet to matter in some way as much as the next person, and I want to feel that I am promoting the well being of others, but I refuse to act without proper knowledge of the possibilities those actions might precipitate.
And I’ll admit, the greatest good I feel that I am getting out of this whole frenzy is having something to think about as I go on with my day. I try very hard not to be a dogmatic person, as I think that is the root of many of our problems. But what I see in a movement like this is a reflection of some of our encultured values—namely, convenience. Invisible Children presents change as something readily available and all we need to do is spend a weekend to do our part towards enacting justice. This method of procuring a heightened sense of morality is, in my view, entirely unjustified. On top of this, I find an odd and unsettling narcissism present in the whole thing. I won’t deny my own occasional narcissistic tendencies, but there is a sentimental and exploitative nature in this campaign that irks whatever sense of humility I may have. Pity is a sensitive subject for those on the receiving end, and it seems to me that this campaign is directing a tidal wave of it at Uganda and surrounding territories, and then collecting brownie points for the effort. I am not the kind of person who believes that altruism doesn’t exist in the world—I think altruism is very real and it is not difficult for me to imagine people advocating for someone other than themselves—but I do not get that vibe here in the least. It seems to me like we are trying to benefit from the privation of a stereotyped people, consuming their poverty and destitution for our own moral profits, and this is something I refuse to participate in.