Saying anything negative about the Invisible Children campaign makes me feel like the big bad wolf. Or, even worse, one of those pedantic people who trolls the internet, leaving negative and misinformed comments on the pages of well-meaning organisations. By nature an optimist, I try fervently to avoid what Stephen Fry refers to as the “stinking, sliding, scuttling, weird entomological creatures that inhabit the floor of the internet.”
Yesterday, like hundreds of thousands of other people around the world, I ‘shared’ the ‘Stop Kony’ video on my Facebook page. I complimented it with a spiel about the failure of the Western world in its moral obligation to humanity.
You know, dramatic, self-righteous stuff.
A few hours later, I removed it.
While I am under no illusions that my sharing of the video or otherwise makes any difference in the grand scheme of things, I felt uncomfortable supporting a cause that I was dubious about. That is not to say I am against the Invisible Children campaign per se, it is undoubtedly a worthy initiative, targeting what is a very serious problem. Joseph Kony has perpetrated gross human rights abuses and child soldiering is an issue that we cannot afford to turn our backs on.
From my first-watching of the ‘Stop Kony’ video, however, I have had several inherent reservations about the campaign.
Cinematically brilliant and emotionally engaging, it’s not surprising that the 30 minute-long video now has Kony trending on Twitter from Singapore to the Dominican Republic. In a nutshell, it encourages people to “make Kony famous” in order to pressure the American government to maintain its commitment to finding the indicted war criminal.
However, by focussing on Kony as an individual perpetrator and “devil incarnate” the video simplifies a far more complex situation. I don’t think the founders of Invisible Children, or the Obama administration are ignorant of this either. By contrasting the ‘bad man’ Kony with the innocence of the film-maker’s young, blond-haired, blue-eyed son, the video provides viewers with an identifiable target—a figurehead to associate with what is actually a massive and systemic problem. Identifying tangible aims and symbolic figureheads is an effective way to raise awareness of wider causes. The Free Mandela campaign, for example (on the other end of the spectrum), was an effective and emotive way of drawing the world’s attention to the injustices of apartheid.
As much as we’d like to deny it, the world does not always distribute aid or resources on the basis of need. Strategic interests and cost-benefit analysis, as well as genuine philanthropy dominate the “global morality market”. Particularly today, in a world where social media can make issues go viral in a matter of hours, sensationalism sells.
Thus, it is understandable that Invisible Children have chosen to focus on the apprehension of Joseph Kony. What people need to remember, however, is that he is just one actor, in a much wider problem. A very significant individual, but just an individual nonetheless. Invisible Children have demonised Kony (admittedly, this is not a hard task), presenting him as evil, egocentric and entirely inhuman. While Kony may well be any or all of these things, attributing the problem of child abduction and soldiering in Uganda as the consequence of one individual’s lack of humanity ignores the very human elements at play in the issue. He is hardly a “sacrificial lamb,” but the LRA is, after all, an organisation and its crimes encompass more than just the inhuman actions of a single ‘evil’ individual. Attributing the blame of the Holocaust (I know, but they pulled the Hitler card first) entirely with Hitler is to ignore the network of individuals, societal prejudices and institutional factors that contributed to the murder of six million Jews. Capturing and arresting Kony is obviously important, but it is by no means a comprehensive solution, or an end to the story.
Furthermore, Invisible Children are in favour of direct military intervention, having provided funding and support to the Ugandan government army (UPDF). Not only have the LRA not been active in Uganda since 2006 (they have now moved into the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic), but the UPDF and other military forces that Invisible Children have supported are far from democratic. The UPDF has been perennially accused of rape and sexual assault and Human Rights Watch has alleged than many former LRA soldiers are recruited into the Ugandan army against their will. The US has a history of working with less than angelic allies (read: Saddam Hussein) who have come back to bite them in the long term. Finally, if the US and the UPDF are engaging in military conflict against the LRA, are they not fighting against many of the child-soldiers that they aim to protect?
For these reasons, I have conflicted feelings about the ‘Stop Kony’ campaign. I don’t want to detract from good work of the organisation but I believe the campaign has several inherent flaws. It has tailored itself to a modern media environment, and has thus condensed a complex issue into a 30 minute video, intended to tug on the heartstrings of the world’s conscience. This is not necessarily a bad thing—it has raised vital awareness about an unfairly ignored issue—but people need to be aware that the story doesn’t end with Kony. Perhaps this is a necessary trade-off for publicity, but viral publicity doesn’t always equal justice.
In short, I’m not condemning Invisible Children or their ‘Stop Kony’ campaign outright. Until recently I was one of many people who, ashamedly, knew virtually nothing about the LRA or its crimes in Uganda. Raising awareness of the atrocities perpetrated by Joseph Kony is, of course, important. But it is necessary to consider the wider issues. Could funds be directed toward a more beneficial cause for Ugandans than apprehending a middle-aged war criminal? Will military intervention cause more conflict? If you capture Kony, what next? Would funds not be better directed toward positive campaigns, such as re-integrating former child-soldiers into society?
I’m not saying you shouldn’t support Invisible Children. I don’t want to be a hater. You should never abandon a cause because the messenger is not perfect. But I’m concerned that the organisation is concentrating on the righting the wrong wrongs. I'm concerned that it is commodifying the “white man’s burden” for the social media age. I encourage you to make you own decision about the ‘Stop Kony’ campaign but be wary of Facebook statuses that claim that Invisible Children are angels of humanity, seeking justice against the devil on earth.