- Vancouver, British Columbia - Unless you've been hiding under a rock or been vacationing for the past week, you've likely seen links insisting that you watch a YouTube video entitled KONY12 or something to that effect. Twitter has been abuzz the past few days with hashtags like #MakeKonyFamous or #stopkony being among the biggest trenders. Typically, hashtags may last for about a day when they first make the trend list, but not this movement trying to inform you about some guy named Kony. The short film has been created by the founders of Invisible Children, who wanted to bring attention to the actions of the Lord's Resistance Army, headed by Joseph Kony, involving using child soldiers. After doing that, the group wanted to spur enough social action to bring about Joseph Kony's arrest. I first heard about Invisible Children four or five years ago, when a friend of mine learned about what they were doing and felt compelled to share what he had found out. This friend felt his whole life's calling shifting towards intervening in the issue. He wanted to play a part in bringing an end to the Lord's Resistance Army's use of children in war, while also bringing Kony to justice. What was most significant about my friend's response was that he was a pretty politically uninvolved guy in terms of taking a stand with causes. He had his own things as a young guy that he kept himself busy with in Canada, but beyond North America, there wasn't a significant level of concern. Bring in knowledge about the atrocities of the past thirty years in Uganda and he felt spurred to take action. That to me is very significant and praiseworthy.
Nevertheless, I see some concerning things about what has transpired in the days that have followed the release of the KONY12 film. My concern is not the film or the film's message, nor is it pertaining to any doubts that some have regarding the financials of the Invisible Children movement. There are enough opinions on that, making me feel like I don't have anything more to contribute. What is concerning to me is the response to the film. One of the things that Social Media is great with is enabling people to share media effortlessly. You don't have to really know anything about how computers work beyond clicking a SHARE button, since the minds behind Facebook and Twitter have made it so easy for us. And while I think it is amazing how quickly we as a society can bring awareness to a social issue or problem through social media now, I also can't help but feel some level of concern. Again, my concern is not with Invisible Children, but with the response of those who have tried to "do their part" by simply sharing the video on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or Pinterest. It makes them feel like they are agents of social change by simply sharing something on their personal page, which is not such a bad thing, but when that is all that happens, it is discouraging and limited in impact.
Over the past few years, we've seen a variety of social media campaigns, which have been very successful in terms of bringing awareness to issues, but that was pretty much all that resulted. I remember the most painful ones were supposedly bringing attention to Breast Cancer Awareness month and also the one about child abuse. There were several pertaining to Breast Cancer awareness, such as the Facebook meme, where women wrote their statuses something like "I like it on the table," which was supposed to be edgy and provocative, making even the most sexless, virginal woman sound like she was a little kinky. It raised a few eyebrows certainly, but in the end, the suggestive status merely represented where they liked to keep their purses. Or who could forget the numerous Facebook status updates whereby women would post something like, "I'm 8 weeks and I'm craving Twizzlers!" Naturally, such language would suggest that said woman was expecting a child and speaking of her bizarre pregnant cravings. Nah, the weeks merely represented the month of her birth and the food the day of the month on which she was born. Allegedly, this was supposed to bring awareness to.....breast cancer? Really? And then finally, many women also simply posted status updates involving a colour and a wink. What did this represent? It was the colour of their bra, which again, oddly enough, was supposed to bring attention to breast cancer awareness. Each of these memes were meant to be provocative and were praised by some for bringing attention to the issues behind them, but beyond a simple, relatively minimalistic contribution, it really did not do much in the end.
We saw this equally useless tactic being engaged a few years back when people started posting a picture of their favourite childhood television program on their Facebook profiles, because supposedly, this was going to make a significant change towards combating child abuse. It moved very few people to get involved with any organizations like the Kids Help Line, or anything like that. Yet it left its participants feeling like they had contributed to a movement. Remember a few years ago on Facebook when people began changing their profile pictures to an image of someone famous who resembled them? It was pretty amusing, but the sad thing is the doppelganger meme had about as much of a cultural impact as any of the breast cancer or child abuse awareness memes did. They provided an individual with the sense that they have contributed to the public discourse without really contributing anything at all to the resolution of a problem.
In the same way with the response to Invisible Children's film, I have concerns that many feel satisfied that they have contributed to social progress in terms of ending the practice of utilising child soldiers, but they haven't beyond simply making their circle of friends aware of the practice. Don't get me wrong, awareness is a good thing. Visibility brings credibility to any issue rather than leaving it in the realm of being a questionable accusation without much evidence against one group or person. In this aspect, Invisible Children has been very successful and they should be commended for their Social Media coup. My hope is that a newly aware population does not rest on its laurels, thinking it has done a significant thing to end human trafficking and the use of child soldiers through simply sharing a video on Facebook or Twitter. It is not enough. We do not need any more slacktivists. The world needs people who fight injustice actively and bring about its end. Educating yourself more about a cause is important. Those who are the true game changers are the ones who seek new ways to get involved or make a difference. We saw this in the case of moustache Movember. During the month of November, men would go without shaving and grow moustaches to raise awareness about prostrate cancer. Many men embraced it by growing a moustache, thinking it would be enough to stand in arms with other men to end prostrate cancer, but last year, we saw men embrace the opportunity to really do something more. The level of organization that resulted was quite surprising. It became a fundraising event that any guy could take a part of, whether he was a celebrity or a normal Joe. In total, $120,000,000, by more than 885,000 participants worldwide, was raised for prostrate cancer research.
The public response to the KONY12 film was overwhelmingly positive in the first day of its release, but by the second day, I began to see a markedly negative response to the film. This was disturbing on a number of levels, because I feel like very few people are talking about KONY12 from a balanced, unemotional perspective. I understand that within most of us, there is something that makes us cautious about embracing something that is newly popular. It is the same thing that makes many people hate Justin Bieber without having ever heard a single song by him. I'll admit it, as a teenage boy, I hated the Backstreet Boys and N'Sync without knowing much about them. Girls everywhere loved them. I self-righteously felt like it made me a better person to hate them. In the same way when Pogs, Beanie Babies, or Pokemon came out, I refused to let myself get interested in them. I was convinced it was a fad that would pass quickly. I wasn't going to allow myself to be duped by a short-term furor. And while I am glad that I saved my money, I'll be the first to admit that my primary motivation in dismissing these fads was to try to be cool by rejecting what everyone else thought was cool. Some might call this the indie effect, but now we have a newer movement that rejects what the mainstream may deem indie: hipsters.
In the same way, I see a nauseating level of self-righteousness present on social media in response to the KONY12 film. I can't tell you how many Facebook or Twitter posts I've seen people post claiming that people are a bunch of sheep for merely re-posting a link to a YouTube video without doing any research into the cause. Yet, these same people, while viewing themselves to be more enlightened, all seem to be posting the same critiques and accusations of Invisible Children that their hipster friends have also posted on Facebook and Twitter without having done research themselves. Simply re-posting a critical article that one of your cool friends posted isn't doing your research, rather it makes the one who condemns the "sheep" no greater than the sheep themselves.
What I find bewildering about this response is that these sanctimonious individuals all feel like they are providing a good to society by acting as vanguards against society being duped. Looking at things with a critical attitude is certainly essential, since it allows for the potential of taking someone else's new idea and improving upon it if it is any good. However, maintaining a consistently negative bent towards anything new or progressive is not enlightened thinking but merely self-righteous, if not somewhat Pharisee-like. When this new prophet, Jesus, came out of Bethlehem and challenged the established religious order, the Pharisees denounced him as a fool, while trying to elevate themselves as enlightened, holy individuals. I get it, we don't want to get fooled. The best part about the Pharisees though was that Jesus was methodical in revealing them for who they were. He drew attention to their empty self-righteousness and showed them to be a religious sham. Jesus characterized the Pharisees as making great efforts for everyone to see their "holiness" by making public and praising their own greatness, while smugly dismissing any, like Jesus, who might challenge the established order by doing things differently, or demand new action, whether it be changing the way we look at the poor or the rejected.
This Pharisee-like attitude is not constructive, but instead seeks to maintain a relatively low common denominator across society. Allow me to explain: when we see others doing great things and accomplishing much with their lives, it can often result in two responses. One, it can likewise motivate us to become agents of change and thereby inspire us to be active; or two, it can make one feel threatened. Why? Because in our own subconscious state, we cannot help but measure ourselves against each other and when we see someone doing something deemed praiseworthy, it can make us look and feel like less of a person. For some people, this can result in a wholly negative and critical attitude towards those who would try to do some good, because naturally, it elevates them amongst a crowd of people. If we want to look good and feel good about ourselves in our complacency, a natural response is to confront any who would challenge our status quo of the lowest common denominator regarding what constitutes a good person. We do not like being told what to do, so when someone becomes politically or religiously active and tries to tell others how they might improve their lives whether it be through civic or pious service, we feel threatened.
There have been a number of criticisms about Invisible Children, and quite honestly, I can't be relied upon as an educated voice on the matter, since I don't know all the facts about their financials, history, or goals, but what I can share is based on my own experience, which in some ways may shed some light on the experience of the young people involved in Invisible Children. Some of the critical articles about the movement have dismissed it as nothing more than a bunch of ignorant young white Christian males trying to solve complex problems in a land that they know absolutely nothing about in terms of its history and its culture. I've also heard people say that Invisible Children has tried to simplify the problem, but let's be honest here. There is a reason why when academics write discourses on issues or conflicts around the world, it is very rare that their papers get significant traction within the masses. It isn't because the masses are stupid or dumb, but they don't get paid to consider the various theories pertaining to peace and conflict resolution. There is a reason why getting a doctorate takes time. To organize a social media campaign of this extent requires a simple message, which is easy to understand and disseminate. If it is neither of these, then its chances of gaining a significant audience are greatly diminished, if not non-existent. So while I appreciate that the solutions of Invisible Children may lack an all-encompassing solution to all the key factors of the problem, it has been very successful with starting a conversation about an issue that most people were too busy to understand or research on their own. For this, the movement is to be praised.
Secondly, in my final year of high school, I went with a team from my school to Yepocapa, Guatemala. Our mission was to help teach in an elementary school for a week while also building a new classroom for the school. The trip itself cost me and my donors about $1,800 for the flight, accommodations, food, transportation, and donations to the community. When I think back to my trip, I'm not sure that the trip really left a lasting legacy on the people there. I remember one speaker deriding these "humanitarian" trips to such countries as a waste of money and downright stupid. In the mind of the speaker, he argued that the money spent on flying and staying there could be far better spent. In my trip's case, rather than having a bunch poorly skilled teenagers trying to put together a classroom in seven days, my $1,800 trip could've paid for a local workforce to build the classroom and contribute to the local economy. When one considers that there was a group of 12 teenagers who went, we could've put together a couple of more schoolrooms since each of us paid the same amount. I would concede this point to a certain extent. But what is worse? Sending your kids on a vacation to Hawaii or Florida for an indulgent vacation, or sending them to a remote part of the world where they can try to make a contribution to an impoverished community, albeit not entirely long lasting? These young people trying to make a difference with Invisible Children is not a bad thing, even if their attempts may potentially be misguided.
Personally, I can say that my trip to Guatemala was an extremely important experience in my life, since my worldview was expanded beyond the borders of my own city. I have no illusions about it being life changing for the Guatemalans that I met; it wasn't. Nevertheless, I encountered a community that was filled with love even if there was the understanding that we'd likely never meet again. For reasons that I still don't particularly understand, individuals would thank us for coming to see them and spending time with them. My trip to Guatemala, in hindsight, was a little selfish on my part, since in reality, I gained more from it than the local villagers in Yepocapa. And honestly, I'm not sure that this is inherently a bad thing, because we bemoan so often how narcissistic and disconnected our teenagers are today, since they are continually connected to some electronic instrument, whether it is their cellphone, tablet, or computer. When compared to a self-indulgent vacation of luxury and excess, these trips don't appear so abhorrent. With that said, I don't pretend that I am an expert on the economic state of Guatemala, nor would I make a documentary on the issues facing Guatemalan people. The Guatemalans I did meet, however, shared a part of their lives with me, and I will never forget that. Invisible Children's goal would seem to shed light on an ugly part of Uganda's history and ensuring that it never happens again by whatever utilising whatever clout the international community has over the continent.
And finally, there is one more contention, which is somewhat worrisome. Some critics have lashed out again Invisible Children by drawing attention to alleged financial irregularities and mismanagement. It is amusing, because while on one hand, these critics are trying to point out that there are far more worthy international organizations active, they also bring up the opinions of African bloggers who argue that the last thing Africa needs is more money thrown at it, since foreign aid makes up far too much of the African economy, and prevents it from ever become self-sufficient and being able to police itself. There is wisdom in considering the opinions of the people that are having money thrown at them and whether it is being effective, but when I hear Western critics voicing both of these opinions, it feels like little more than one trying to talk out of both sides of his mouth. Which is it? Are there international aid groups that we should donate to, or not? As stated earlier, there is great value in being critical about what we are being told, but one who calls himself a critic and points out the flaws of another's proposed solution, yet fails to provide any credible or achievable solutions of his own, is not entirely helpful.
If, however, the illuminated issue is argued to not even be a problem by naysayers, then this is something else. Critics of Invisible Children have argued that they are wasting their time, because Joseph Kony is no longer in Uganda, but has retreated to Congo. Furthermore, they argue that the use of child soldiers has been so diminished compared to what it once was that it is no longer a concern, since the Lord's Resistance Army is on the run. This may all be true, but the problem with this thinking is that it isolates the state of war to its duration. War leaves a terrible legacy on the lives of far too many, whether it is losing a loved one, losing a limb, or losing your home. These are the physical tolls, but rarely is the emotional toll counted. As stated earlier, I have not viewed KONY12, but in the previous videos I've seen by Invisible Children, I was moved by the emotional trauma experienced by former child soldiers, who were forced to kill their best friends. The choice was theirs, either they kill their best friend, or their best friend would be forced to kill them. Or when this choice was given in relation to a family member. One does not simply return to normal civilized society after such a traumatic event without being emotionally branded; it leaves a mark. Child soldiers may not be recruited in the same numbers that they once were or at all, but what is left behind is a legacy: a generation comprised of many without parents, without friends, and without family. The war of violence may be over, but the battle to rebuild broken souls still remains. There is work to be done. Whether it is bringing in foreign professionals, or empowering local Ugandans with the tools to heal their community, that is something that should be discussed.
What we've seen in the response to the KONY12 social media project has been an entirely fascinating thing to see, while also being very revealing about people's attitudes towards social justice and change. We see all too clearly human nature making its presence being felt in the debate around KONY12 with some feeling spurred to act and others becoming more entrenched and feeling justified in their inaction.
I'd rather stand for something than stand against something. Do something rather than do nothing. Choose action and passion over inaction and apathy. Information over ignorance." - Danny Jones