Kony2012 and the Dangers of Magical Thinking
It's likely that you've heard about the new viral video from Invisible Children.
It breaks all the rules. It's way too long. It's gaining millions of views at an exponential rate that's unheard of. It's from an organization that is mostly unknown. And it's attempting a global political action entirely through social pressure and word of mouth.
I've already heard several prominent national activists proclaim that this is a game changer for advocacy efforts.
This video has some remarkable story-telling and takes advantage of audio-visual media to maximize emotional impact and basic understanding of a complex issue. It's a great viral video, maybe even a landmark one, because of its length and clarity.
But calling this remarkable video a "gamechanger" for advocacy efforts is a stretch.
Advocacy, from where I'm standing, is enacting a political strategy to make concrete changes in people's lives and shift the relations of power. Invisible Children has definitely taken the "concrete changes in people's lives" bit to heart in an admirable way, but I don't believe this campaign, or Invisible Children's work overall, has to do with shifting relations of power or any sort of coherent political strategy.
What's always been notable about the Invisible Children activities is the almost willfully solipsistic, bourgeois, US American point of view and complete lack of understanding of political or historical process. What's notable about this video is that it does several things so well that the warped analysis and perspective become sort of besides the point.
Invisible Children is an outsized embodiment of the moral outrage and repressed self-doubt expressed by every white American 3rd grader when they learn about slavery and the civil war. That's wrong! That's evil! I can't believe that's happening! (We did it?) We must speak out against it!
The early clip used in the video at hand of the pretty, young white men absolutely appalled that children are being abducted and exclaiming, "If this happened in America even once, it would be on the cover of Newsweek!" presents the adorably-naive worldview of these liberal do-gooders in it's most distilled form. They can't understand why this is happening, and they can't believe we don't have the power to stop it. They aren't situating this in narratives of colonization, ethnic conflict, economic exploitation and global marginalization, they're situating it in the liberal ideal of all people are equal and have rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is an admirable set of ethics, but a pathetically out of touch worldview.
This worldview precludes the ability to plan effective political strategy, a plan of action regarding relations of power.
And relations of power is that last thing I'll harp on here - Kony is a bad dude. A really, really bad dude on the level of Hitler and Pol Pot and all of the other hyperbolic favorites. And while taking him down does undeniably change the relations of power in Uganda and make a huge, concrete change in the lives of Ugandan young people, it's also only half of change. Out with the old is great when the old is as bad as this dude, but what new are we ushering in? What power are we taking him down with? The Ugandan army? Is that good? How do we know? What's that army's relationship to Ugandan youth?
I don't mean to excuse inaction, just to point out the incomplete nature of the action at hand and our need to think not just about what we're getting rid of, but how we're replacing it.
And what power are we using do displace this mass-murdering mad-man? Ah, the great liberal power of the collective voice. We're speaking truth to power, showing everyone that this is the right thing to do, and trusting that the ethical clarity of vision will guide our actions successfully. Of course, it's not that simple. Invisible Children is actually targeting powerful people here to ask them to leverage systems of international law and state military force to displace this war criminal. But it's doing so through purely social means, asking everyone to get involved, raise awareness, and put up posters for change. It doesn't alter the relations of power between global north and global south that created the conditions that allowed Kony's rise to power. It doesn't ask people to become politically active through existing institutions. It's about getting people to ask those currently in power if they would please do the right thing and take down the most egregious example of the abuse of power, rather than fighting to change the outcomes of power that precipitated this tragedy in the first place. Does this help us prevent others like Kony from rising to power or help us takedown the many many many other people who do things similar to the way Kony does on a different scale? No.
That sounds like pretty shitty power analysis to me.
So, yes, this is a great viral video. Is it a new model for advocacy? I certainly hope not.
Update: Since this article was published, there has been an explosion of criticism of the Invisible Children video, some with great substantial analysis of the situation in Uganda. Here are some highlights: [Visible Children], [Wrong in Rights], [Al-Jazeera], [Innovate Africa], [Washington Post]
Update 2: Invisible Children Responds: http://s3.amazonaws.com/www.invisiblechildren.com/critiques.html
Sam Menefee-Libey is the LGBTQ Advocate with Campus Progress.