There has been SO much talk about this KONY 2012 thingamajig, and I feel (surprisingly) compelled to participate in the conversation. I've enjoyed reading articles and watching videos of all the back-and-forth, and the (sometimes nasty) criticism of the video and the Invisible Children organization and it's all caused me to revisit ideas of my own that have been sort of dormant for a while. I guess it's not very often that I chat about the plight of African children.
I watched the video in its entirety. I shared it on my Facebook page. Then I went to the kitchen to start dinner.
I'm not embarrassed or ashamed to say that I went right back to what I was doing after watching the video, I did not shed a tear, nor did I think, even for a second, about getting one of those kits. I've seen such videos before and I agree with people who criticize them as emotionally manipulative and essentially meaningless. But, I had never heard of Joseph Kony until I watched the video, and the day after watching the video I felt compelled to read more about the situation in Africa. The video at least did that, and that counts for something I think.
Waaay back when I was a student at Auburn and still admittedly a little angry at the world, I remember all the Invisible Children hoopla on campus and I remember feeling very irritated about it. I also remember feeling very irritated about GAP's very loud RED campaign against AIDS in Africa. Remember all that? Whatever happened with those shirts? I was irritated that it had become so hip and trendy to talk about saving children in Africa. I was irritated that I was made to feel guilty for wanting a new pair of $60 jeans when some people had no clean water. And meanwhile, what about the people in our own city or country who need our help? What about American children who have no place safe to go and don't have any food to eat? Who's wearing T-Shirts for them? I remember feeling that part of the reason that people are so eager to jump on the Africa bandwagon is because there is a certain sense of glamour to it, ya know? It makes something like spending every Tuesday at a soup kitchen seem terribly mundane. Also, it's abstract. Most people who buy the shirt or wear the bracelet, or even send money, don't actually get their hands dirty in really making a tangible difference. And that's okay! Money is certainly useful. But, people get their emotional high, which often fizzles out quickly, and then what? Has any difference really been made?
I agree with most of the intelligent, matter-of-fact criticism of the video. Some critics, though, are making equally sensational and sometimes downright mean statements about the video, the guys who made it, and the whole Invisible Children organization. To those crazies, I'd like to say, "You're obnoxious assholes. Cut the guys some slack. They're trying to do something good here." But I think the more interesting discussion lies in these issue of "awareness" as an end in itself and the "white man's burden" or "savior complex." Raising awareness is something we love to do. It makes us feel good. It gives us a reason to have fun events and parties. And we think it's important. But is it, really? I'm not sure that it is. This article from The Atlantic sums it up nicely, I think:
"The problem is that these campaigns mobilize generalized concern -- a demand to do something. That isn't enough to counterbalance the costs of interventions, because Americans' heartlessness or apathy was never the biggest problem. Taking tough action against groups, like the LRA, that are willing to commit mass atrocities will inevitably turn messy. Soldiers will be killed, sometimes horribly. (Think Somalia.) Military advice and training to the local forces attempting to suppress atrocities can have terrible unforeseen consequences...
The t-shirts, posters, and wristbands of awareness campaigns like Invisible Children's do not mention that death and failure often lie along the road to permanent solutions, nor that the simplest "solutions" are often the worst. (In fairness, you try fitting that on a bracelet.) Instead, they shift the goal from complicated and messy efforts at political resolution to something more palatable and less controversial: ever more awareness.
By making it an end in and of itself, awareness stands in for, and maybe even displaces, specific solutions to these very complicated problems. Campaigns that focus on bracelets and social media absorb resources that could go toward more effective advocacy, and take up rhetorical space that could be used to develop more effective advocacy...
For all the excitement around awareness as an end in itself, one could be forgiven for forming the impression that there might be a "Stop Atrocity" button blanketed in dust in the basement of the White House, awaiting the moment when the tide of awareness reaches the Oval Office...
Treating awareness as a goal in and of itself risks compassion fatigue -- most people only have so much time and energy to devote to far-away causes -- and ultimately squanders political momentum that could be used to push for effective solutions. Actually stopping atrocities would require sustained effort, as well as significant dedication of time and resources that the U.S. is, at the moment, ill-prepared and unwilling to allocate. It would also require a decision on whether we are willing to risk American lives in places where we have no obvious political or economic interests, and just how much money it is appropriate to spend on humanitarian crises overseas when 3 out of 10 children in our nation's capital live at or below the poverty line. The genuine difficulty of those questions can't be eased by sharing a YouTube video or putting up posters..."
I'm not entirely sure that we should be willing to risk American lives (not to mention go even further into debt) to fix another country's problems. Conflict in Africa is obviously a complicated issue. But, I think it's really important to note that whether or not the U.S. government should get involved is also a complicated issue. Are we the world's moral police? Should we spend our money and risk our soldier's lives to end a war that isn't ours? Isn't that part of the reason so many of us are wondering why we're still in Iraq? It's complicated, messy stuff. And that's really all I have to say about that.
Also, on a lighter note, Awareness is #18 on the list of Stuff White People like. It is, of course, dead on. http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2008/01/23/18-awareness/
And you can find the entire article from The Atlantic here: