My initial reaction to the Kony2012 video was emotional. And these weren’t the kind of feelings the filmmakers were aiming for. I’ve written this series of posts to force myself to engage more deeply with facts of the LRA conflict, wade through some of the noise, and learn. In the process, I’ve tried to sort out the sources of my own discomfort. Here’s my reflection:
Few conflicts in this world are actually good guys vs. bad guys in the Hollywood action movie sense. Yet Americans (and other humans) are often uncomfortable with conflict framed in any other way. Simply look at how our leaders sell wars in starkly moralistic terms. You’re with us, or against us.
Of course, many real conflicts are cases of bad guys vs. less-bad guys or maybe just bad-in-different-ways guys. They actually involve more than two opposing sides. There’s history, money, politics, moral and ethical considerations. Acknowledging this kind of complexity doesn’t make evil men like Joseph Kony less evil, but does help explain how conflicts such as the LRA’s can go on for decades. Unfortunately, the complexity of conflict (or poverty, or racism, etc) can be so uncomfortable that people of privilege distance themselves, lapsing into outright apathy or discouraged despair.
Responding to this tendency, a number of US-based advocacy campaigns in recent years have relied on simplified framing of African conflicts, depicting them as cases of good vs. bad isolated from historical and political context. Their goal is to elicit an emotional response. Though the Save Darfur campaign makes another interesting example, the Kony2012 video is the most salient recent instance of this. It has captured an unprecedented amount of attention from young people in the US and beyond. That advocacy can move people- particularly privileged, young people- to care and want to act to fight injustice is an incredibly powerful thing.
Hopefully, they are moved out of genuine human empathy– not pity, guilt, or self-promotion, which should set off alarm bells. This triple threat has been the source of countless well-intentioned-yet-ugly policies in Africa and elsewhere. Not to mention, to play to these cards elevates the viewer while putting down and offending people such advocacy claims to serve. Many, notably many Ugandans and Africans in the diaspora (prominently, author Teju Cole), have criticized the Kony2012 campaign for this, and these are very real concerns.
Moving forward, with millions of people geared up to “do something” about Kony, it becomes extremely important to fully understand what kind of “something” we’re asked to support. The stated goal of the Kony2012 campaign is to increase and sustain US support for military pursuit of Joseph Kony. This is when over-simplification of narrative is problematic.
Failure to fully recognize the multidimensional nature of a conflict (especially failure to recognize a place’s history, cultures, and politics) can risk leading to painful missteps. This is especially true when the prescribed “something” is an intervention of the military variety. For an example of this, look no further than Afghanistan.
Many people agree with the Kony2012 video’s basic assumption that catching Kony should be the foremost goal, and after that both peace and justice will follow. I (and many others) respectfully disagree, but that disagreement is not to suggest the only alternative is inaction. I support policies that increase civilian protection, encourage safe LRA defections, and strengthen the efforts of conflict-affected communities to rebuild. It seems that foreign military advisers could improve the chances that national armies will behave themselves in regards to the civilian population (though this may be naive). I stated in my previous post why I am hesitant to support renewed military pursuit of Kony before other issues are addressed. A new and interesting op-ed goes into some detail about what is problematic about focusing on military interventions and international justice when it happens at the expense of holding states accountable.
Moving beyond the “something” prescribed by Kony2012 and current US policy, I believe that any sustained solution must also be political. For that to happen, discussions need to advance beyond framing this as the good world vs. one bad guy. Ugandan journalist Angelo Izama eloquently wrote in a recent NY Times editorial: “While the evil methods of men like Mr. Kony are easily understood by millions, the politics so crucial to sustaining their brutal campaigns are harder to grasp…Killing Mr. Kony may remove him from the battlefield but it will not cure the conditions that have allowed him to thrive for so long.”
Despite the difficulty of finding lasting political solutions, I have some hope. If the door was cracked open for conversation before, Kony2012, for better or worse, has now been blown off its hinges. If hits on this tiny blog in the last few weeks are any sign, people are hungry for information. For all that is imperfect in the Kony2012 campaign and its ensuing criticism, let’s move forward asking and answering tough questions, not just about how to go about conducting responsible advocacy, but about how to pull up this particular conflict by its historical and political roots. For if there’s anything most everyone can agree on, it’s that children everywhere deserve to live in peace.
A little post script: 6. PS passion + critical thought.