Let’s first get it out of the way… It is hard to speak ill of non-profit organizations. Especially one like Invisible Children. They have pioneered a lot of the best ways to use social networking to bring light to an issue that NEEDS to be thought of and engaged. And they are just so damn cool. It is also a hard task to speak with a critical voice amidst a positive movement having such a well-intentioned purpose.
The repercussions of a movement like this going sour could have lasting effects on the ways we engage social action for decades to come. And that means real lives are at stake. If this movement hurts more than it helps, it will change the climate of skepticism toward humanitarian causes and stories. It will be another barrier for us to overcome to care and to act.
What happens if “we” remove Joseph Kony? There are complexities in that question that are hard to miss. If you speak to Ugandan’s about the KONY2012 movement, the complexities become even clearer.
Dignity is the fundamental issue with the movement. The means to achieve a goal in any social action that focuses on illuminating and correcting an unjust circumstance is that you have to ultimately consider the people you desire to serve. This may sound simple, or might be a no brainer. But sometimes a good idea can completely undermine the infusion of dignity in a situation. Well-intentioned photos of children with flies on their faces taken as a means to tell the story of famine can actually do more harm than good. We can establish postures that make it easy to feel like we are the saviors and people in poverty are one-dimensional victims. It feels good being the hero. It can imply that people can’t save themselves without us.
Let’s start on the U.S. side of this current call to action:
The call to action is to “make Kony famous.” This will be done by what feels like a slight act of civil disobedience. We are called to canvas our towns and schools and streets and buildings with posters and stickers. This might seem harmless enough, and it might even be effective. But the problem starts with dignity.
Where is the dignity in the activism? If I was a store owner and I woke up to find my store front plastered with posters and stickers for a movement that I was never asked to endorse, I might feel disrespected. If I had to spend a day chipping away at stickers that were attached to things I owned, put up in the middle of the night by people engaged in a passionate and small act of civil disobedience I might be pissed off. And I might also feel a bit violated. I certainly would not feel like I was invited to care or offered a chance to leverage my own voice and resources in the movement. It would create a community wide feeling of alienation. We don’t want to alienate people from our movement do we? What if someone put stickers for Planned Parenthood on your car? What if political candidates with a host of passionate reasons put their posters up in your yard, and plastered banners on your home? We have to care for our own communities if we are going to sustain a movement.
In Uganda, the problem is worse. From the perspective of Ugandan’s, the movement speaks loud and clear that the Ugandan Army has done nothing. The call to action speaks about our drive to elicit a response from U.S. military forces to act and remove Joseph Kony. We are sending the message, “Ugandan’s can’t do this on their own.” Even though, the Ugandan army has been responsible for removing Joseph Kony and the LRA from Uganda.
The movement, in speaking nothing about the process of bringing Joseph Kony to justice, neglects to tell everyone that military factions have been told to shoot on sight. Joseph Kony is to be executed. This is what “brought to justice,” means for this man, and the movement at hand. So, for those of us who thoughtfully wrestle with the death penalty, or the sanctity of life, (all life)… this poses a dilemma. The simplicity of the awareness movement does not communicate this, and therefore leaves us to believe that a simple act of removing a tyrant is the solution.
It neglects to tell the stories of ALL the other organizations and individuals and citizens who have been hard at work serving those effected by the war in Uganda and those who have spent their lives trying to end the horrors of Joseph Kony.
It’s almost like telling a bunch of people who have never had a drink to start a movement to get alcoholics to just stop drinking. It’s that simple… just stop drinking. Does this honor the life long struggles and the people who have died under Kony’s military? Does it honor an alcoholic to remind them that you know how they can stop better than they do if you haven’t even asked them to tell their story to you?
I work with an organization that holds true to the sequence: Know, Love, Act. This is vital to the work of Blood:Water Mission, and should be for all those who seek to exist in the social justice world.
You need to take the time to know someone. This means knowing their story. It means understanding their hearts and passions. It means being familiar with their dreams and goals. In knowing, we often find that we will come to love those people. We will come to find our own story woven into the fabric of theirs. We will them see our selves implicated in the work of helping them with the things they want to change in and for themselves and their families or communities. This takes time, and often it is work done without the glamour of a movement attached to it. But it is the only way to keep dignity in tact.
Most people don’t want to feel like they are being rescued. That can be humiliating. So… what do we do with a movement that does not work toward dignity?
Do we simply applaud it for the marketing genius that it is? Do we buy into it and support the cause even if it turns out to be misguided or misinformed because we don’t want to be the poop in the punch bowl?
In closing, I do applaud the western world for looking at this situation in the world. It is far beyond our backyards and it does not encroach on our drive into work, or our gaming, or general lives… We have shown in our immediacy that we do have pulses and hearts. We have shown that our reflex toward justice is still strong. What we should do is match our passion for justice with wisdom and humility. It was Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, who told me, “ Justice without mercy is tyranny.”
Thank Invisible Children for bringing this issue into the public conscience. Please take a breath and walk humbly into the realm of action.
How do we keep the work from hurting more than helping? These are the questions that we must ask. These are the questions that I wish Invisible Children was asking before they launched this campaign to coincide with our election year. It is a good marketing idea. It just isn’t a great and dignifying form of action.
I received a comment letting me know that Invisible Children sent out an updating e-mail to those who signed their petition. The following paragraph is an excerpt from that e-mail, copied here verbatim:
Hit the Streets
Take this message offline and into the real world. Slap a sticker on your phone, laptop, bike, or car. Download a PDF of the posters for free. Confidently ask businesses and cities to place these posters in prominent, high-traffic locations. Remember: be respectful and only put KONY 2012 materials on your own property unless you have explicit permission. #KONY2012
This is great news! Thank you Cassie.
Just letting everyone know as this conversation progresses. Keep the comments coming. I am enjoying all the different perspectives. -D