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Dignity: why I don't support the IC movement

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.  

Reader Comments (29)

Dan, you raise great points, thank you for sharing. The question still remains and I'd like to know how you'd move forward in a situation like this if you had the money & ability? Seems that IC will raise a butt load of capital with this and is trying to raise an army of their own...

March 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBen Broussard

Dan, this is a well written and insightful look into this movement. The problem is that this situation is not a black and white one. IC does have some weaknesses here and is not a 100% perfect situation. On the other hand simply shooting it down and not trying to strengthen those weaknesses with them is not the answer either.

This is a man that has topped the ICC's war criminal's list for years and is responsible for some horrible actions. I view IC more as a lobbyist group in this situation. Fighting to inform people of a situation so that a goal can be achieved. Even though they are involved in some relief efforts, this is not the main goal of this campaign.

As for the dignity side of the US. If people respond the way you paint the picture here, you are correct. I and most of society would be pissed at the vandalism aspect of this event. I hope that people are able to do this with the respect for everyone and not make it a mass vandalism. I also agree that people should be very careful in honoring the people they are trying to help and not make them feel worse for our actions of caring hearts.

As for the "know, love, act" part, I think this is great. I am glad that you have this as a guide to your actions even though I am sure you fall short at times. To apply everyone that supports IC's lack of knowledge about the people and situation is a bit unfair. BWM asks for the support of people outside of the organization and I can all but assure you they do not all follow that thought before they donate to BWM. The guys that run IC have been in that community for years now and I am sure they know a lot about the situation. They clearly love the people there and not they are acting. I think a little grace is due them as it is for all of us for our imperfections.

I think being that you are involved in a relief organization that has also been involved in the same community for years that you may want to look into reaching out to IC and offer them your insights and concerns about this situation and how BWM might be able to team up and better the campaign. I don't know any of the IC guys but I am sure that all of their actions come from the purest place and a heart for others that many of us wish we hard the balls to act on. I think that is why this campaign has had the impact that it has already. Their heart is very obvious in it and that moves others to want to do something. I also know you well enough to know you too have a great heart for the people of this world and want to help those in need. I appreciate your comments and hope it helps people to make informed decisions and not just follow blindly because it is the cool thing to do. However, as I said before, I don't think that the questions about the campaign should be enough to write it off.

March 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBiggs

thanks for gently reminding us to think, and to respond thoughtfully.

March 9, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbill smith

Awesome Dan. Well said! You're right on.

March 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNewman

I agree with your thoughts fully. Trying to "help" without thinking through things first can be dangerous. I love my neighbors' organization because of their thoughtfulness in working with the communities in Haiti. They focus on thoughts of empowering, not helping. Here is an example from a recent local Pitt newspaper article:
:Boyer learned of Haiti:h2o from Jeff VanderMolen, 41, a neighbor and fellow member of Friendship Community Presbyterian Church in West Oakland. VanderMolen is trip coordinator for Haiti:h2o, and his stories about Haitians' resourcefulness resonated with Boyer.

VanderMolen, for example, told of organizing a group of college students to travel to build a cistern after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, which registered 7 on the Richter scale and which the government has estimated killed more than 300,000 people.

VanderMolen sent money to Haiti ahead of his group's arrival. When it got there, members found the work already done.

"They took the supplies, and they built the cistern," VanderMolen said. "My first reaction was, 'Crap, what are we going to do all week?'" he said, laughing. Instead, the group worked with Haitians on a cholera awareness campaign and explored the country.

Haitians don't lack the drive or the skill; often, it's just the resources, he said. "There's a misconception that they're just sitting in the dark waiting for us to save them."

We are not the saviors. We are called to work beside others in the light of the Savior.

March 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom

All fine and good, except, we wouldn't all be discussing this if they hadn't raised our awareness level. Sure there are a 1000 ways it could be done differently and/or better, but they actually did something.

March 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJDM

Good commentary Dan. Good insight and good questions. But, if IC's approach is flawed, then what is the solution? What are some ways to more adequately give dignity to the boys, girls, men, and women in Uganda living in the midst of this struggle and not approach this as a Western campaign where we as Americans are the saviors? When I find myself complaining about a problem, I try to ask myself, "How can I be a part of the solution?" I'd love to hear more from you on what are specific things we can do to be a part of the solution that brings dignity to the Ugandans and draws us together in the struggle. Any suggestions?

March 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrant Bousquet

This might be the first time I've ever disagreed with something you've said.

March 9, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkiwi jark

To insinuate that the IC guys "don't know who they're helping" and that they didn't think through this is ignorant and sloppy logic. I'd say it's even offensive. They've been with the people they're helping for years. Of COURSE they've thought through this and I guarantee they had input from the people they're helping. Also, assuming the campaign is just going to be a litter and vandalism-fest is simply pessimism. I was really disappointed in this.

And it's Ugandans, not Ugandan's.

March 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

Thought provoking words, to be sure. Remember that to bring about a harvest, the ground must first be plowed...a messy process. Then seed is planted, then watered, and finally harvested, and often these tasks are done by different teams. Those who water or harvest often don't understand the job of one who plows,or one who plants, and vice versa. These guys are doing what they know how to do by raising awareness. Now others need to come along to water the seeds they have planted and then others to bring about the harvest. The process has who will keep it going???

March 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCkb you think all the 'controversial' news could make as big an impact as IC thought their video might? If so, what kind of progress do you think could be reached? I know you don't like to view your comments, but I was hoping you might go further with a Twitter conversation. I'd love to learn more, learn how to help without being part of the problem. I appreciate hearing your thoughts and opinions. While I don't always agree, it makes me think hard outside of my small-mindedness.

March 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChrista622

Great comments as always, Dan and yes, the issue is complicated. These issues always are. Look at Live Aid, Jubilee 2000 etc. - they have all been flawed campaigns in some ways. The fact that I'd never even heard of Joseph Kony before yesterday is indictment to the success of the organisation in raising awareness. Anyone who is passionate enough to fight and keep on fighting for justice should be applauded, eventhough the end result may be a bit misguided. As already mentioned, if someone plants the seed, that person/group may need help to make it fruitful. Criticising the person never helps unless it is constructive (which yours are). I think more charities should work together - share experiences and resources - for the greater good.

Now as a Christian, for me, it takes faith, prayer and action, conducted in accordance to God's will. He has the better eyes to see what is actually going on and how the problem can be solved. Is it actually Kony, or the political/economic system that needs changing?

March 10, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersummer77

Dan, This is true. As I have been living here in Kenya for almost two years, I have realized that more of what I thought of what should be done here or what I would be doing, has changed. I began to realize that the adventuristic view we foreigners have of going and being apart of social justice in the world fades away quickly and actually is a wrong approach to doing things. Good intentions, but does not solve the root issues of what is actually going on. Like you said it is good that they are bringing that awareness to the issue, but taking time and pouring out your life in a loving, individual manor( not self gratifying way) will be the actual change. It will be long term and there will be no glamour. To help clean the mud off something you will get dirty. Thanks for talking about this.
Sam Hembree

March 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSam Hembree

Thanks Dan for encouraging us to approach issues with eyes wide open and being aware of "unintended consequences." It's so easy to get caught up in the social movement du jour without considering its implications. I appreciate your respect for all involved. Peace brother!

March 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark Tornow

Ah, heroes from the West...

You write a nice commentary. I don't have much to add. I have to say that without the resulting controversy I never would've heard of either Invisible Children or this Kony character. Uganda I've heard of. Child soldiers, kidnapping, and rape I've heard of. But I've never been given a name. If they wanted me to know a name, they succeeded. Thanks to its critics, I also know know Mr. Kony's not even in Uganda anymore. I've learned about a war and ongoing conflicts, the real everyday people, and the local efforts to move on. The full and complex human story is even more interesting than the IC documentary. IC should thank its critics for first making me wonder what all the fuss was about and actually watch their video (I wouldn't have otherwise). And they should thank their critics for digging in and telling us the rest of the complex story of Uganda.

It's a natural human reaction to put up defense to criticism. I don't suppose their reaction is surprising. I've walked away sulky and wounded myself when I've received what I believed at the time to be unfair reprimands. They're in a good position if they're ready to learn. What if it turns out they don't know best? Will they discard those ideas for better options?

The most troubling thing I've noticed about this are the various responses from Uganda itself. These days, even in the middle of Africa, the world is watching. For one good synopsis (plus a link for the other side of the story) check out: The very thoughtful and articulate video from the Ugandan blogger is worth a listen. If Ugandans think there are issues with how you want to help, you have to listen. Where are the Ugandans on IC's board to respond to all this? Film-makers, photographers, and journalists can make a difference by telling a story. IC's video is well-done and moving. It's a good first step. They can help. But they cannot do that by dismissing constructive criticism.

March 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNoelle

Wow. Great points. Thank you, Dan, for seeing beyond the trend of things. I'm kind of embarrassed at acting like a sheep and posting for the movement without researching it more. I think I jumped too soon because so many people I respect were posting it and there is such a sincerity in their video and cause. I do wonder what the solution is??? It did at least serve as a great dose of perspective on my 1st world problems. :o)

March 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterShelMarie Schinsky

dan, have you read their response to the criticism? answers things very well indeed:

March 10, 2012 | Unregistered Commentersharon

@ christa622: in my world, IC means interstitial cystitis, so I'd have to say that yes, without the controversy, I would have no idea it could also mean Invisible Children. IC owes their critics a thanks they may never give. I honestly would've never listened to any of their pitch if I wasn't curious about what the fuss was all about. I'm sure Dan reads the comments here. I don't much care for the Twitter conversation myself, as you can't see everyone's comments. It would be nice to see more participation from him on this front. But, whatever. (side note. Did you know teenage genX'ers said "whatever" enough to their parents it was ironically placed on pillows and t-shirts and stuff and given to us as "funny" gifts? We were rightly apathetic youngsters and not amused)

@ Tom: I love your Haiti story. That's the kind of thing that sticks with me. Thanks. What are they doing there now?

@ kiwi: ur allowed to disagree. That's kind of the point. Elaborate?

@ Dan: nice. I have nothing to add.

March 11, 2012 | Unregistered Commenternkf

Dan, very thoughtful and well reasoned post.

I have been quite vocal in support of Kony2012 for several reasons. The first is that for a great majority of people in North America, I don't think they even knew what was going on in regards to the LRA. In a news cycle that is preoccupied with Snooki's pregnancy, J.Lo's nip slip, and Linsanity, it was refreshing that an important issue was forced into the mainstream. Retweeting and posting a video to Facebook isn't going to bring about change, but I think it helped dissolve a lot of ignorance. To me that is a good thing.

For sure the issues aren't a black and white or easy as the video portrayed, but I thought it was an excellent opportunity to bring this conversation into the spotlight. Unfortunately it seems that so much more effort has been put into trashing the work IC has done for a decade and dismissing this movement than in elevating the conversation and educating the now-aware public about the complexities of this situation. I'm not talking about you, but just a general disappointment I've had.

I guess after reading this and a few other thought-out responses that do not support of Kony2012 the question I have is this: is stripping these people of their dignity the only possible outcome? Isn't this just one outcome, a negative outcome? Aren't there more positive outcomes you could use this movement for?

I think about a lot of the anti-bullying campaigns that have been started, whether it's the "It Gets Better" campaign or the "No H8" campaign. I don't think anyone is necessarily trying to be a hero in these campaigns so much as raise awareness for the problem. By doing so, they hope to really turn the tides of opinion against bullying and eventually empower and uplift those who have been bullied. From what I've heard, I don't think that these campaigns in bringing awareness and solidarity and support have left those who have been bullied feeling undignified. In fact, the impression I've gotten is that its been quite the opposite.

In all sincerity, could this not be the achieved outcome for Kony2012? If the people pressured the U.S. government to be available to these causes - without taking over from the governments already at work solving these issues - could we not act as a support to them, and in doing so, actually affirm their dignity? While I support Kony2012, ultimately what I want to see is the U.S. government being active and willing to work with local organizations and governments rather than take them over. Couldn't a willingness to help, support, assist, advise, or volunteer actually build their dignity, rather than ignoring the difficulties they are facing?

March 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJason

So... you think we should just sit around and not do anything even though we have better resources while people are killed and mutilated so the Ugandan army can feel BETTER about itself? Are you kidding?

In order to have dignity you need to be alive. And the people of this movement just want Kony dead [yes, dead. If you haven't deduced that he's going to be excecuted, probably in a really fucked up way, then I don't know where you've been living for the past ten years while the rest of us have watched the same thing happen to dictators and tyrants all over the world], no matter who can do it. If it's us, awesome. If it's the Ugandan army, awesome. If it's anyone else, awesome, awesome, awesome. No one gives a shit as long as he's taken out. If someone's "dignity" [read "pride"] is more important to them than the lives of their countrymen, then that's a flaw that they're going to have to work on while the rest of the world tries to put a stop to the issue that really matters.

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLiz

What fascinates me about your comment is that you don't seem to be able to separate IC's movement from the real actions to remove KONY. I don't have to support IC in order to support the removal of a tyrant. I also think that there are solutions that better serve Ugandans and ways to be collaborating that stop the bleeding AND prevent a different kind of wound from forming. There are more players in the game than IC. They are great at marketing, and not the best at actual on the ground development work. They know this. It is why the bulk of their resources are spent in the US, on awareness and film making. If they saw themselves as a leader in the ground work, they would be dedicating more resources to that "third" of their make-up.

I absolutely believe that dignity is vital to how this situation plays out. You can't expect marginalized people to simply wake up one day feeling heard and respected if they haven't been involved in the solutions for their well-being and health and safety.

Thanks for commenting. I'm glad you are passionate. It is a gift.

March 12, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan Haseltine

I appreciate your insight here. You have put words to some of the uneasiness I've felt about this movement. Things that go viral and movements that bring awareness so easily cause me a great amount of consternation. As they should. Any real progress or "help" is way more work and way less glamorous.

We should care. We should act. We should not view ourselves as the Great American Help. Humility, shared humanity, and love should lead the way.

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMegan

I have felt uneasy since this video came out. I get Kony is a horrible person. I get that he needs to be stopped. My question comes in the how. Is IC promoting more US soldiers to go to Africa and "take him out" (for the lack of a better word)? If so, what will be the backlash when Americans lose their lives? Are citizens going to be in an uproar? Are they going to blame Ugandans? Is that backlash going to make organizations doing actual groundwork (like Blood:Water) more difficult? I just can't see how sending more troops over there is going to make things better.

Americans, especially young adults (which I am) live in a fast food type mentality. We want what we want and we want it now. Case and point, the 12/31/12 deadline. We expect there to be a quick and simple solution to an incredibly complex matter. By now we all have heard the name Kony, but just a week later, the excitement has greatly waned. People want him stopped, but with no solution besides protesting, people are over it. So IC got the name out, but without a viable solution, it just fizzles. That is sad.

The question that I wrestle with is what our-what my-response should be. How do live out my responsibility for the other in this situation? Do I sit passively by, knowing this is going on? What about all the other atrocities happening in various countries and in my own city? How do I treat people with dignity and not play the savior card?

I guess this whole Kony craze has raised more questions and uneasiness in me than any thing else.

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterK

Great article Dan! Hope it gets reprinted in a magazine or something. I tend and prefer to hear activists talking about activists than idk, dentists talking about cars. Found this followup article. Very interesting.

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFernando C.

Charity organizations, whether they are IC or even Blood:Water, are a TOOL.

Our funding corporately creates the axe handle or broom handle the organization is determined to make. The organization gets to decide if the axe head is becomes more of a mallet or a hatchet, or if the broom bristles are made of straw or silk.

I think this conversation is about trying to choose the right tool for the job, when it is unclear if we are trying to fell a tree or clear the debris. We would do well to understand the circumstance and stakes better before applying an axe to the dirt, or swing a broom at a redwood.

...With respect to the convictions of those involved in the conversation...

March 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDr.Shazam

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