by Jessica Critcher
As I started to write this post, I was trying to articulate exactly what bothered me about the controversial Kony 2012 video that recently took the internet by storm. Then on Friday, Jason Russell, director of the video and co-founder of Invisible Children, made my job a lot easier. He was detained by police for disruptive behavior, including masturbating in public.
I had been trying to put it delicately, but at this point, the comparison is hard to ignore. Now that it’s out there, I can’t get it out of my head: Kony 2012 bothers me because it’s like a white guy masturbating in public. The film is supposed to raise awareness about conditions in Uganda and bring attention to Joseph Kony, a violent dictator. The idea is that if he is famous, he can be brought to justice. While it did raise awareness, it also stroked Russell’s ego, and many have been critical of the film’s approach.
For one thing, Joseph Kony is no longer in Uganda. What’s more, bringing him down will not undo the damage he has already done, and it will not help survivors of violence in Uganda rebuild their lives.
For another thing, much of the film’s focus is on Jason Russell and his young son. By denying Ugandans a voice and any sense of agency, it is implied that Africans need to be saved by Americans. The idea that Africans are in need of our pity is ignorant and condescending at best. Visible Children, a Tumblr set up in response to this campaign, points out:
As Chris Blattman, a political scientist at Yale, writes on the topic of IC’s programming, “There’s also something inherently misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or saving of Africa. […] It hints uncomfortably of the White Man’s Burden. Worse, sometimes it does more than hint. The savior attitude is pervasive in advocacy, and it inevitably shapes programming. Usually misconceived programming.”
Rosabell Idaltu Kagumire, a woman from Uganda, offers a very impassioned video response to the Invisible Children hysteria. In part of her response, she says:
If you are showing me as voiceless, as hopeless, you have no space telling my story. You should not be telling my story if you don’t believe that I have the power to change what is going on. And this video seems to say that the power lies in America, and it does not lie with my government, it does not like with local initiatives on the ground. That aspect is lacking, and that is the problem.
In a less subtle response, a screening of the film in Uganda ended with villagers throwing rocks at the screen. Apparently they were less than pleased with having their story twisted to fit the story Jason Russell was telling.
It doesn’t help that the same day Russell was detained by police, George Clooney was arrested for protesting in Washington DC. While he was striving to raise awareness about conditions in the Sudan, the media attention focused primarily on Clooney. It would appear that Westerners like the idea of caring about problems in Africa, but only if there is a white man involved.
Despite this harsh criticism, the people responsible for this campaign (and those that were inspired enough to share the video) are probably motivated by a genuine desire to help. If Invisible Children left a bad taste in your mouth, there are still things ordinary people can do to help survivors of war and violence in developing nations.
I recommend reading Half The Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sharyl WuDunn. The focus of this book is on global violence against women, but the solutions offered can help people of all genders. If this trend of online activism has you motivated to help right now, you can read this excerpt from the book’s epilogue called Four Steps You Can Take in the Next Ten Minutes. It has been proven that millions of people can be motivated to care about the suffering of others—the effects of that remain to be seen.
(photo by Collin Harvey via Flickr)