I was first exposed to the conflict in Northern Uganda at the age of fourteen. My exposure was, as i have articulated many times, a radical uprooting of the doll’s house i had grown up in; my white privilege, American privilege, gender identity, and perception of self not only became salient to me, but i thrust such perceptions all under robust and ruthless scrutiny. Through interactions with women and men my age and older in Uganda returning from tragedy beyond articulation, i uncovered a passion for fighting for human rights for all peoples. But more importantly, this realization did not merely stem from shared or witnessed woe – it came from a shared human experience. My friends who live in Uganda are human beings, as flawed and beautiful and resilient and hopeful as you or i. I awoke then to a global community committed to human rights because we are all human, not out of pity.
My exposure to the Ugandan conflict is a rare anomaly in the scope of international awareness. I was educated because i went to Uganda. In all honesty: i knew nothing about Uganda before i left; our trip was spent half in Uganda and half in Rwanda, and i was focusing all of my pre-departure energies on the latter. Thus, my education was first-hand and on-the-ground.
Not everyone has this blessing or opportunity. It is for this reason that i think much of what the organization Invisible Children does is fantastic. They are supremely good storytellers; as flawed as their methodology and approach may be, the team behind the documentaries and information dissemination do a brilliant job at communicating the importance of caring for people whom most of their donors and participants will never meet. They instill a dedicated passion for a cause that, in and of itself, does not threaten American security or comfort on an individual level really at all. In terms of introducing the Ugandan conflict to broader discourse especially among my peers across the country, Invisible Children is great.
Most importantly, i have no doubt that the people who are at present posting “KONY 2012” as their facebook statuses and writing checks to this NGO have the very best of intentions. In no way do i want to ever discredit the commitment one human being has made to another to see their full identity and fight for their basic, inalienable rights. This is a beautiful act.
But the “KONY 2012” campaign is not, in my opinion, the way to empower and actualize the full identity of an entire nation of peoples and victims of war.
The KONY 2012 campaign, for those who do not know, is the latest brainchild of Invisible Children, an organization based in the United States with a mission to end the conflict in Uganda and its repercussions across Central and East Africa. Spawned by a 27 minute video, this campaign seeks to promote awareness about the war crimes of Jospeh Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA (the insurgency that initiated the civil unrest in Uganda and army that is responsible for abducting over 30,000 children and forcing them to be child soldiers and sex slaves) through a social media grounded guerilla art movement. This is to be manifested in the form of sharing, reblogging, tweeting, and posting “KONY 2012” on all forms of internet discourse with links to the Invisible Children website. Furthermore, the campaign is to come to a head in April when mobilizers are to “cover the night” by putting posters, pictures, and stickers of “KONY 2012” on every visible surface they can find.
At first glance, this intention is excellent. Of course i want people to be educated and aware about the gross injustices Kony has performed. Guerilla art? Count me in. Social media? I live in my computer – golden.
But promoting such awareness by glorifying a criminal, portraying this intervention as an American/white man’s burden to “help” Africa, and encouraging a militaristic intervention?
This conflict is far more complex than a mere facebook status can convey; frankly, it is more complicated than a thirty-minute video can explain either, particularly when 50% of said video is dedicated to why “YOU” must end the war, not what Ugandan leaders of independent grassroots movements, churches, mosques, and other bodies of change decree what needs doing. To end a war, we must confront injustice by empowering the people involved.
This means that the voices of “the children” must be heard far more than our own. I do not see this in the KONY 2012 video. In fact, the whole narrative begins with Jason Russell, one of the founders of Invisible Children, saying “my life was changed.”
Yes, it’s your narrative, Jason. Yes, please speak to what you know. But let’s all remember this is more than just one story – one story is an excellent place to start, but the truth resists simplicity.
The impact of the scene in both the original documentary and this video of Jacob mourning the loss of his brother is so. so powerful. In many ways, i think everyone in the world should see this scene to understand the visceral sorrow that was – and remains to be – the war in Uganda. Woe is universally transcendent of language and border. But do not let this woe be all of Uganda that you see. All of the empowerment, of the celebration of human resilience in the face of adversity, were scenes filmed in America. In part i am sure this is because of resources, and yes, some of the people in America were Ugandans – but what of the people who live in Gulu town? What of their relief? Their self-actualization?
This depiction of Uganda – as children suffering from the horrific impacts of war – is an incomplete picture that is otherizing and portreying the conflict as something that “we,” in our American privilege, must swoop in and “fix.” In this reductive perspective, there is no space to love and seek to understand people complexly, because the war is all that we see. And to paint this conflict in the eyes of the American public by creating a campaign of hatred towards Joseph Kony is not, as the film claims, subverting or changing the way the media portrays global challenges. It is totally buying into this idea that “the bad guys” are the face of war – and it furthers this concept of Uganda as a nation broken and in need of “the good guys” (meaning Americans) to save “them” from Kony.
Furthermore, by putting Kony’s face as the face of the conflict, we are glorifying violence and his crimes against humanity. But more importantly – and i will fully disclose this to be a reflection of my own belief in nonviolence as a way of life – there leaves no room for forgiveness. I am not alone in thinking that Kony should not be put to death, and that this action would not heal the wounds this war has scarred us all with. Calling for the ICC to step in is fine, but integral to rebuilding a country torn apart by war is an element of forgiveness (which is different from forgetting – and doesn’t mean there is not an element of accountability for crimes committed). And this act is not for those who did not live through the war to decide the fate of – not me, not Invisible Children. Forgiveness must come from those who need it, and those who need to give it.
And this doesn’t even begin to cover the disparities within the Ugandan military in terms of accountability and real peacemaking. Grant Oyston, a sociologist and proprietor of the Visible Children Tumblr, does a superb job in this article of describing why a military-driven intervention in Uganda is not the best solution. He describes the problems with a military-driven mindset, for all past military interventions have failed and caused violent retaliation by the LRA. I highly encourage you to read the entire piece – but if you take only one thing away from it, please take this:
“Military intervention may or may not be the right idea, but people supporting KONY 2012 probably don’t realize they’re supporting the Ugandan military who are themselves raping and looting away. If people know this and still support Invisible Children because they feel it’s the best solution based on their knowledge and research, I have no issue with that. But I don’t think most people are in that position, and that’s a problem.
Is awareness good? Yes. But these problems are highly complex, not one-dimensional and, frankly, aren’t of the nature that can be solved by postering, film-making and changing your Facebook profile picture, as hard as that is to swallow. Giving your money and public support to Invisible Children so they can spend it on supporting ill-advised violent intervention and movie #12 isn’t helping. Do I have a better answer? No, I don’t, but that doesn’t mean that you should support KONY 2012 just because it’s something. Something isn’t always better than nothing. Sometimes it’s worse.”
Good intentions are good. But they are not enough.
I want to reiterate once more i don’t think ill of anyone who has reblogged or posted or stamped KONY 2012 to their foreheads – your compassion is never to be understated. Thank you for caring. Selfishly, Uganda is a very special place to me and seeing so many people taking public stances for human rights in a country i love so much is moving, moving in ways i cannot describe. I am not telling or asking you to stop caring or to stop being involved with social change. I am asking you do so in an informed way that imagines and seeks to understand this conflict complexly, and in a manner that acknowledges our stance as allies in a global community of agents of change. Empower yourselves!
And, should you want a documentary to dive deeper into the complexity, might i direct you to the brilliant, Oscar-nominated masterpiece that is WAR/DANCE. You will not regret it; there is no narration on the part of the documentarian, and juxtaposed to unbridled woe that is war is uncontainable hope and resilience and pure human-ness.
Let us all work to imagine peace in its complexity.
**EDIT: Invisible Children has since put out a counter-blog to some of these criticisms and many others. I encourage you to read their side as well! Thank you for your thoughts!
**ALSO AN EDIT: There is now a PART II to this post, viewable by clicking here! Thanks!
*** I HIGHLY RECOMMEND YOU WATCH THIS. This is the best response i’ve yet come across.
current jam: “vienna” billy joel.
best thing in my life right now: going to les mis tonight!