Friday, March 09, 2012

Why the “KONY 2012” Critics May Be Right, But I Don’t Care

I admit it—the video got to me. When I watched the thirty-minute video produced by “Invisible Children,” with all the heart-rending scenes of child soldiers and the “so simple a four-year-old can get it” message about bringing Lord’s Resistance Army warlord Joseph Kony to justice, and I found myself choked up and, at the same time, so hopeful and excited that as soon as the video was over, I went to the website and signed up. I ordered my KONY 2012 kit and dutifully shared the video on Facebook, encouraging my friends to watch it, just like millions of others have done.

But then I started reading all the critiques of the video, and of the organization, Invisible Children, and I started to feel like a sucker. The message is over-simplified, some people said. The situation in Uganda is much more complicated. The organization only gives about a third of the money they raise to the child soldiers in Africa, others pointed out. The rest goes to American staff salaries and the production of videos and speaking tours. And the most damning criticism: this is just white Americans playing “savior” to Africans once again, trying to feel like they’re doing something for the world by making a You Tube video. Don’t buy into it, critics say. There are better organizations, more important causes, more culturally sensitive and politically astute strategies.

So I felt guilty, embarrassed, wondered if I was wrong to be so moved, so inspired by this campaign. Am I just a naïve bleeding heart? Or am I really a racist imperialist trying to make myself feel better about all the injustice in the world?

Then I decided—the critics may be right. But I don’t care. And here’s why.

1. The message is over simplified. And that, in my opinion, is the beauty of it. Too often we think that global problems are too big, too complicated that we can’t possibly do anything about it. So we just keep on doing nothing, hoping that someone else will do what we won’t. But this campaign has the message that while we can’t do everything—we can’t give every child soldier back his childhood, we can’t stop every war or eliminate all human rights abuses in the world—maybe we can stop one warlord and bring him to justice and maybe, just maybe, those other thugs and bullies out there in the world will take notice. It also just might be the starting point for me because now I might start learning more about Uganda and the history there and what’s happening with the conflict today. And maybe I’ll start writing my elected officials and caring more about what happens half way around the world in a country that has no economic or national security interest for the US, but where my brothers and sisters live and are suffering.

2. Why is it when a group does good work, so many haters try and point out how they could use their money better? I hear this all the time: don’t give to Heifer International or to Save the Children because they spend too much money on overhead and glossy catalogues. Don’t do a breast cancer walk or AIDS marathon because most of the money goes to the event organizers not the people suffering. I think it’s important for people to know where their money goes when they give to charities, causes or organizations. Read up on them on Charity Navigator, because I think non-profits should be good stewards of the money their raise. But I think raising consciousness about issues that most people don’t know anything about, or choose to ignore most of the time, is valuable and worth the money. And when a high profile organization raises millions of dollars through a national ad campaign or sharply produced video (which is expensive), even a smaller percentage of that is more than some low profile, low budget group can raise. And any campaign that gets people to give money to advocate for the rehabilitation of child soldiers rather than (or in addition to) spending money at Starbucks or on the newest Wii game or another pair of skinny jeans is alright with me.

3. So even if it’s mostly about us, and not about African children, is that so bad? Americans—especially white, wealthy, educated Americans like me—have a lot of privilege that we didn’t earn and that we don’t deserve. And most of all, we have the privilege of not knowing, not caring, not doing a single thing to help people whose lives are much harder, whose future is much more uncertain, that our own. However with power comes responsibility—and one of those responsibilities is to advocate for those without power. One of the things that Jason Russell says in the video is “where you live shouldn’t determine whether you live” and the video tries to convey the sense that the Ugandan child soldiers aren’t that different from us—that we’re all connected and therefore the suffering and the future of other people is important for us, for our world, for our shared future. So if this campaign gets us out of our comfort zones, wakes us up from our apathy, raises our awareness and consciousness even just a little bit, then it is worth doing. In addition, this video was viewed by 40 million people in three days on You Tube, and most of them were young people age 13-24. So if this campaign can empower young people feel like they have a voice, and that they have the power to change the world through political activism and service, then maybe they will, and the world will be a very different place when they are my age.

I think the critiques of this campaign and this organization are worth listening to—especially those who know far more about African in general and the situation in Uganda in particular than I do. People like Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire and African Foreign Policy expert Emira Woods. But let’s be honest, this video campaign has given them a wider audience than they had before, too. So we’re all learning, and hopefully doing and caring more today than we did five days ago, and for that, I for one am excited and hopeful, and refuse to feel cynical and critical. Thank you Invisible Children for opening my eyes and stirring my heart.