Recently, this photo from UNICEF has got me thinking about activism in western culture. These days we are so plugged in and connected. Information is constantly flying at us from Facebook and Twitter, online newspapers, TV, etc. We like to think of ourselves as informed, global citizens. We take pride in knowing things, any type of things. And when we don’t know, we fake it because, after all, who doesn’t know everything in this information age? It has become embarrassing to say “I don’t know.” Proof of this is a recent “Lie Witness News” segment from Jimmy Kimmel Live in which the show goes to the Coachella Music Festival in California and interviews a number of music buffs, asking if they are excited to see a list of made up bands (The Chelsea Clintons, The Regis Philbins, and The Obesity Epidemic just to name a few). Every person featured in the segment, I counted nine, pretended that they had at least heard of the fake band or bands before. This is, of course, hilarious, but honestly, who hasn’t pretended to know something? Perhaps I wouldn’t pretend to have heard of “The Regis Phibins,” or even believe they were a band. Yet when a friend says, “oh you know X, that guy/gal who was in movie Y?” I, like most young Americans, have said, “yeah totally,” when, in fact, I’d never heard the name before in my life.
So what does lying about what you know have to do with UNICEF and ‘liking’ things on Facebook? Well, we like to perceive ourselves to be knowledgeable about world issues. We like to be aware. And then we like to spread awareness to those we feel to be less aware than ourselves. And it’s so easy to pass on information in this information age. All you have to do is click. This is the new way people in the western world are taking part in politics, global development, humanitarian and environmental causes, etc. Slactivism is the new activism. It’s so easy! People do not even need to change their lifestyle to make a difference. All it takes is one click of a mouse to ‘spread awareness.’ We must keep spreading and spreading and spreading this awareness because if people do not know about things, things will never change. Now, thanks to social media, spreading awareness is easier than ever. However, the problem with getting so caught up in ‘spreading awareness’ is that is all we seem to be doing these days. We talk about problems in our communities, countries, and world, but we don’t do a whole hell of a lot about said problems. The best example of this I can think of is Kony 2012.
In case you do not know, because it really is okay to not know something, Kony 2012 is a video made by the organisation, Invisible Children, with the purpose of informing the general western public about a brutal leader, Joseph Kony, of a militant group based in Uganda called the Lord’s Resistance Army (L.R.A.). Joseph Kony and the L.R.A. are particularly monstrous. They use child soldiers, commit mass murders and rapes, mutilate people, and probably commit many more atrocities. TIME magazine ranked Kony 2012 the most viral video of all time. Millions of people watched and shared this emotion-packed, 30 minute long video. The Invisible Children organization probably meant well, but unfortunately, meaning well does not accomplish much in reality. Be honest, what would ‘liking’ or ‘sharing’ or even creating this Kony 2012 video do? Raise awareness? Okay, great. Consider your awareness raised. Now what? Are Ugandan war victims any better off because a suburban soccer mom or a 16-year-old hipster clicked ‘share?’
Even if this video does not do any good, at least we learned something new and surely no harm was done, right? Perhaps you should think again. After watching the video in full recently, I jotted down some of my initial reactions. Here they are:
Right off the bat, a white father and son are featured which turn out to be the narrator, Jason, and his son. It takes nearly 9 minutes before Jason finally gets around to telling the viewer what this video is all about. In order to tell the story, Jason incorporates some footage from a trip to Africa where he meats his friend, Jacob. Jacob tells the Americans about atrocities committed by a militant group in Uganda. The Americans are completely shocked that wars are going in Uganda. I suppose it’s too inconvenient to read or watch world news on a regular basis. One gentleman remarks, “if this happened on night in America, it would be on the cover of Newsweek.” Well, this war is probably news in Uganda, and most Ugandans have probably heard of it. There is a lot imagery throughout the video, specifically images of helpless African children, the knight-in-shining-armor American, and a ton of motivational sign waving, megaphone using, and fist pumping (all done by white people of course). The narrator, Jason, even includes several scenes featuring his son, probably to appeal to other parents. Honestly, I felt like this video made Americans out to be Jesus – the one who saves the poor helpless folk in Africa. Oh, and that is another thing, Africa is mentioned a lot, and it’s talked about as if it were a single country, like it is all the same. Uganda was mentioned 6 times in the 30 minute video – I counted – and 2 of those times native Ugandans were speaking about their home. Most of the time, the white westerns just said “Africa [the country].”
One important thing the Kony 2012 video does is put a face, Joseph Kony’s face, on the L.R.A. and African militant groups in general. This makes Joseph Kony the problem, and getting rid of him the solution. In reality, the problems Uganda faces, along with many developing nations, are much more complex than one bad guy causing trouble. The video also asserts if people know about Joseph Kony, things will become much better for the people of Uganda. I am reminded of an excerpt from Our Dumb World which talks about how some warlord in Africa found out a group of Americans on Facebook think genocide “sucks,” so he stops killing people. That seems plausible. It [the video] also claims that government officials in Washington D.C. have not done much to bring Joseph Kony to justice. It lends a sense of potential heroism to every individual, implying that I, as one person who simply cares about African children, can do more than the entire U.S. government. This gives a sense of empowerment and importance to me, the white viewer. I can do it! I can change the world! Basically, Kony 2012 sends the message that knowing and saying, “oh no that sucks!” is enough to change the world. That good intentions are all it takes. Which brings me back to the UNICEF photo, good intentions do not save lives.
Still, people might be asking, “what harm could possibly have been caused by this?” Well if those who watched the Kony 2012 video also bothered to watch or read responses from Ugandan citizens and the Ugandan government, they might already know what damage has been done. The people of Uganda did not actually know about the video for quite some time since most of them do not have access to internet. To rectify this, a public showing of Kony 2012 was put on. A number of victims of the L.R.A. showed up. They expected their suffering to be represented in a respectful light, but it wasn’t. In fact, many of the attendees grew angry and literally ran away. The video is very confusing as well as angering, because it starts out with a white family and is filled with mostly white people who have never met or learned about Ugandans. It also documents events that happened years ago. The NGO, Invisible Children, is managed and directed without any input from the Ugandan people whatsoever. One man interviewed remarked, “if people in those countries care about us they will not wear t-shirts with pictures of Joseph Kony on them for any reason. That would celebrated our suffering.” Ugandan Prime Minister, Amama Mbabazi, released a video stating that a very inaccurate picture of his country has been created by this internet sensation, Kony 2012. In reality, Joseph Kony had fled Uganda and the country is now in a post-conflict state. Obviously, Invisible Children and everyone else involved in making the video did not bother to talk with the people they were trying to represent.
Well okay, but at least the general [American] public knows more about warlords in Africa now. And that is all thanks to the Kony 2012 video, right? Actually, the only reason why this video informed people (although the information wasn’t exactly accurate) of events in Uganda, is because people do not bother educating themselves anymore. Unless it pops up in our newsfeed when we log in, we don’t hear about it. For as much as we claim to be informed, global citizens, we are pretty dumb. One comment from the Kony 2012 video really stuck out to me: Nobody knows about Joseph Kony, “he’s not famous.” What that really says, is it’s not overly easy to know about Joseph Kony – he’s not featured on the cover of People magazine and he does not have a Facebook page. In order to learn about groups like the L.R.A., one would actually have to do some work (God forbid). After 9/11, the U.S. officially declared the L.R.A. a terrorist group. In August of 2008, the United States Treasury Department placed Joseph Kony on the “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” list. In November of 2008, President Bush signed the United States Africa Command which provides financial and logistical assistance, including advisers, intelligence, and military equipment, to the Ugandan government in their efforts to capture Joseph Kony (Kony escaped and 100 children were rescued). And in May of 2010, President Obama signed the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act which passed unanimously in the Senate (it also passed in the House). So you see, if people wanted to know who Joseph Kony was they could have found out. All the information just listed was pulled from Wikipedia. But then why be active when you can be slactive?