Knowing the sorts of people that I know (people involved in international development and humanitarian aid, anthropologists, and actual, y’know, Africans) it’s understandable that I encountered the Kony2012 backlash before the film itself, it took me until the weekend to actually get round to seeing it. I was both frustrated and delighted to find that the film was just as bizarre as I had been led to expect.
I have so many issues with the whole malarkey that it’s hard to know where to start. There’s the fact that the current situation is broadly misrepresented (Kony is not in Uganda, and hasn’t been for several years), and what Invisible Children appear to be advocating is (wristbands aside) a military solution that would effectively mean cross-border incursions into extremely fragile states. There’s also the fact the issue is gigantically oversimplified and distilled into a somewhat dubious good guys vs. bad guys narrative, whereas (shocker!) some of the people on the ‘good guys’ side of this aren’t actually so good. (The thing I keep coming back to with regard to this is the amazing photo on this blog post of the Invisible Children team posing with guns and some of the SPLA. Lord knows I have been in some dubious photographs in my time, and I dread the thought of some of them coming back to haunt me when I am being publicly earnest on the internet. However, I am just saying, if you are vociferously campaigning against an organisation based on its usage of kidnapped child soldiers, you may not wish to associate yourself particularly closely with the SPLA.) There have been a number of excellent deconstructions of the issue, notably here, here and here, all of which offer a far more nuanced understanding of the situation than that which is offered by the Invisible Children video.
There’s also the fact that Jason Russell is so gloriously, astoundingly mockable that it’s almost too easy. It’s hard to pick out my favourite ludicrous statement. Is it Russell’s description of himself as the putative baby of Spielberg, Bono and Oprah? (Really? Really?!) His statement that he is ‘waiting for Jay-Z’ to make the Kony2012 campaign truly famous? His explanation of Invisible Children as “the Pixar of human rights documentaries” (which I will come back to)? Of course, deluded, megalomaniac people sometimes do fantastic things, and the fact that Russell is clearly a bit of a lunatic doesn’t, in itself, invalidate his message. (As an aside, however, I would point out that the fact that his son’s middle name is ‘Danger’ while his daughter’s is ‘Darling’ tells me all I need to know about Russell’s gender understanding.)
There are also some critiques that I’ve seen of Invisible Children that I don’t agree with. Some people seem to be saying that the focus on Kony, a relatively small-scale war criminal in terms of his current operations, detracts attention from more egregious human rights abuses; however I don’t believe that the existence of worse human rights abuses means that people shouldn’t pay attention to the LRA. There’s also been a great deal of discussion of Invisible Children’s finances. While I am not saying that I think it’s necessarily a good thing that only 37% of their budget goes directly to African programmes, it’s also true that Invisible Children are not, and do not claim to be a programme-based organisation – plus discussions of this type often seem to devolve into organisations being lambasted for how much they pay out in salaries, with the implicit assumption that if you’re working for any sort of social justice-related objective, of course you should be prepared to work for free. So I am steering clear of that line of critique.
The thing I keep coming back to, however, is Kony2012′s depiction of Uganda – or, actually, ‘Africa’, as a kind of undifferentiated mass – as a site of passive suffering and victimhood, waiting for white Westerners to swoop in and ‘save’ it. Of course, as a white Westerner who spends much of her time working in Africa, I am the last person to say that the West (or the global North, or whatever we choose to call it) shouldn’t be involved in Africa – but I do believe, very strongly, that any form of Western intervention in Africa should be closely aligned with African institutions, and should be led by Africans. Rosebell Kagumire, a Ugandan journalist, posted a fantastic critique of Kony2012 here; the salient quote, to me, is as follows: “If you’re showing me as voiceless, as hopeless, you have no space telling my story. You shouldn’t be telling my story if you don’t believe I also have the power to change what is going on.” Sing it. BoingBoing as compiled a list of African voices responding to Kony2012 here. Of course, the fact that this list includes people from Benin, Nigeria and Ethiopia in relation to a Ugandan issue is a somewhat ironic reflection of the whole ‘Africa = undifferentiated mass of suffering’ point I mentioned above; however, a lot of the articles linked are commenting on Western views of Africa as a whole, rather than the Kony issue in particular, so I think it’s relevant.
What I object to perhaps the most, however, is the whole “Pixar of human rights documentaries” thing, the idea that Invisible Children are making films for the “MTV generation” (wait, I thought I was the MTV generation?), and, as Russell has claimed, no one wants a boring documentary on Africa. Quite aside from the fact that actually, yes, some of us do want more ‘boring’ documentaries about Africa, I find this a profoundly depressing and dangerous statement. Yes, I think it’s probably true that the majority of young people are more inclined towards flashy, special effects-laden documentaries narrated by people who look like the sort of people they relate to, rather than intellectually-challenging, complex documentaries that encourage and require critical thinking – but I don’t think this sort of intellectual laziness should be encouraged. In my experience, people generally meet your expectations. Kony2012 expects so little of its audience, by way of critical engagement, that it’s actually rather insulting. Fundamentally, I refuse to believe that the majority of Kony2012 viewers are incapable of research and analysis, and it concerns me that the easy acceptance of this broad-brush level of discourse as a way of becoming more informed about the world is open to manipulation and misuse. I can very, very easily imagine, ten years ago, the exact same type of video being made about Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, complete with moving footage of Kurds affected by gas attacks, to justify military intervention. Lord knows I sympathise and empathise with the desire to see the world in comforting black and white, with the satisfaction of feeling that you’d Doing Something by watching a video or buying a wristband – but it’s illusory and ultimately useless.