The Kony 2012 campaign dismays me. But the debate around it is inspiring.

Here are some thoughts I have cobbled together from interesting conversations I’ve been having on Facebook today about the now notorious/celebrated Kony 2012 campaign. It has been talked about so much in the last 48 hours that it may be hard to believe I think I have anything to add… but I do! I’m sorry I don’t have time right now to link to all the amazing things that have been going around that provoked some of this thinking, but please check my twitter feed in the sidebar for many examples. has also provided an extensive and useful digest.

Some loosely organized thoughts:

It is not a good movie

Apart from what it’s advocating, Kony 2012 is a slick but inferior film. It treats the viewer like a 3 year-old, almost explicitly, by framing the narrative around the filmmaker explaining things to his 3 year-old. This is suspicious since it is a movie about grave violence. I felt disrespected as a viewer. It’s also emotionally manipulative. It uses the natural sadness and rage one feels in response to seeing the aftermath of atrocity, and channels that energy into unquestioning support for the goals of the org. I don’t like the helplessness with which it portrays “Africans” (rarely is the term made more specific). We see the filmmaker talking to Jacob like a child when he’s not a child (for example when he’s touching the dolphin). It is full of serious factual errors. The movie sells a brand based on the possibility of saving Africa from a perch of superiority, an idea that has been around for 200 years or so and is behind a lot of bad stuff. It has the pacing and slickness of a superbowl commercial, which is why it is of course effective.

But it doesn’t matter if it’s “effective” messaging

Some folks are willing to give the film and Invisible Children some credit, despite admitting the movie was emotionally manipulative, because it is “effective” — not in stopping Kony obviously but in getting viewed. It had millions of views in the first 24 hours. But to what effect? I will not deny that it is a positive development that perhaps a few million more Americans can now locate Uganda on a map (even though the film incorrectly identifies it as being in Central Africa, and even though Kony is no longer there). But the cost of this new awareness is unbearably steep. It’s not just the $8 mil this org spent last year. The cost is that it is promoting a misunderstanding of the conflict that may be harder to untangle than simple ignorance. There is no mention of Uganda’s 25-year president, Yoweri Museveni, self-appointed arch prosecutor of Kony. He and other politicians were the target of large Cairo-inspired protests in Kampala throughout 2011. Although the movie does not mention him by name, I would imagine it is a welcome break for the president, and a barrier to Ugandans who would like to focus on more important changes. Its disregard for the facts in the service of its mission is also distasteful. I want the truth, and this doesn’t show it. The factual issues have been heavily reported, and I won’t repeat them here. Suffice it to say that I think it is so inaccurate that on the whole it gives a completely false representation of what is happening in Uganda now, and the region. More dumb myths are perpetuated about this nebulous Africa, which the film forgives us all for understanding on the level of a three year-old.

Net awareness has decreased, not increased

Another apology for the film claims that at least Africa will now be on the radar screens of many Americans who had stopped thinking about it. That’s not worth very much to me, because they’re getting the wrong facts, which makes people less aware of what’s happening, not more. If the wealth of information on the Internet means that this film prompts people to do their own research and find out more about Uganda, Kony, and Africa, that’s great. But that’s a fortunate side-effect of an ill-conceived film, and says more about the possibilities of modern technology than it does about the merits of the campaign. Analogy: If I made a heart-wrenching documentary about HIV, with painful testimonials from people suffering from AIDS, and then told you that it is transmitted by hugs and caused by poisonous mushrooms, have I helped the situation at all? Some people may claim that ignorance about Africa is so deep that anything that makes people think about it is good. If this is true it’s extremely sad, but I don’t believe it in principle or in practice.

What the campaign is advocating

I think it is pretty clear that the film advocates a muscular US measure, i.e. a military one of some kind, to stop Kony. Of course, in the wake of the criticism, Invisible Children has affirmed how much they love peace and hate war, which is very nice. I have heard the same from just about anyone who has ever advocated a military intervention. In the context of 2012, the implicit solution is to take Kony out with a drone or similar measure. I realize this conclusion is a leap from the actual content of the movie, but I don’t think it can be understood another way. The utter lack of specificity requires us to infer their goals. The campaign admonishes the government to “do something,” calling on several public figures including Condoleezza Rice, to help them. The activists are shown cheering when they hear that 100 US military advisors are being sent to Uganda, last October. I do think that it is relevant when thinking about this to say that the US is trying to establish a stronger presence in East Africa because of Somalia, and also that oil is about to come online in Uganda.  Things to think about. Perhaps 100 military advisors are quite helpful, but I’d like to hear more on that point — I’m not sure why this is viewed as an essential part of stopping Kony or helping Uganda. And we don’t really need more of this.

What’s inspiring

As fast as this campaign blazed around the net, people brought up doubts about it. Some of the first to take hold were on, usually known as a font for memes and atheism debates, but now increasingly sophisticated and wide-ranging discussions. People working on the ground in the region, not to mention Ugandan journalists and thinkers, had a chance to respond instantly to the condescension and inaccuracies, and with the right hashtag their voices were projected around the world, surfing the wave of the original campaign to criticize it with equal effect. As dismaying as it is that such a throwback, stereotype-laden film could be produced and hungrily consumed in 2012, I must say that it seems the debate and the thinking about such campaigns have really matured a lot in the last five years. This is to the credit of the technology and to the many people who have been working hard to deconstruct the most harmful and paternalistic American thinking about Africa.

What the outcomes of this campaign could be 

The best effect this whole thing could have is really getting people to think critically about far away issues, by questioning the simplistic film. On the other hand, its dishonesty could promote so much cynicism that people care even less than they did before. Either way I don’t give the movie much positive credit.

We critics should be quiet unless we have a better suggestion!

This comment, which I’ve seen floating around, drives me crazy. If my car is broken down because it’s missing spark plugs, and you offer to change my transmission, should I accept your expensive, misguided help just because I don’t have any spark plugs? Of course not. Please stop saying this.

What we can do, what I would support

There are future atrocities brewing in the world, and Americans can advocate for our government to take meaningful action (or stop taking harmful action, which is actually more common). Unfortunately it’s not as simple as finding neglected victims and kicking perps’ butts. We have to have significant policy shifts where we stop causing civil wars through aggression or stupidity. When there is a slick awareness-raising campaign for that kind of movement, I’ll be completely behind it. Similarly, flashy campaigns are fine by me when they get money to the many effective, smart organizations that are doing great work. IRC, MSF, many others. (Will need to save more thoughtful recs for another post.) On the other hand, I don’t think outright emotional manipulation has a place… ever, really. It stinks.

OK, I’m done… for now.

[small edits on 3/9 for clarity and enhanced utility]

One thought on “The Kony 2012 campaign dismays me. But the debate around it is inspiring.

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