My Take on #Kony2012 and Responding to the Criticisms Like “Neocolonialism” and “Propaganda” #StopKony

In the next couple of posts, I want to turn our attention towards responding to the criticism of Invisible Children and the #Kony2012 video. I appreciate critique but I am surprised by just how severe the criticism is and I find myself wondering what is the motivation behind that.

I’ll get to that another time but here’s my motivation for my support, the defense of this organization and the promotion of the cause of fighting human trafficking. No one is doing a better job on this issue in creating awareness among those that are in a demographic who may be among the hardest to reach. That’s right, an identity-searching teenager, an overwhelmed college student, an anxious twenty-something, even those in the 30’s who are juggling minivan payments and diapers are connecting with an issue that doesn’t directly affect them and one that is taking place on the other side of the world.  That’s impressive.

This isn’t to say that people haven’t cared about causes before 2005 – of course they have. I’m saying that IC is reaching a number of difficult demographics and among the reasons is that they are using good strategy with good technology telling a good story. That’s a trifecta in the information overload suffering from compassion fatigue in the social media age.

That said, #Kony2012 and Invisible Children are not for everyone. Though I doubt IC would admit this, they know it isn’t either. If they wanted it for everyone, they would have made a different set of decisions (like branding) to include an even broader audience. They are clearly after a younger demographic and no one does a better job at this.

Even further, fighting human trafficking is not everyone. I don’t mean to treat this as a preference thing like in the way some people prefer Dunkin’ Donuts to Starbucks, but rather certain people gravitate to certain issues for different reasons and no one can fight every issue. So it’s not for everyone.

As mentioned prior, I too have concerns about Invisible Children but the number of people that are out to dismiss them is staggering. The first criticism I saw was from this Tumbler account called Visible Children. I’m sure he’s a wonderful guy even though initially he said he was a professor but turns out he’s actually a student. I like his casual demeanor, even if it is the classic example of being passive-aggressive. I do think it’s odd that he asks everyone to link to his Tumbler post every time they see a Kony 2012 link and then keeps insisting that “It’s not about him.” I imagine his photography side business is going to get a nice little boost.

But let’s take a look and address the charges of  IC’s “neocolonialism” and “propaganda”. I’m sensitive to the term neocolonialism especially since seminary but here’s a bit of what I’ve learned in reading the Times, Utne and Huffington Post. These words are like when Captain Kirk says to his crew, “Set your phasers to stun.” Flippantly stating that something is “propaganda” is the equivalent as saying, “I don’t have time to refute your entire case, so with one big condescending wave of my hand, I’m dismissing it as propaganda.”

These words are intended to intimidate and create space to levy criticism from a different angle. What exactly about it is neocolonialism? Likely the answer will be that it’s a larger, stronger government or elite set of influential people trying to “seize” financial or political or cultural control on a smaller, perhaps compromised, population. In this case, they will likely point to these rich kids from San Diego using their cultural elitism in such a way that they were able to secure a military invention signed by the President. Inevitably, they will also point out there’s oil in Uganda.

This is flawed for several reasons. One it’s extremely naive, even if you are a conspiracy theorist.  Are you really suggesting that the US Government launched Invisible Children so they could get legislation passed through them so they could send over 100 officials to assist the Ugandan army to find Joseph Kony in the jungles of Central Africa and that all in the region would say, “Thanks so much guys, here’s all of our oil!”? That’s so diabolical … if you live inside an Austin Powers movie and you think the devil is Dr. Evil but not so much in the real sense.

Further, where is the line between helping with the resources you have and the accusation of neocolonialism? We need to be careful that our charity does not come with strings attached that strip others from their cultural identity but cultures that are sharing and helping one another is a beautiful thing. After watching IC movies, I remember students in my previous youth ministry constantly expressing things like, “I just can’t imagine what that’s like. We need to do something.”  What this innocent sentiment describes is not an activism strategy, what it demonstrates is compassion and the desire to help someone in need. Watching a fifteen year old discover this is powerful and it reminds you of many things. That was the point of Katie Curic tweeting about her teenager informing her.  Katie probably knows a thing or two regarding current events (she likely already knew what her teen was telling her ) but it’s a telling thing when she tweets:

What about all the American influence?? Umm, well, we should have thought long ago. We see in the Rough Cut (IC’s first film) that 14 year old boys even in Uganda know about Tupac and JaRule long before these three dudes from California got there which makes sense for me. Had they been singing the OC theme song California, I would have been more concerned.

Some of this is caution. We should always be aware of the effects of even unintended consequences. Some of this is a case of semantics lobbed over by people who have their own motivations. But I caution them, you can make the case that everything is neocolonial from the World Cup to pop-music to McDonalds (to a photography side business). We should be aware of the difference between globalization and neocolonialism and tone down the white-man burden hero complex rhetoric a bit. While racism still exists in our country, the multiculturalism that we enjoy in our country today is quite beautiful. You can even see that in the White House.

I’ll admit it threw me off at first to see Jason, Laren and Bobby in their sunglasses, cool guy clothes and California accents hanging out in Uganda and asking questions that made me think, “I know you’re in the moment but you can edit, right?” Part of it was my Northeastern bias (we have cooler sunglasses, clothes, accents and ask better questions), the other part was understanding more of “the moment” and what they were doing with it. But I tell you, it made a pretty big difference to me that they didn’t say, “We’re just three cool guys from California …” and did nothing.  Further, I am humbled by their activism and grateful for what it has influenced me to do.

Part of this is a collective backlash against California culture. Part of it is how guys like Jason come off on screen. I realize some of this is comes across a little back-handed but many in our culture only expect them to be trendy and hit on girls. And instead we see a married guy showing his four year old pictures of Joseph Kony and standing in the White House calling for the arrest and capture of a notoriously evil man. We’re surprised not because we don’t think they are competent to actually do something, we’re surprised that they chose to pursue their ideals amidst the tough realties of the world.

Not everyone can do what they are doing. Not everyone is called to do that. But what Invisible Children (and countless other non-profits) is doing is charity and good work. They are actually leveraging their strengths, their resources and their influence in hopes that  those in Central Africa can have a better future. And they’re doing what any organization tries to do – inviting others to help.  So how about it?

The next post will respond to a few other criticisms, including the financial concerns and what those in Uganda are saying. Later, I will post my concerns and hopes and likely wrap this thing up. Feel free to comment, pushback or ask something.  Thanks for reading.


  1. Courtney says:

    Here’s my slightly-more-than-two-cents, as a person who has traveled to Gulu and may not be an expert but is probably slightly more informed than most of the Facebook haters and the like.

    Having been a strong supporter of IC in the past, and having grown up a bit since their inception back in the day… I am disappointed in this latest campaign. I am really frustrated with the way they have written this narrative for the people of Uganda (which is nothing new) and in many ways have spoken for them rather than empowering them to have their own voice. I am looking forward to your next post on what people in Uganda are saying. Here’s one for you:

    Can good come of this? Yes, of course. But could it have been done in a way that preserved and upheld the dignity of Central Africans and empowered them to write their own narrative rather than continuing to promote the image of vulnerable, weak people in need of big brother America’s help? Yes. By this point in the game, I expected more from them. (I have other concerns too, and I am pretty sure they’re legitimate.) So I’m grappling.

  2. Hey Courtney, appreciate your comment.

    As one of my future posts begins, I see IC as one of the many starting points to a long, complicated and difficult journey. So, I admit, maybe my expectations are tempered, I’m more excited that people who normally don’t consider things like human trafficking are engaging with it.

    The short response is that I think IC has done a solid job in previous films in giving Ugandans and Congolese a voice and a platform. Videos like Tony, Roseline, Innocent, Grace and others.

    Still, your critique should give IC pause in their future projects – will this empower those in Central Africa and invite those around the world to help? I think they would say this is something that’s very important to them but maybe they could have down a better job on this one.

    I’ll save some of your other expressed concerns for later. Keep grappling – I am too.

  3. The main issue I have with something like this is just how much this video appealed to emotions and swept up an entire nation so quickly and without question. It’s troubling when people can be convinced that we need to exert violence after only watching a 30 minute video, no matter who the target is. Regardless of how credible or noble the Kony 2012 movement is, we need people to not get so headstrong about things so quickly, or else they will fall for anything.
    Skepticism is the safest and most sane way to handle most things, and this needs to be put under a microscope like everything else. That’s the most troubling thing to me. Educating the masses about who Joseph Kony is sounds great to me. I’m always for more and more education. But people need to take the information, check the information and then make an informed decision. That’s not what is happening with this video.

  4. Courtney says:

    I agree about past films doing a better job. Sadly, those films reached a much smaller audience than Kony2012, so a huge new chunk of the population is being introduced to IC right now without that background. The fact that they’ve handled it better in the past is one of the reasons I expected more from them. But yes- I agree that it is good to see people getting engaged. It’s just a shame that the partnership is not at the level (in my unprofessional opinion) that it could/should be in this one.

  5. Yeah it may be a bit emotional. I think that’s part of how documentary films work but in fairness, the issue itself is charged with emotion. Still, if you and others find it to be over-emotional, I respect that.

    One thing to clarify, Invisible Children didn’t say that Kony needed to be killed. Obama’s deployment of the 100 officials to assist the Ugandan army is based on the findings of the task force delegated to dealing with Kony and the LRA. I think this is empowering and helping in the right way to bring a villain like this to justice whether he be arrested or killed.

    I do wholeheartedly agree with you and everyone when we say that there’s more out there than this 30 min video. I hope that’s obvious to everyone but maybe you’re seeing/hearing something I’m not.

    Thanks for reading, hope you are well. (Hey you still owe me an email ;)

  6. @Courtney, Agreed for the first impressions. I think that’s why they felt they needed to use some of the older footage but maybe a lot of that gets lost in the scenes with his son and the “cool activism” scenes. I think the partnership exists on some level though. One of my favorite parts of the tours was that they every team toured with Ugandans and Congolese. Their staff page is very diverse and from what I heard, a lot of the funds from Schools for Schools are given without strings. I’ll keep an eye for the accuracy of that though and of course, more partnership would be better.

  7. Jonathan Annis says:

    Glenn Beck talked about this issue and brought up a couple interesting points. First Kony prior to the video had been inactive since 2006 and there is some speculation as to wether he is still alive at all. Second, I agree with those who say that the video does not talk about empowering the Ugandans to take care of the problem on their own, not to mention several Ugandan’s responses ( including the minister of defense) who say the LRA hasn’t been seen or heard from in quite a while and that assistance in agriculture and education would be significantly more helpful than military involvement. I am all for ending human trafficking, but Kony2012 is a very specific instance one that seems to be resolved for the most part. Third, the way IC want the video to be disseminated during the upcoming elections here in the US and that liberals are pushing for that as well, either means the IC hope to gain a lot of money from this particular project or Obama is hoping to make himself into a valiant hero coming to the Ugandans rescue

  8. Hey Jonathan, thanks for reading but I got to tell you, when you begin a comment with Glenn Beck, it just scares me. In fact, Beck’s support actually makes me question my position in this post :). I’m kidding, even a broken clock is …

    Kony and the LRA are still active in Central Africa. They are small and mobile but they’re still terrorizing. But even if they were all retired, he and his LRA should still be brought to justice.

    I agree with you that education and infrastructure are absolutely necessary in Uganda, Central Africa and countless other places. IC has a number of programs, among them is called “The Legacy Foundation” which supports children in CAfrica securing private schooling.

    Of course, there are numerous other very worthy organizations doing good work, you should definitely check them out.

    Lost me on those last two lines. I couldn’t care less if Ahmadinejad got rid of Kony – one less bad guy.

  9. Courtney says:

    Another challenging point comes up when we talk about “bringing his LRA to justice”. While we can all agree that Kony is a violent, manipulative war criminal… we start to enter a grey area pretty fast when we start to address his army- comprised largely of victims-turned-killers. Just another area of complexity that underlies this issue. Are we prepared to deal with the fact that when “justice” is served, it may play out in a way that focused on retribution rather than restoration of these, the most devastated victims of the war?

    “The 70 million plus who have watched the Invisible Children video need to realise that the LRA – both the leaders and the children pressed into their service – are not an alien force but sons and daughters of the soil. The solution is not to eliminate them physically, but to find ways of integrating them into (Ugandan) society.” (

    Now, IC is all for restoration, I know that. But this is one of those areas where justice starts to get messy, and I worry how the political momentum will play out in the end. Are we prepared to deal with that?

  10. Completely agree about the bringing LRA to justice line. Just like with any army, there is a structure so I think what I mean (and likely a few others) is Kony and the superiors. As far as everyone? Indeed that’s the issue. It’s also partially why the Ugandan army couldn’t fight them.
    Regarding the justice-retribution, agree there too. This is why I think a constant offer of help is important. I’m not suggesting that Westerners take over, I’m suggesting the world needs to do remember recent history and be there for support, guidance, and accountability.
    Are we prepared to deal with that? I doubt it but we clearly these conversations are needed.
    Grateful for your heart.

Speak Your Mind