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.