Kony 2012, Clicktivism, and the Question of ‘We’

Okay, let’s get a few things out of the way first.  I don’t know much about Invisible Children.  Or Uganda.  And before the “Kony 2012” video, I also did not know a ton about Kony besides what I gleaned from the book Outcasts United, reviews of Machine Gun Preacher, and misinformation from Rush Limbaugh.  So, admittedly, my exposure has been limited.  Furthermore, I’ve never even been to Africa, and most of my recent knowledge of the current situation in Uganda comes from a book called Kisses from Katie.  In other words, I don’t know what is best for Uganda, I haven’t done a thing to stop Kony, and I pretty much don’t know what I’m talking about.  You probably shouldn’t even be reading this.

That said, let’s begin.

Last week, the internet world was rocked by a thirty minute video about child abductor, mass murderer, and all around bad guy, Joseph Kony.  For decades, Kony has been kidnapping children in Uganda and beyond, and forcing them to fight for him in what he calls the “Lord’s Resistance Army.”  He is responsible for lots and lots of horrible things.  The video was made by a non-profit group called Invisible Children, which apparently was founded in 2003 with the express purpose of stopping this madman.  They appear in their video to connect their advocacy to President Obama’s decision to send…advisory military people?…into Uganda to serve as aid to the Ugandan government, who are trying to catch Kony and deliver him to the International Criminal Court.  Kony is the ICC’s #1 most wanted bad guy, and…well…they want him.  Invisible Children is worried, though, that without continued public support, the U.S. government will cancel the mission, and Kony will continue to wreak havoc.  Thus, their goal is to get enough Americans fired up about Kony so that we will continue pressuring our government to intervene, and that they will continue to help the Ugandan government, who in turn will catch Kony.  This plan was all laid out in the video in a nifty series of photographic dominoes.

To be honest, it doesn’t exactly seem like a fool-proof plan to me, but again, I’m not an expert.  We’ll get to all that later, though.  First, here is the video:

Frankly, I’m just impressed that teens watched all thirty minutes.  That’s a long time for the younger generation!  Also, I have to say that it was really cool to see kids excited about something beyond their own, immediate world.  I’ll take awareness of greater human suffering over status updates about the burrito they had at Moe’s any day of the the week!  So yeah…my first reaction to this whole phenomenon was that I was pumped!

And I guess that’s why the groundswell of invalid criticism rubbed me the wrong way.

Now, don’t get me wrong:  I do believe that there is some very valid criticism–or at least valid questions–about the efforts of Invisible Children here.  But in the midst of those good conversation starters came a lot of cynicism and snark.  Here are two examples of what I believe is completely invalid criticism:

Invalid Critique #1:  “Liking” a Facebook status is “not enough,” and the kids who participate on this level are shallow.

This is a two-parter.  The first critique to the movement comes in the form of a not-so-gentle reminder that it takes more than internet activism to make actual change.  To the people who pose such an objection, I have a few things to say.  First, at the risk of sounding obvious, didn’t you watch the video?  “Liking” the Facebook status is part of the first step:  Spreading awareness.  That leads to government pressure, which leads to American intervention, which leads to Ugandan military success, which leads to capturing Kony.  Remember the dominoes, people!

But really, this criticism is not about the dominoes, but about disdain for “clicktivism” as a whole.  “Clicktivism” is online activism.  It includes such “surface” actions as tweeting a few lines or “liking” a status about some social cause.  The objection to clicktivism is that such actions are pretty lame, ultimately meaningless, and that they give a false sense of satisfaction to their participants. I understand these objections because I used to feel the same way.  My mind was enlightened, however, by these wise words from a friend, Ryan Dement.  I read them in a note he wrote on Facebook in October, 2010.  The whole note was great, but in the following paragraph, Ryan addressed the criticism that clicktivism is too easy.  Here is what he had to say:

 The biggest critique of clicktivism is that it’s way too easy to ‘like’ a facebook page and do nothing else. That real activism is strangled by the useless gesture of a click that assuages guilty consciences just enough to prevent them from enacting real change. This argument always sounds great when I hear it. but the more I think about it, the less it makes sense. 1.) The person who does this, the person who clicks and walks away, is not the person who would drive to D.C. for a modern day march on Washington. People do however much they feel that they should. Or can. The person who cares enough to retweet one link or news story cares exactly that much…There are good arguments for whether or not they should or can do more. But despite that: they decide to click, to tweet, and stop. The clicking didn’t keep them from greater activism. in fact, the ease of social media probably incited them to do that little bit, more than they would have otherwise. 2.) This least amount of effort isn’t useless. The internet works in trends and memes, and adding that one tweet-drop of exposure to a social issue has a positive effect.  Even if someone glances over it, makes a programmed decision not to read, care, or think about it, and moves on, that decision to dismiss occurred, where it would not have otherwise. Thus increasing the frequency in which people are consciously thinking about the issue. Certainly not glamorous, but not useless either.

I completely agree.  What gets me is that the people who criticize the “small” actions of “liking” a Facebook status are probably not tweeting their objections while on their plane ride to Uganda.  In fact, there is a good chance that the objectors to the smallness of Facebook “likes” are doing even less.  I’m not hatin’, and I definitely think there is a call for circumspection here.  But why must our first reaction to do-gooder idealism be to try to cynically stamp it out?  There are so many better reactions to have.

This is the second part of Invalid Critique #1, and to me, it is even more ridiculous.  Yeah, maybe most of the people with Kony 2012 pictures all over their Facebook page didn’t care about Ugandan kids yesterday.  That’s probably true.  But…that’s because they didn’t know about Ugandan kids yesterday.  That’s how information works.  You don’t know something, and then you learn about it, and then you know it.  It’s called a starting point.  I wasn’t born caring about poor kids in Nashville.  But when I got to Youth Encouragement Services in college, I learned about them and started caring about them.  I can’t imagine what my response would have been if, while I was all fired up about Y.E.S. kids, someone came up to me and said, ‘Tell me more about how you’ve always cared about poor kids in Nashville?”  As if my new-found compassion didn’t count because it was new.  Seriously?  That makes no sense.  Yes, the cynic in me would acknowledge that most of these “activists” are going to move on from this cause in a couple of weeks.  But who cares?  Isn’t it good that they are being introduced to issues beyond their own little worlds?  And even if 5% or less actually continue to fight for the poor and oppressed, that’s 5% who might not be doing so otherwise.  Everyone has to start somewhere.

The Nashville example brings me the second invalid criticism of this movement.

Invalid Critique #2:  “We” should not worry about Africa because “we” have too many problems here.

Ah, yes, the question of “we.”  In Lee Camp’s brilliantly frustrating book, Mere Discipleship, he gives a little litmus test in order to determine the American Christian’s ultimate loyalty.  The test is simply a question of “we”:  when you speak generally of “we,” who are you talking about?  Is “we” the church, the kingdom of God?  Or is “we” America?  Whichever “we” is, that’s the group with which you most identify.  It’s the group that claims your ultimate loyalty.  I’m not sure that the test is entirely fair, but it definitely made me think.

The “we” in this second critique is America.  I know that because the kingdom of God is in Africa, too.  So “we,” the kingdom of God, have some problems in Africa, and over there, “our” people are suffering.  And thus, “we” should do something about it.  See, you can use the Bible to justify putting the weak and oppressed first, and you can use it to justify putting Christians first, but you cannot use it to justify putting a particular nation first.  That last one is not a Biblical argument.

Now, perhaps it is valid to point out that loving your neighbor should not be an either/or scenario.  Perhaps we should remember that we are also called to love our next-door neighbor, as well as our African neighbor.  Perhaps we need the reminder that it is often easier to love the people whom you can’t see than it is to love the people who are actually a part of your life.  And perhaps we could use the pragmatic counsel that God might want us to work where we could do the most good, and that there is a greater chance that we could do good in our own surroundings.  I agree with all of those points.  But I certainly don’t think that we have to choose one or the other, local or foreign, as worthy of our time.  And I certainly don’t believe that everything in America has to be perfect before we care about anyone outside of America.

In the midst of the cynicism and invalid objections, however, I think that some really good questions have been raised. I have a few myself:

  • Who, exactly, are the group, Invisible Children, and are they the best people to handle this Kony thing?
  • If for me, “we” is the church, then why should I want “we” the American government to handle this?
  • Is military intervention the best solution?
  • Is the Ugandan government as corrupt as I’ve been hearing?
  • What important information about this situation do I not know?
  • Could Invisible Children’s plan do more harm than good?
  • What does God want me to do in this situation?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do think that they are the right questions.  I think Kony is a madman, and I can’t imagine that Africa would be anything but better without his presence.  But I also don’t want to ignorantly forge ahead, riding a wave of self-righteous idealism and make the situation worse.  So for now, I’m educating myself and praying.  I did a fair amount of googling, until I found Rachel Held Evans’ very helpful post, “Some Resources on the Invisible Children Controversy.”  It has tons of links to different perspectives and thoughts from people way more informed on the matter than I.  I would definitely recommend perusing through the links in this post if you are interested in learning more about the situation with Joseph Kony.

I’ve thought a lot, though, about what I would tell my kids, if they were teenagers who were caught up in this surge of internet righteousness.  How would I direct their passion without stamping it out?

I think I would start by rejoicing over their concern for others.  Then I would assure them that their compassion was pleasing to God and confirm that all children are equally precious in His sight, no matter what nation they are from.  Next, I would show them how to educate themselves in order to be equipped to do the greatest good.  And then we would talk about it.  And pray about it.

And then we would do something about it. _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________So what is your opinion of Kony 2012?

9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Tim on March 15, 2012 at 10:15 am

    Kim, this line is awesome: “That’s how information works. You don’t know something, and then you learn about it, and then you know it.” Yes! I think people who criticize others for jumping on a bandwagon forget that they too were once newbies at something somewhere.

    And in your second question about how we define “we”, I think only the most isolationist of groups would deny their place in a massive Venn diagram (and they’d be wrong, anyway). The rest of us know that our spheres are constantly touching and overlapping and expanding and shrinking, and on and on.

    Your plan for when your kids show concern for others is spot on too. Rejoice over what God has put on their hearts, confirm their God-given priorities, and support them in serving God and the people he has put in their lives whether next door or halfway around the world.

    Good job Kim. This post is really helpful for getting us to think through these things.



    • Thanks, Tim. I hesitated to post about a subject about which I don’t really feel qualified to give definite advice. Thus, I shied away from proposing a specific plan of action. I did, however, finally feel compelled to address some of the particular criticisms I have heard about the movement. I’ve been spending the last few days trying to sort out the valid from the invalid, so this post was a nice way to process my thoughts. I would love to hear what others think about this movement, and even about my own analysis of the critiques.


      • Posted by Tim on March 16, 2012 at 5:17 pm

        I just saw a short news article that the filmmaker/co-founder was arrested in San Diego today. The charges do not relate directly to the organization, but certainly reflect poorly on it. Satan keeps finding ways to bring people down.


        • I’ve read about it, Tim. So sad. From the scant details that are available now, it seems that he just lost it. Whether it was from the stress or some longstanding mental issues, it is just very, very sad to me. I hope that it does not undo the good that he was trying to do. Prayers for him and his family.


  2. I am kinna speechless. I will have to ponder a bit and come back …


  3. I’m fine with raising awareness, and with helping kids and catching bad guys. My biggest issue withe Kony 2012 thing is that, as I understand it, the Ugandan military kicked him out several years ago, and the LRA has only killed something like 95 people in the past year. Sure, 95 is way too many, but that would put this Lord Voldemort-like character in the category of being currently less dangerous than any number of tinorn dictators, terrorist leaders, druglords, etc.

    To me it’s a lot like AIDS activism. AIDS research is sexy, it’s Hollywood, it’s cool. Unfortunately, there’s no colored ribbon one can wear for congestive heart failure, or lung cancer. For that matter, even Breast Cancer gets the star treatment, thanks to the Komen foundation’s excellent marketing. But not pancreatic cancer, or colon cancer, or emphysema. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t fight AIDS or breast cancer, or Kony. I just don’t like having my priorities set by the internet meme of the week, or the “conventional wisdom.”

    I’ll bet that sounds terrible, doesn’t it? And that’s the rub. You question something like this, and now you’re pro-AIDS or don’t care about abused kids. Easier to click, or ignore. But it’s not worth the hassle to ask questions about the emperor’s clothes.


    • Yeah, that’s the story I heard, too. And you raise a good point about how important marketing seems to be in driving social causes these days. I honestly don’t have an opinion about that at this second. To me, marketing is neutral, like money. If people can use it to do good, then that’s great. I do see the problem, of course, with other issues being marginalized because of a lack of good marketing power…hmm…need to keep thinking about that one.

      As for whether your objections sound terrible, no, I don’t think they do at all. Just because you are not swept up in the latest social trend does not mean that you don’t care about or help hurting people. What I do take issue with is those who offer (seemingly) knee-jerk critiques of others who are ignited by this movement. Seriously, I would HOPE my kids had Kony 2012 on their Facebook profile if they were teens. That would start a great conversation about what God wants us to do in this world–a conversation that would most likely include the points you just made (and perhaps the When Helping Hurts book:)). The trick is to channel this passion, not stamp it out.


      • You’ve nailed it: this is EXACTLY how I feel about “When Helping Hurts.” And I applaud the sentiment, but am driven crazy by the fact that so much of the sentiment gets spent on feel-good activities that are at best worthless and in many cases counterproductive.


    • Posted by bekster081305 on March 16, 2012 at 2:57 pm

      Good points, Larry.


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