It seems a bit odd that my last post, which received thousands of hits and was carried by the Mennonite Weekly Review and a number of blogs, was about a viral video. It’s no coincidence that this post, too, is about another viral video. The internet certainly has made it easy to communicate about passionate interests, and people seem ready to access these hyper-popular issues in an age where news and information are turned on and off like a sitcom.
A number of friends and colleagues have entered the discussion about the KONY 2012 video campaign sponsored by Invisible Children, and while some have stood on one side or the other of the debate, many still have pretty big questions about whether this is a good or bad thing that IC is doing.
So, for what it’s worth, here are a few thoughts I have had about the latest story to set the internet ablaze.
- Issues that involve international politics, human rights, regional fighting, and religious conflict are always complex. There are rarely “right” and “wrong” answers. Yet, we Western middle-class modernists want easy answers in our drive-through culture of immediate gratification. We have become conditioned to thirty-second sound bites of yes/no, on/off, for/against, black/white, right/wrong solutions. The modern mind, with its love for the easily quantifiable, defaults to simplistic categories that offer only two possible outcomes. This bifurcation of culture doesn’t allow for the complexities of difficult and historic contexts. To say that KONY 2012 is right or wrong is reductionist at best, and disastrously harmful and neglectful of a multitude of real issues involving real people at worst. (See Rachel Held Evan's post for a broad discussion)
- The KONY 2012 campaign has once again raised the issue of child well-being across the globe, and specifically in Africa. While the awareness this has created is good and has appealed to a younger audience, the sad news is that that abuse of children is nothing new and is a major violation of human rights throughout the planet. It’s estimated that over a quarter of a million children in more than twenty countries are currently conscripted into serving as soldiers in armed conflicts. But there is a much more insidious use of children that is quietly accepted throughout the West. Millions of children never go to school and are forced to work in industries that benefit first world nations. In Africa, children are used to mine the gold, silver and diamonds that we find so precious (see Leonardo DiCaprio’s Blood Diamond as one example). The soccer ball that my son plays with is likely made by children in China. Cocoa farms on the Ivory Coast use child slaves to produce the Halloween candy we hand out to the neighbors every October. Coffee beans in Columbia? Children. Brand name blue jeans? Children. That popular iDevice? Children. Add to that an endless list of products that we Americans love, and an ever-bustling trade of global child trafficking, and the atrocities of child abuse are much larger than a viral video campaign. (See the Slavery Footprint website to calculate the number of slaves that you own)
- I don’t really have a problem with the organization Invisible Children. They have done a fine job creating awareness of global injustices. However, those who donate to this organization must understand one important aspect: your money is not going to people in Africa. IC won’t deny this. As an advocacy group (unlike a charity), IC uses contributions to create awareness. While a small percentage of donations will actually end up on the ground, most will be used to create structures that get their message out (i.e. video productions, billboards, radio antennae in Africa to broadcast their message). If you want your money to be directly spent on the underprivileged of a third world country, use a reputable charity like World Vision, Bread for the World, Compassion Int’l, MCC and so many others. If you’re comfortable supporting IC’s awareness agenda, your money will probably be used to generate more advocacy programs. (See Invisible Children's website for a “What We Do” statement)
- Whenever I hear conflicting reports about an agency’s work in a foreign country, I’m more likely to believe the people who live in the country rather than the agency’s own promoters. Herein lies another huge issue related to international aid. We Americans consistently go into very complex foreign contexts with our packages of aid and solutions to the “poor African’s” problems. It’s a top-down approach without regard for culture or context. We believe, either motivated by guilt or by duty or by entrepreneurial opportunities, that our role is to “fix” what is broken. Unfortunately, we continue to proliferate the imperialism of Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” first published in 1899. I am deeply suspicious and cautious of any organization that seeks to provide aid to and advocacy for a cross-cultural context when that agency does not first and foremost seek to partner with and learn from the culture it desires to help. The history of Western countries is replete with stories when “helping” actually led to unintended hurt.
- I’ll say what I’ve said before: social media is great for spreading awareness and generating conversation, but it does not equal activism. Many of the desperate situations mentioned above will not be solved with the overthrow of a particular leader, an infusion of funds or the good intentions of people thousands of miles away. The child-soldiers of Uganda do not need your prayers (alone). Praying is a convenient way for Christians to opt out of the larger need: systemic change. When I buy a shirt from Target, chocolate from Nestles or a ring from Rogers Jewelers, I participate in the systemic injustices that so dominates the culture in which I live. It seems almost impossible to imagine another narrative. Yet, that’s precisely what the Gospel calls us to do. Jesus preached forgiveness, but also freedom from oppression, sight for the blind, and justice for the prisoner. Echoing the Old Testament prophets, James said, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). And again, “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them” (James 4:17). I’m glad we’re all discussing these important issues via social media (we wouldn’t likely be having this conversation without Facebook), but to let it stop there might be worse than not having the conversation at all.
For those of you who have read this far, and for those who may be a bit disturbed by this whole Kony thing, I have good news. Give it a week or two and we’ll be on to the next viral video highlighting another global crisis. (Will it be an earthquake? tsunami? famine? war? recession? Or will it be about a surfing dog or a high school girl singing of her plans for Friday?) You probably won’t even remember Kony and the child soldiers in a few days. That’s the upside about living in an isolated individualistic Western culture that primarily gets its news from social media. Ignorance is bliss.
“Oh, don't worry about it. As soon as you step outside that door, you'll start feeling better. You'll remember you don't believe in any of this fate crap. You're in control of your own life, remember? Here, take a cookie. I promise, by the time you're done eating it, you'll feel right as rain.” -The Oracle to Neo in The Matrix.