I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself when I first saw this photograph a few days ago. It was taken by American photo-journalist Glenna Gordon who at the time was covering (on assignment with AP) the peace talks between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan government on the Sudan-Congo border. During one particular lull in the talks, Invisible Children founders (the fine white, non-camouflaged gentlemen in the center) Bobby Bailey (left), Laren Poole (middle), and Jason “Radical” Russell (right) decided to borrow some arms from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army and pose amongst them for some especially bad-ass photographs. Everyone, apparently, was “into it.”
By now, most of you have probably heard about (if not watched) the thirty minute film on Joseph Kony which was released on March 5 by the American nonprofit Invisible Children. As I write this (2.56pm on the 10th of March), the film has since registered a staggering 60,364,287 views on YouTube. However impressive, it’s important to remember that these numbers do not evidence the moral fortitude of our generation any more than the 715,135,054 views of Justin Bieber’s song “Baby” (featuring Ludacris) evidence our musical sophistication. Clip popularity is about the only thing you can reasonably distill from the numbers.
Nonetheless, popularity – or publicity – is an important consideration in social initiatives since it is the force that heaves something into the spotlight that would otherwise be obscured from public view. Awareness is another word for it. There’s no doubt that Invisible Children’s latest film has been an especially powerful vehicle of awareness-raising vis-à-vis the LRA’s absolutely atrocious practices, Joseph Kony’s particular role, and the horrors of child soldiers. Though I think we ought to bear some collective embarrassment for the fact that much of our information about such things comes to us these days through status updates or tweets, I suppose the important thing is that we encounter the information. Ultimately, whether we like it or not, these rather pedestrian social media portals are the present means of encounter. And let me be the first to admit that while I was aware of the LRA and child soldiers, I did not know of Joseph Kony by name until I watched the film – which I heard about through Facebook.
Amidst this publicity explosion, there are understandably several voices of critique that have weighed in on the conversation. Though I think the cause undergirding the film is unequivocal (that of the evil of the LRA, child soldiers, and the importance of bringing the perpetrators to justice), Invisible Children’s means of communicating this cause (as well as their financial integrity) and their advocated response to it have been matters of contention. And while I don’t want to rehearse these contentious details in this particular piece, I’d recommend reading through the following to get a survey of the critiques:
a) African voices discuss the film’s perpetuation of the “White Man’s Burden” and a belittling African narrative
b) Charity Navigator’s two star accountability and transparency financial rating of Invisible Children
c) Only 32% of Invisible Children’s annual budget (US $8,676,614 last year) goes towards direct programs/services
c) The pitfalls of the film’s awareness-raising, the American superego, and the complexity of how to responsibly respond
d) Fact-checking the film: studies in misinformation and oversimplified advocacy
e) More myth busting (and a dose of quasi straw men and white saviourdom to boot)
e) Visible Children: a critical blog that proves that the opinions of a dissenting-Canadian-undergraduate matter
And then there’s the photo, conveniently featured at the beginning of this post. Jason “Radical” Russell explained the photo in what some might say was the lamest fashion possible – simultaneously undermining his own credibility and calling further attention to an already ridiculous case of irony by trying to express his hatred of guns (a hatred so odious that it merited capitalization). Here is the clumsy explanation in his own words:
Let me start by saying that that photo was a bad idea. We were young and we got caught up in the moment [emphasis added]. It was never meant to reflect on the organization. The photo of Bobby, Laren and I with the guns was taken in an LRA camp in DRC during the 2008 Juba Peace Talks. We were there to see Joseph Kony come to the table to sign the Final Peace Agreement. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) was surrounding our camp for protection since Sudan was mediating the peace talks. We wanted to talk to them and film them and get their perspective. And because Bobby, Laren and I are friends and had been doing this for 5 years, we thought it would be funny to bring back to our friends and family a joke photo. You know, “Haha – they have bazookas in their hands but they’re actually fighting for peace.” The ironic thing about this photo is that I HATE guns. I always have. Back in 2008 I wanted this war to end, like we all did, peacefully, through peace talks. But Kony was not interested in that; he kept killing. And we still don’t want war. We don’t want him killed and we don’t want bombs dropped. We want him alive and captured and brought to justice.
Now, I need to clarify something because so far I’m sure it seems like I’m jumping on the critique bandwagon willy nilly. The truth is that I really do believe in the importance of the cause at the fore of the film. You would have to be the most unfeeling human being not to wither in disgust at the crimes of the LRA, agonize over the issue of child soldiers, or yearn for those responsible to be brought to justice. Shock, grief, moral outrage, and an urgent desire to do something are natural responses to these things. While the critiques may highlight better and worse ways of handling the realities – a good thing in my opinion – I don’t believe any of them eclipse the moral validity of the cause. It is this moral validity – and especially the process of genuinely honoring it – that concerns me.
Although social awareness may be helpfully sparked by the fluctuations of social media (status updates, tweets, YouTube videos and the like), the lifeblood of social activism is sustainability and faithfulness. In the case of the Kony 2012 campaign, it’s fairly easy to share a link, purchase an “action kit,” and even don some Kony clothing and accessories. The immediacy and convenience of these things is motivational dynamite which at once makes you believe you’re changing the world, partaking in an enormous social movement, and alleviates guilt – but the moral validity of the cause cries out for more than an experience of instant gratification. It cries out for people whose devotion to this particular expression of social engagement will not wane when the publicity of this issue does (after April 20, for example). Even if we put an end to the reality of child soldiers, there is much work to be done to rehabilitate those who have been traumatized and to heal the relational and societal breaches that have resulted. And for all of your valiant efforts Mr. “Radical” Russell, it’s ridiculous to answer questions about Kony’s capture (including specific concerns about probable bloodshed and the emergence of future LRA leaders) by saying “We put a man on the moon.”
Though Kony 2012 is trending heavily at the moment, it is entirely irresponsible for us to treat this issue (and particularly the suffering of people) solely as a social flavor of the month or to subject the import of these things to something as fickle as the ebb and flow of the internet. It’s not easy to think beyond now in our tweeting and status-updating world, which makes the now-ness of social initiatives especially seductive. What I wish to uphold to you (and to myself) is a more enduring, patient, and humble form of social involvement. An involvement that is truly long-suffering and pursues truth and justice long after the glow of the spotlight and the euphoria of the crowd recedes.
We can be thankful for Invisible Children and their films for making us more aware of the bitter realities of our world, but we ought not take our subsequent responsibility lightly by making it all an instant or immediate matter. Stop Kony now, yes, but – no matter how long it takes – may we not grow weary of seeking the complete freedom, healing, and peace of all of those to whom he, his cronies, and the LRA have brought wounding. The last thing we need in this moment is a further erosion of our moral credibility because we’re unwilling to commit to a long haul. After all, if there’s one thing to be learned from the photograph above, it’s that there’s nothing worse than getting caught up in the moment.