Kony 2012: The Mirror We Avoided Looking In
It is time that we get to the last step of Kony 2012.
There are three primary conversations I consider very valuable in the wake of Kony 2012. One takes an in-depth look at the multi-faceted history of conflict in Uganda and other countries in the region. Another emphasizes the power of a mobilized American public to achieve concrete outcomes in our country’s policies. However, I focus on the third: the crucial lessons that Kony 2012 teaches us about ourselves.
Kony 2012 holds a mirror to the money-driven, dishonest underbelly of the American polity. But rather than take a good, hard look in that mirror, admit our mistakes, and adjust our reaction to address the systematic problems of the U.S. foreign policy establishment (in which we are utterly complicit), we “slacktivists” divided ourselves into two major camps in response to Kony 2012: one that loved the video and congratulated themselves on their worldly altruism, and one that loathed the video and congratulated themselves on eviscerating the big, bad documentarian Jason Russell.
To arrive at a better outcome, we must scrutinize our initial reactions and then take one final step.
Perhaps our first major error was in misidentifying what was so wrong about Invisible Children’s depiction of Joseph Kony. While the factual inaccuracy was troubling, it was framing Kony as the sole cause of problems in Uganda that enabled Americans to escape blame. Yes, Kony is a murderous madman and should be prosecuted for his crimes in the International Criminal Court. But, as with many murderous madmen, Kony and his movement are reflections of an environment of instability and corruption—one largely created by Western meddling.
Kony amassed a following in part because he represented an alternative to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s repressive, U.S.-supported regime. President Museveni in turn was a reaction to his notoriously brutal predecessor, Idi Amin. And Idi Amin came into power in Uganda soon after the end of seventy years of British colonization. Add to the equation the detrimental effects of constant neo-colonial intervention by the United States, and the ascendancy of Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army starts to seem tragically plausible.
Our next misstep was failing to see the hypocrisy in our reactions. By no means do I compare the scale of the LRA’s atrocities to the errors of Invisible Children; however, the way we condemned the presentation of the former closely resembles the way we criticized the latter. We tore Invisible Children apart for scapegoating Kony and for failing to acknowledge the nuance of the regional context and the factors that led to the rise of his movement. But in doing so, we scapegoated Jason Russell, thereby failing to acknowledge the nuance of the American political machine and the factors that have led to Kony 2012’s prominence. Thereby, we managed to point the finger at everyone in the equation except ourselves.
Now, we arrive at the final error. We must accept the lesson that we all harbor selfish impulses in our subconscious that, if unchecked, can result in evil. Subconsciously, we want to feel like heroes in a nation of heroes. We hate to think that we could hurt anyone, or that we as a collective are responsible for a horrifying track record of undermining economies, instigating wars, and supporting dictators—often under the guise of “doing good.” But consciously, we must recognize these impulses and combat them. We must claim responsibility for our nation’s unjust foreign policy and the ways in which we implicitly and explicitly support it. Most importantly, we must pledge to do no more harm.
Joseph Kony is not “the bad guy” in Ugandan history, Jason Russell is not “the bad guy” in the aftermath of Kony 2012, and the American government and citizens that support it are certainly not “the good guys” in either. Evidently, the “good guy” versus “bad guy” narrative is a false and pernicious way of conceptualizing the world. What’s more, the tendency to vilify—rather than to critically empathize and contextualize—destroys the potential for many groundbreaking dialogues in our nation’s political discourse.
A part of what we characterize as “the bad guy” lies in each one of us. Do not let this be a source of shame; rather, feature as a source of pride your ability to be honest, introspective, and consciously committed to remedying the banal evils of your subconscious. The day that we achieve the discipline and resolve to genuinely “do good”—not by feeling good but by taking action with the highest degree of honesty and awareness—I will be proud to be an American, and Americans will be more effective global citizens.