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BREAKING THE FEEDBACK LOOP: Looking Beyond “Kony 2012″and Its Critics

BREAKING THE FEEDBACK LOOP: Looking Beyond "Kony 2012"and Its Critics

It’s easy to be cynical about the Kony 2012 video.  There is a painful lack of self-consciousness on the part of filmmaker and activist Jason Russell – a handsome white guy, culling together video he shot in Uganda in 2003 – as he uses his camera to preach the cause of ending African suffering, intercutting testimonials from escaped child soldiers with footage of his son Gavin.  The testimonials are blatantly manipulative, framed with swelling music and fancy editing tricks to underscore each child’s tears, particularly of a young boy named Jacob, he talks solemnly about his flight from being forced into combat by Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistence Army. 

The video is a staggering viral sensation, at this point having been viewed over 70 million times on YouTube, but the conversation it has spurred has been, unsurprisingly, repetitive and stagnant.  Kony 2012 is the latest example of a public discourse caught in a cycle of perpetual feedback, from thesis to antithesis.  But rarely do we arrive at synthesis.  Rather arguments spur counter arguments, which only return to the same arguments, around and around, in what only looks like motion but is actually stasis.

Kony 2012 does little to explain the crimes of Joseph Kony.  The video, along with the NGO that produced it, Invisible Children, highlight the LRA’s use of child soldiers – between 30 and 60 thousand abducted and made to carry weapons since 1987 – a crime that still shocks despite our increased knowledge of it.  Beyond that though, the video does little but paint Kony as a Hitler-esque figure.  It notes his indictment by the International Criminal Court in 2005, but does little to explain the history and breadth of the LRA’s actions.  The group’s atrocities are well documented, and range from the ‘standard’ war crimes (mass murder, displacement, rape and sexual slavery) to more exotic charges, including cannibalism and hacking off the legs of those caught riding bicycles (which Kony, reportedly, believes to be the work of the devil).

There is nothing particularly controversial about calling Joseph Kony a monster.  For 25 years, Kony and the LRA, a militant offshoot of other Acholi-nationalist movements in northern Uganda, have survived the tribal insurrections of the late 1980s due to the unwavering fanaticism of its leader and his willingness to commit the most brutal of atrocities. The LRA is sponsored by no government, and adheres to no pre-fab revolutionary ideology; its cult is strictly of Kony’s personality, which blends tribalism with a mystical Christianity (he believes in the literal protective power of crucifixes and holy water).  Joseph Kony is not a genocidal dictator, he is a fanatical strongman who has carved out his fiefdom the way fanatical strongmen always have, with unrelenting barbarism. 

The most the most glaring problem with Kony 2012 though, and Invisible Children as a whole, is that it equates awareness with action.  Invisible Children is dedicated to aiding in the arrest of Kony, a goal they hope to achieve this year by raising public awareness – turning him into a celebrity on par with IC backer George Clooney – to the point where we the people demand his capture.  Being aware of a problem does nothing directly to alleviate it.  It’s not as if the ignorance of Americans is the binding constraint on ending suffering in the world.

Invisible Children is sketchy when it comes to advocating further policy.  They clearly favor continuing the commitment of 100 American military advisors in Uganda to aid in hunting for Kony, but it is not clear if they favor further military intervention (which after the Iraq quagmire and our current military commitments is a non-starter).  IC wants Kony brought before the International Criminal Court, but the biggest constraint on that organization is the lack of US participation in it (does IC favor the US finally ratifying Rome Statute, or is that too partisan a demand?).  These would be concrete steps – incomplete, possibly problematic ones – but they would be action.  Making Kony famous is almost entirely passive beyond the clicking of the ‘share’ button.

Kony 2012 has, naturally, been met with a torrent of criticism.  Invisable Children has been accused of shady business practices, as they refuse to open their books to auditing.  At the Foreign Policy website, Michael Wilkerson points out that the LRA’s strength has been greatly diminished (it’s numbers are estimated in the hundreds), and that they are no longer operating in Uganda, but roaming between southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic (where they do continue to commit atrocities).  Yale Law professor Chriss Blattman writes that “There’s something inherently misleading, naïve, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or saving of Africa.”  And Kate Cornin-Furman and Amanda Taub, writing for The Atlantic, decry the arrogance of Invisible Children thinking they “can solve war crimes with wristbands” (which come with Kony 2012 activist kit, available for the low, low price of $30).

But these criticisms also lack any solutions-based thinking.  (The closest they come is to point out the perils of US involvement with governments with spotty human rights records themselves, and that the best answer may be local.  But if the governments of Uganda, Sudan, DRC and CAR could apprehend Kony, they would; no government in that region has been able to claim full sway over their territory since the days of Idi Amin.)  Rather the criticisms are calls for acknowledging the complexity of the situation.  And surely the situation is complex, but acknowledging that is again not a form of action, but another attempt to raise awareness.  And while full consideration is never bad, complexity must also be understood as something of a construct placed on the situation.  For those forced to the ground, or faces slashed, or hands forced to carry weapons, the situation is fear and pain, and those feelings are quite basic.


On the same day that the Kony 2012 video was posted, March 5th, US Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech at Northwestern Law School on the legal justification necessary for carrying out targeted killings.  “Some have argued that the President is required to get permission from a federal court before taking action against a US citizen who is a senior operational leader of al Qaeda or associated forces,” Holder said.  “This is simply not accurate. ‘Due process’ and ‘judicial process’ are not one and the same, particularly when it comes to national security.  The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process.”  That statement was meant to clarify the Obama Administration’s view on their legal power to use surgical drone strikes to eliminate non-military combatants.  Since drones were put into use in 2004, official numbers claim thousands of insurgent targets have been killed, along with between 400 and 800 civilians, at least 200 of which were children.  But the civilian toll could be much higher.  A 2009 Brookings Institute study estimated that for every 1 insurgent killed, 10 civilians were also killed.

If our idea of civilization can not tolerate the barbarism of Joseph Kony, can it tolerate other forms?   What exactly does it mean to not tolerate barbarism?    

At its heart, the Kony 2012 is a naïve-yet-earnest plea for justice to be done, which accounts, at least in part, for its popularity, which is.  While that earnestness does not have to be shared, it should not be dismissed either. Justice is an abstract concept, and we should all want more concrete ways to measure it.  Kony seems like a clear-cut case where justice could be served by his capture and prosecution, but how can we be expected to have productive conversation about justice when our institutional instruments are being bent to justify acceptable body counts for extra-legal operations?  Our standards for justice in our discourse have been warped, stunting our ability to take meaningful actions based on what is right and wrong in the greater world.

If there is a single problem in our discourse, it lies in what J.M. Coetzee called the “economistic bent” of our political language.  When it comes to discussing human life, we invariably fallback on the word ‘value.’  Not just when we measure the worth of a life against other life’s and interests, but also when we utter platitudes about all lives being of equal worth (or even that they are ‘invaluable).  Such words equate all human experiences, and turn empathy from an act of feeling and communication into something resembling exchange and commerce.  In Kony 2012, Russell presents his son Gavin as being a child “just like” the Ugandan Jacob, a claim that is absurd beyond basic biology.  Gavin enjoys immense privileges that Jacob could not begin to fully imagine.

That cuts both ways.  As Susan Sontag wrote in Regarding The Pain Of Others, “We – this ‘we’ is everyone who has never experienced anything like what they went through – don’t understand.  We don’t get it.  We truly can’t imagine what it was like.  We can’t imagine how dreadful, how terrifying war is; and how normal it becomes.  Can’t imagine, can’t understand.”  Maybe meaningful action is rooted in greater awareness, but it has to be an awareness of just how unaware ‘we’ really are. 

Louis Godfrey currently lives in Chapel Hill, NC. He is originally from Salt Lake City, UT, where he spent five years reporting on politics and court cases, before turning to writing on film. He also likes cats.

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