let’s talk about kony

On Monday, the human rights advocacy organization Invisible Children released “KONY 2012,” its latest documentary on the nine year-old student movement to end mass atrocities by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). In approximately twenty-four hours, the Kony documentary received more than one hundred thousand views on YouTube; when I last checked (2 am EST, 3/7/12), Kony-related hashtags occupied six of Twitter’s ten “global trending” spots (the hashtags, in order: #stopkony, the leading campaign hashtag; Invisible Children; Action Kit, the primary platform for anti-LRA activism; Cover the Night, referring to an upcoming national wave of guerilla flyering events; Uganda, the LRA’s country of origin; and, lastly, LRA). Depending on whose Twitter account you’re watching, whose Facebook friend appears in your live feed, and whose listserv emails you receive, Kony fervor has likely occupied a fair share of your evening’s Internet traffic. Suffice it to say that the Kony documentary has mobilized a remarkable wave of emotional uproar, from the most remarkable constituencies: on any given day, I see a handful of Facebook updates about human rights in sub-Saharan Africa; today, the numbers are in the tens, potentially hundreds–from STAND students, as expected, but also from my younger brother’s high school friends and Facebook acquaintances from esoteric Jewish advocacy retreats.

To add a fifth question to the Passover repertoire, why is this night different from all other nights? Why, on this night of all nights, do we post human rights videos throughout the social media sphere?

From an organizing perspective, the answer is simple: Invisible Children’s messaging, narrative, and network resonate with us. Organizing literature refers to the entry-narrative as the “story of self”–that is, the compelling, values-based narrative that motivates activists, organizers, and otherwise passive citizens to action. The most effective “story of self” I’ve heard comes from Kristen Dore, a curriculum specialist at the Marshall Ganz-inspired New Organizing Institute: Kristen tells the story of her college experiences visiting her father in prison, building a local, engaged constituency for prisoners’ rights in southern California. Kristen’s story evokes values of fairness, justice, and community, values which mobilize concerned activists the world over. Kristen uses her story to underline her participation in something larger than herself–in her case, President Obama’s 2008 campaign. In building a temporary, values-based constituency (her active listeners), Kristen mobilizes a “story of us” and a “story of now”: a way to recognize the broader community’s role in local mobilization, and a way to convey the urgency of political action.

Invisible Children’s Kony documentary is an organizing narrative, to a tee. From a purely quantitative perspective, KONY 2012 is not about the LRA, Joseph Kony, or political violence in northern Uganda. Rather, it’s a story of one man (Jason Russell, Invisible Children’s co-founder and the documentary’s director), scaled up to the story of common humanity (young students, mobilizing their communities in support of justice, human rights, and peace in northern Uganda) and the urgency of active action against LRA atrocities in Central Africa (“This movie expires on December 31, 2012”). Invisible Children’s effectiveness as a grassroots organization stems from this fundamental, narrative pattern: it’s about atrocities, yes, but more than that, it’s about what our mobilization against these atrocities suggests about our common virtues, transnational connections, and moral strength. Invisible Children’s success is predicated upon its ability to convey these stories, to manifest individual challenges within a broader narrative, and to maximize the political, social, and organizational potential of a transnational voice.

As my angry Twitter timeline suggests, Invisible Children’s public narrative relies on basic, nigh unavoidable failings. Let’s start with the flip-side of the human rights coin: the recognition that, despite their constructed nature, perceived ethnic, cultural, and historical boundaries exist across nations, states, and physical borders. Colonialism’s historical baggage matters, and the competition for voice-representation is, for all intents and purposes, a zero-sum game. Ugandan civil society participants, particularly the ones engaged in the non-Invisible Children-affiliated reconstruction, reconciliation, and post-conflict development work, are noticeably absent from Jason Russell’s narrative. In two and a half years of grassroots advocacy work, I’ve met enough intelligent, morally sensible advocates to know that monolithic accusations of neo-colonialism, Africa-saving, and cultural condescension are, frankly, tripe. At the same time, we’re not doing enough to define the terms of empowerment, to balance our advocacy perspectives with an understanding of civil society mobilization in conflict-affected areas, and to establish meaningful, sustained cross-cultural linkages that prioritize empathy, rather than sympathy. It’s quite simply a matter of changing the conversation, and I’m not sure that Invisible Children’s Kony documentary gets us there.

Next, there’s the morality question. To be “that guy,” I’ll link to two compelling TED videos on the social-scientific and cultural shortcomings of public storytelling: first, from Tyler Cowen, the economics wiz blogger; the second, from Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian novelist. The bottom line: stories can inspire. At the same time, inspiration runs the risk of perpetuating problematic, unintended cognitive biases. A “single story,” as Adichie calls it, can obscure a complex, multi-layered web of perceptive analysis, underscoring cultural stereotypes and simplifications. Fundamentally, the question is moral, rather than cognitive: How do we perceive the morality of conflict in northern Uganda and, more recently, Central Africa? Once we answer that question, how do we mitigate the moral consequences of our actions, to ensure that atrocities do, in fact, end? Invisible Children’s activism, added to the political lobbying of Resolve and the Enough Project, resulted in the deployment of approximately one hundred U.S. military advisers to Central Africa. The advisers’ purpose: to assist and, well, advise the Congolese, Central African (from CAR, rather than the region), Ugandan, and South Sudanese military forces in an escalated counterinsurgency campaign against the LRA throughout the region. Frankly speaking, the military advisers’ presence will likely improve, rather than deteriorate, the implementation of human rights norms in the multinational military campaign. The United States has likely learned its lessons, recognizing the counterproductive nature of Operation Lighting Thunder, a U.S.-backed 2008 “campaign of attrition” against the LRA in northern Uganda. That said, the U.S. operational partnership with the Ugandan, Congolese, Central African, and South Sudanese forces remains a political, moral, and social firestorm. The documentary’s purpose is not to delve into the complex, nuanced dynamics of military conflict, but, as it stands, day-to-day advocates for “action” have few platforms for the critical discussion of action’s moral consequences.

Lastly, let’s talk about the limits of policy intervention against the LRA. This isn’t a new conversation: as Bec Hamilton has detailed, the human rights advocacy community encountered the same challenge at the peak of Darfur mobilization. Come 2008, Darfur advocates began to talk about “Darfur fatigue”: the conflict in Sudan’s western provinces had grown more complicated, atrocities continued (albeit at a significantly lower rate), and the day-to-day advocates weren’t quite sure why. Part of the problem, of course, is the notion of the “story of now.” The public narrative’s third pillar works within the context of local organizing–limited labor-union resources demand quicker solutions, contract negotiations have deadlines, and infrastructure projects work on schedule. Foreign policy activists can’t say the same for violent conflict: the LRA has conducted a low-intensity insurgency against the central government in Kampala since the late 1980s, without any tangible reconciliation. So while the video has an expiration date of “December 31, 2012,” the LRA insurgency, the multinational stabilization campaign, and the marginalization of constituencies in Uganda’s Acholi region, northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan certainly don’t. If urgent, military action against the LRA is part of the solution–and, in spite of the potential moral costs, it probably should be–it’s only a part. And, as Mark Kersten’s field research has suggested, the peace/justice dilemma is perhaps more complicated in northern Uganda than in any of the other six situations currently under review by the International Criminal Court.

What does this mean? In order to move past #KONY2012, to promote credible approaches to conflict resolution in Central Africa, anti-Kony advocates need to be prepared to move past the public narrative, past the sexy, and past the action kit. On March 6, hundreds of people told me to take thirty minutes out of my evening to watch Invisible Children’s Kony documentary. If, on March 7, you’re not taking thirty minutes out of your evening to read the International Crisis Group’s November 2011 report on the way forward for stabilization and conflict resolution in LRA-affected areas, you’re not doing your job correctly.

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