For those of you who literally hunkered down in a cave (aka Sawyer) and forwent all connections with the outside world the week before spring break, allow me to fill you in: The non-profit organization Invisible Children released a video aimed at drawing the attention of American youth to Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. Kony’s crimes against humanity are numerous and include the kidnapping of children and their subsequent conversion into child soldiers. You probably saw the video: It had over one million views within the first 24 hours. Even if you didn’t see the video, you had to have seen a Facebook status, a news story, an excerpt on the Daily Show concerning Kony. If you made it through March without ever hearing the phrase “KONY 2012” I am both shocked and a little impressed. If you didn’t hear it because you really did spend all that time stuck deep in the bowels of Sawyer, your grades must be crazy good.
This video went viral, and suddenly, everyone was talking about Invisible Children and the KONY 2012 campaign, which is exactly what Invisible Children wanted. Before any group can enact change, the first step is always to raise awareness. The challenge comes when you attempt to do so in a 27-minute video. Suddenly a complicated issue becomes compressed, stripped to the key aspects the filmmakers most want to get across to their audience. I have had the opportunity to work alongside many members of the Invisible Children organization in the past, and I can say that, on the whole, I think they are a smart, compassionate group. They know that this video is a simplification of a conflict that stretches the past three decades and has serious social, economic and political concerns for all of those involved. They maintain that this video was meant as a starting point for American youth to become familiar with Kony’s crimes and to pressure their political leaders to take action against Kony, hence their slogan “Make him [in]famous.” Yet some remain skeptical of their focus and the success of their approach.
We are Williams students. We don’t take kindly to 14-year-olds who used to be friends with our younger siblings or campers from past summer jobs popping up on our newsfeeds and lecturing us on the inner workings of obscure African politics. And so we do some of our own research, scouring the Internet for responses to the KONY 2012 campaign. There are many. The financials are forged. The officers are all corrupt. It’s a bandwagon cause. They don’t really know what’s going on in the region. The whole thing is an example of the destructiveness of American sentimentality and a reflection of hegemonic and racist tendencies in a sort of revitalization of “The White Man’s Burden” (this one makes you sound particularly like you deserve to go to an exclusive liberal arts college). There are critiques all over the internet concerning KONY 2012, some of which are more legitimate than others. For the most part, the organization itself has done a good job staving off the attacks on how they run themselves, and at this point I think the most valid critiques are those concerning the agency of Ugandans directly involved and the presumption of American intervention.
When I first heard this counterargument to the video I was surprised, but I soon understood why many people felt this way. My personal involvement with Invisible Children put me in close contact with Ugandans, and the conversations I had with Ugandan Jolly Okot, the organization’s country director in Uganda and former Nobel peace prize nominee, are some that I will remember for my entire life. But to be fair, the more sustainable programs Invisible Children pursues and their partnerships with other grassroots organizations and Ugandan activists were not mentioned in the movie. The movie was designed to get American youth to care about Joesph Kony and was thus mostly dedicated to his demonization and the steps one could take to put political pressure on one’s representatives. In hopes of accomplishing this goal, the filmmakers had to sacrifice other values, something which people on this campus and throughout the world found intolerable.
To end on a positive note, whether or not one supports Invisible Children and the KONY 2012 campaign, we can at least accept one of its messages: The individual has the power to make a difference in the world and to make their presence felt immediately. We live in a purple bubble, and too often, we forget that there are things more important than papers, problem sets and practice. If an international charity isn’t your jam, that’s your prerogative. Why not help out in the garden or tutor an elementary school student? Too often we separate our lives into the things we do on campus while we’re still college students and the great things we will one day go on to accomplish. There are many good service and community engagement opportunities, which can be woven into the already hectic schedule that is part of being a Williams student. Take control of the mark you leave on the world and you will be less concerned about how others choose to leave theirs.
Samantha Murray ’14 is from Corona del Mar, Calif. She lives in Fayerweather.