If you pay attention to YouTube or the media, then you are aware of Kony 2012. If you’ve been on a college campus that contains any sense of activism in the last few years, then you have probably heard of “Invisible Children” or their “National Sleepout” event. Students at my university consistently sleep outside on the quad in order to commemorate the living conditions, abuses and relative danger of the lives of central African child soldiers. If a university wants to teach history, global politics and civic engagement, then what better way to do so but by including a student-driven non-profit’s advocacy events?
I hesitated to write this column—first, because so much has been written about the YouTube phenomenon already, and second, because the director of “Kony 2012” was recently found naked, wandering the streets of San Diego after a mental breakdown following the international critique (and fame) for his video and organization, Invisible Children. Jason Russell is one of the co-founders of the non-profit. He directed the video that documents the crimes of central African terrorist, Joseph Kony. Russell’s half hour piece has generated over 84 million views so far, making it one of the most popular viral videos of all time.
Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa have waged guerilla warfare involving children for years—terrorizing them, forcing them to murder, to become sex slaves and other horrible acts. “Kony 2012” tells the story of advocacy and activism from a group of U.S. young people who care deeply enough about the systemic abuse of African children to found a successful non-profit and travel to D.C. multiple times in order to lobby for political and military assistance for the children of central Africa.
Maternal emotion runs throughout the “Kony 2012” video and also describes what I feel for the film’s young director after his public breakdown. For many viewers, the video opens in a rather surprising manner. Russell begins the Kony story with home movie footage taken during the birth of his son, Gavin. His voiceover describes how much his firstborn’s arrival means to him. The video then transitions into the emotion he feels for Jacob, a young Ugandan friend whose brother was murdered and whose story frames a partial history of Kony and the LRA human rights abuses. Russell repeatedly shows Gavin pictures of Jacob and tries to explain the story of Kony to him in simple terms that a child (or YouTube viewer) will understand.
This story of narrative simplification is a big part of the media critique towards the video and Invisible Children. Kony is portrayed as the lone “bad guy” that the West (and Invisible Children) must bring down in order to save the children. Because of simplistic conclusions and a certain level of melodrama in the video, Russell and his organization have been accused of promoting “slackivism,” “truthiness” or white, ‘feel good’ neo-colonialism as well as other non-profit financial abuses. Not surprisingly, journalists, such as N.Y. Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, have come to Russell’s defense.
The publicity surrounding Kony 2012 is certainly teachable. From the naïve energy of youthful commitment to the ethical issues involving citizen journalism or the specifics about how to run an advocacy-based nonprofit, this story contains multiple issues for classroom discussion. Christine Cupaiuolo, an editor for the MacArthur Foundation’s Spotlight on Digital Media & Learning newsletter, filed two stories related to “teachable moments” of Kony 2012—“How to Tell a True Activism Story” and “To Fully Engage, Students Need to Become Media Producers.” I’ve shown excerpts in both my Intro. to Cinema and Communication and New Media classes and encouraged students to write about it.
But my students were already writing about it in the blogosphere. Last week Mar Curran wrote on “Konygate” for the queer activist blog “In Our Words.” “Raising awareness is never a bad thing,” he said. “Thinking that is enough for us to do might be.”
Students understand the value of critique and multiple perspectives in these moments. Let’s hope that Russell’s recovery may be as direct and simple as this understanding.