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Kony 2012 and the Danger of a Single Story

March 11, 2012 – 3:28 pm11 Comments

By Ittay Flescher
In the last week, over 60 million people have watched this video which seeks to make Joseph Kony famous.

Kony is the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a guerrilla group that has forced thousands of children to fight in a murderous armed conflict lasting more than two decades. He has avoided capture for over 20 years. 10,000 children have been abducted by the LRA to form the army of “prophet” Kony, whose aim is to take over Uganda and run it according to his vision of Christianity. The boys are turned into soldiers and the girls into sex slaves.

Kony is wanted by the International Criminal Court for his crimes. According to the Invisible Children organisation, the reason Kony has been allowed to wreak havoc for so long, is because not enough people are aware of his crimes.

However, many NGOs and academics have noted the Kony 2012 campaign does not address the real problems on the ground, nor does not offer the right solutions.

In the Mishneh Torah, Rambam explains how there are eight levels of tzedaka, including lower forms that are shaming, and higher forms that are empowering. Rambam explains that the highest level of tzedakah should aim to “strengthen the hand of the poor by giving him a gift or [an interest-free] loan or entering into a business partnership with the poor person. By this partnership the poor man is really being strengthened as the Torah commands in order to strengthen him until he is able to be independent and no longer dependent on the public purse.”

I wonder how donating to the Invisible Children organisation by purchasing the Kony 2012 kit for $30 would fit into Rambam’s criteria. Does it strengthen the people most affected by his crimes in Uganda? Will his capture end their suffering?

Whilst I agree with the director Jason Russell that the LRA should be disarmed and Joseph Kony should be brought to justice, there are still many questions to be asked about what is the best way to achieve these two goals. The author of DRC: Between Hope and Despair, Michael Diebert, has noted that “the campaign to get the US government to provide military support of the government of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, ostensibly to facilitate the arrest of Joseph Kony, appears to be a road fraught with peril. The Museveni government has been undergoing a serious crisis of legitimacy since at least 2001, when the Supreme Court of Uganda, while upholding the vote in presidential elections that year, also found that “the principle of free and fair election was compromised.” Through reckless military adventurism and a hunger to retain power, Museveni has routinely trampled on the values of human rights that Invisible Children claims to champion.”

Other critics of the video have also claimed it to be just another case of stuff white people like or the whites in shining armour phenomenon where stories about international development only generate interest if centred around a neat narrative of – cause – intervention – outcome – with the hero of the day being a young white foreigner.

Other criticisms of the film note that it ignores the role that local communities need to play in making decisions about international aid and that there are some far better strategies worth advocating other than those offered by Jason Russel if one is really concerned about the wellbeing of the Acholi people in Northern Uganda.

On the other hand, Jacob Acaye, the Ugandan former child abductee at the heart of the film who is but one of thousands of victims of the LRA, has responded (in this interview in the Guardian) to Russel’s critics who highlight that the LRA has largely stopped operating in Uganda since 2006. Acaye states “It is not too late, because all this fighting and suffering is still going on elsewhere.  Until now, the war that was going on had been a silent war. People did not really know about it. Now what was happening in Gulu is still going on elsewhere in the Central African Republic and in Congo. What about the people who are suffering over there? They are going through what we were going through.” Invisible Children has also responded to many of the other critiques against them which are both strategic and financial in nature here.

Whilst I still feel that we should all do far more research before deciding which charity and which approach to support, I think there are a number of broader questions raised by this campaign which are relevant to both educators who are looking for meaningful ways to engage their students in issues overseas, and to us as a Jewish community.

Ethan Zuckerman notes that “the Invisible Children story presents a difficult paradox. If we want people to pay attention to the issues we care about, do we need to oversimplify them? And if we do, do our simplistic framings do more unintentional harm than intentional good? Or is the wave of pushback against this campaign from Invisible Children evidence that we’re learning to read and write complex narratives online, and that a college student with doubts about a campaign’s value and validity can find an audience? Will Invisible Children’s campaign continue unchanged, or will it engage with critics and design a more complex and nuanced response?”

I think the same can be said of the many simplistic right wing and left wing advocacy campaigns that we often share about the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians.  Do they help or hinder our understanding of the conflict?

If there is one thing that Kony 2012 has affirmed for me, it is the danger of only hearing a single story and believing that there is a simplistic solution to a complicated conflict. In the words of Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

Ittay Flescher is a Jewish Educator in Melbourne.

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