Criticism and Support for Kony 2012

[Disclosure: Long ago I worked for Invisible Children, and I remain friends with a number of current staff and supporters.]

Kony 2012, like every Invisible Children media campaign, offers many things I wish they would change. But its goal is not one of them.

The film is touching and inspiring. As an advocacy piece, however, it is flagrantly simplistic, verges on misleading (like when Joseph Kony is shown with legions of rendered children behind him [11:30], without mention that his current force is thought to number in the low hundreds of fighters), and masks the complete uncertainty of its mission behind a veneer of easy cause and effect: if we tweet and put up posters, the US advisors will keep helping the Ugandan military, and Kony will be captured—the simple steps shown onscreen as falling dominoes.

Kony 2012, Thirty Thousand Abducted Children

This rosy reductionism contrasts sharply with a policy letter released with the film, to which Invisible Children are signatories, that asks President Obama for diplomatic help because, “Uganda withdrew more than half of the forces initially deployed to pursue LRA commanders and groups, and their forces are no longer allowed to operate in Congo, where the LRA is committing the majority of attacks on civilians.” No dominoes there.

The films Invisible Children makes are not advocacy films at all, they are advocacy advertising, advocacy propaganda. They are simplistic and over-produced and pop-cultured because that is what we as Americans respond to. Invisible Children pioneered this space, a space where other advocacy organizations still fear to tread, because they want to reach Americans. Lots of them. And they are flogged for it every time they release a new film.

How far they bend reality, and have bent it again with Kony 2012, is something about which I disagree with them. But whether we agree or not, it’s important to realize that their over-simplifications are not simple-minded, they are strategic. There is much more depth behind the scenes.

The most important questions raised by this film, and the ones that seem least touched by thoughtful criticism, are whether the film’s goal of militarily stopping Joseph Kony is worthy, and whether Invisible Children’s plan to do so is a good one.

To these I answer a deeply ambivalent ‘yes’.

Kony and his forces continue to abduct and kill, and two decades of evidence show that they are unwilling to commit to a peaceful resolution. The sooner they are stopped, the fewer people in central Africa will die by their brutal hands. There are deep, important concerns here that go unmentioned by Invisible Children, like the Christmas Massacres of 2008, when the LRA retaliated after a failed, US-supported strike against them by slaughtering hundreds of innocent civilians. Nonetheless, it seems to me and to many informed observers, and importantly to villagers in the affected areas, that the military solution to Kony is the best of what are only bad remaining options.

And although Invisible Children’s plan of building a US lobby for continued and increased US involvement far from guarantees a positive outcome, it is intelligent and thorough, and is currently, as far as I can see, the best chance to bring Kony’s terrors to an end. If you agree with the goal of militarily stopping Kony (however hesitantly), this is the next step.

I wish Invisible Children would have offered viewers of their film a more complete, nuanced, and accurate look at the LRA conflict. But just as ends do not justify means, so means do not negate ends. The goal of stopping Kony is sound and Invisible Children’s plan is strong. I hope it works.

[Postscripts and Updates: I think it might be useful for me to address another key criticism of Invisible Children that’s been making the rounds: that they are unprofessional and/or dishonest in managing of their non-profit. Here I can speak authoritatively and say that these criticisms are completely unfounded. Invisible Children is run with great professionalism, integrity, and transparency.]


Other Links:
In depth New Yorker article from the mid-nineties on Kony’s brutal tactics.
Teju Cole on American sentimentality.
Ugandan and other African voices on Kony 2012.