The Joseph Kony craze may be over, but its deeper lesson should never be forgotten


An article in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog chronicles the winding down of the Invisible Children (IC) organization. You’ll remember them for this video, which created a ubiquitous anti-Joseph Kony movement and sparked an international appeal to bring the brutal warlord to justice. As the article explains:

The organization, which took the world by storm with the viral Kony 2012 video, announced that most of the staff – including Jason Russell, the only remaining founder – will stop working for the organization and that a small team of four individuals will work through 2015 to continue their lobbying efforts and formally hand over their Africa-based programs by the year’s end. In other words, the organization, which has been raising awareness and action on the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and its leader Joseph Kony for the past 10 years, is slowly phasing out. For now, it appears Invisible Children won’t outlive the rebel group it was formed to stop.

At the time that the Kony phenomenon was in full force, observers were conflicted as to now much good it would ultimately do. On the one hand, it raised the level of sympathy and understanding on the part of Westerners for humanitarian catastrophes in oft-ignored parts of the world. The US even sent 100 troops to Uganda during this time to help with the effort against Kony and the LRA, a commitment that arguably wouldn’t have been made without the massive public response to the Kony 2012 video.

Even during that time, however, a number of individuals expressed skepticism. As The Atlantic put it back in March of 2012:

Treating awareness as a goal in and of itself risks compassion fatigue — most people only have so much time and energy to devote to far-away causes — and ultimately squanders political momentum that could be used to push for effective solutions. Actually stopping atrocities would require sustained effort, as well as significant dedication of time and resources that the U.S. is, at the moment, ill-prepared and unwilling to allocate. It would also require a decision on whether we are willing to risk American lives in places where we have no obvious political or economic interests, and just how much money it is appropriate to spend on humanitarian crises overseas when 3 out of 10 children in our nation’s capital live at or below the poverty line. The genuine difficulty of those questions can’t be eased by sharing a YouTube video or putting up posters.

I myself don’t know how I should feel about the rise and fall of IC and the whole Joseph Kony thing. To me, the episode reminds us that even as our human race moves towards a new sense of global consciousness, awareness, and sympathy, we are still quite immature in how we express these newfound feelings. In other words, we still need to make the leap from awareness to actual sacrifice and action. Too often, our idea of social action and responsibility takes the form of easy, costless gestures of support for a particular cause, allowing us to move on with our lives under the comforting but false notion that our work is done. In that sense, I’m not sure if these types or movements are helping or hurting.

I’ve weighed in on this broader subject before on this blog, in the context of the environment and something called “Earth Hour”, which is a single hour per calendar year in which participants turn off the lights in a show of environmental solidarity. As I wrote back in 2011:

But there is something about Earth Hour, and movements like it, that worries me. It’s the notion that small individual efforts, if widespread enough, can solve massive global problems. They can’t… The hard-to-swallow reality is that a solution to climate change, for instance, is much more painful, complex, and politically tricky than we in our comfortable lives would like to believe. It involves hard decisions about incentivizing cleaner energy options, dramatically raising the cost of coal and oil, or pumping huge amounts of public money into technology to take carbon out of our atmosphere and oceans. Without a doubt, “Do one thing” campaigns are part of healing our collective disease. But they’re a bandage, not a life-saving surgery.

The Joseph Kony phenomenon was, essentially, the Earth Hour of international criminal justice. It’s all well and good that people are learning about the horrible suffering of other human beings on the other side of the world and expressing concern, but we can’t fix problems like these with Facebook “likes”. The underlying problems are much more endemic and require a whole lot more effort and sacrifice. Just as the Atlantic article cited above asks, who is actually ready to put their tax dollars where their mouths are, let alone the lives of young men and women tasked with defending the helpless in foreign lands? The United States’ military intervention in Somalia in the 1990s — a failed effort that took 18 American lives within a larger conflict that killed hundreds of thousands of Somalis — is nearly universally seen as a political quagmire that future presidents are wise to avoid. That should tell us something.

As Abdu’l-Baha put it to a gathering of Western Baha’is a century ago, “Behold the candle, how it gives light. It weeps its life away drop by drop in order to give forth its flame of light.” In another gathering of Western believers, he said: “I desire that you be ready to sacrifice everything for each other, even life itself.” Achieving that level of sacrifice, which will involve passing from symbolic gestures to gutsy, meaningful action and painstaking effort, won’t be easy. But when it comes, it will be a fitting symbol of our maturity as a human race.


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