On my way to work today, I saw signs at various locations with the words “Kony 2012.” Messages about the film are flooding my Facebook feed. It’s gone viral on Twitter. It would be easy, as a teacher, to use this as an opportunity to get kids civically involved. However, I want to point out a few uncomfortable things:
- We Don’t Know Everything: There is a danger in assuming you have all the information. I’m certainly not suggesting that a war lord should become a ruler. However, it is never as simple as the hero-villain dichotomy presented in well-intentioned propaganda films. The truth is that in an atmosphere of war many of the “good guys” have committed heinous crimes against humanity. The Ugandan government has a horrible track record of human rights abuses and Invisible Children supports the use of military force by the Ugandan government against the guerillas.
- Remember the Human Element: There is a natural tendency to ask, “Who is good and who is bad?” A better question might be, “Why are women still so often the ultimate victims in political and military disputes?”
- Sometimes good intentions fail. The track record for many awareness-based charities is often sketchy at best. Invisible Children works wonders at getting information out there, but students need to know that much of their money is spent on travel and publicity.
- There is a long-standing historical context of colonialism. After all, that’s the context of what set up the power structures in the first place. And, although it sounds harsh, that’s the thing American kids have to be careful about right now. We were the “liberators” of an Afghanistan that set up the Taliban. And we are again the “liberators” of an Afghanistan that is corrupt at best. We were the the ones who claimed democracy had won in Russia and now we’re watching Putin move closer toward an autocratic rule. Why are people urging North American politicians rather than African politicians to spark a change? What are the dangers inherent in hegemony?
- Don’t forget to think local: If students want to examine the marginalized in a society, it’s important to pay attention to the powerless in our own society. Far too often, it can turn into a very smug “look how good we have it” exercise. It’s vital to see the world from a global perspective, but that thirst for social justice needs to go local at some point. Ask students to think through the abuses of sex slavery in our own country, the mistreatment of undocumented immigrants and the perpetual demonization of people with a different sexual orientation. If your’e brave enough, ask students to point out the injustice in the educational system and perhaps even in your own teaching.
- Don’t ignore the economic issues. I’m amazed at how seldom people speak of economic development when covering stories like #kony2012. Guerilla groups thrive on economic incentives and are often fighting (albeit through violence and injustice) against a corrupt economic system. If students want to make sense out of Uganda, they need to know the economic issues influencing the conflict.
- Analyze propaganda. The medium matters. The emotional manipulation, even if created with the best intentions, is still emotional manipulation. Students need to know the dangers of propaganda. They need to learn to think skeptically without quite falling into cynicism. The Kony 2012 film is a great chance to look for loaded language, bias and heavy-handed persuasive techniques.
- Choose wisely. There are great NGO’s out there that don’t have the Hollywood glossy propaganda approach that Invisible Children does. If the goal is awareness, it’s working. I’m blogging about it, right? So, maybe that’s a good thing. But if the goal is to raise money to make a difference, there are some serious threats in Africa that go unnoticed – like the fact that diarrhea will cause more deaths this year than anything else or the reality that clean drinking water will impact more lives than most of what Invisible Children does.
- Be mindful of stereotypes: There is more to Africa than starvation and death. There are great minds, innovative practices, art and culture. None of these seem to get the press attention or pull at the heart strings the way that Kony 2012 does. However, the stereotype of Africa as the Helpless Victim does more harm than good. Ultimately, it marginalizes an entire continent.
- Limitations of Media: I had a gnawing sense, in watching the video, that it wasn’t entirely different from Mob Wives or Jersey Shore. It’s just that instead of thinking about Snooky getting pregnant, we were thinking about something that felt much more real. However, I had to rethink this. The truth is that a fame-starved kid having a baby is really pretty tragic. And the truth is that so much of Uganda is tragic. But it’s also tragic that we assume the medium is telling us the whole story. Neil Postman warned that television is most dangerous when it is trying not to entertain, because it is, in essence, an amusement device.
I know that my criticisms might come across as jaded and harsh. However, too often we play nice rather than offer the necessary criticism that students need. This can be a learning opportunity, but the learning is complicated, confusing and perplexing.