you're reading...
Learning at its Best

Let’s Be Careful with #Kony2012

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?”
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.


About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


11 thoughts on “Let’s Be Careful with #Kony2012

  1. I agree and believe that it is incredibly important to provide students with this context you have carefully outlined here. I relate in particular with 4, 7 and 9. Thanks for providing your analysis.

    Posted by kinden | March 10, 2012, 12:46 am
  2. Very useful perspective. Thank you. I’ll post your link on my blog.

    Posted by homeschoolingpenny | March 10, 2012, 1:55 am
  3. I do not believe you are at all jaded, and I think excercising a degree of caution and opening up a panoply of discussion points to be a better approach than jumping on the band wagon of “Ain’t it awful. Let’s do something about it.”

    Because I lived in Nigeria during the last portion of the Biafran War and thought there might be at least one parallel I just had to look one matter up — Uganda’s previously ‘discovered’ petroleum reserves have recently been opened up for production…

    Posted by Brent Snavely | March 10, 2012, 6:55 am
  4. A great resource for a more complex view of problems in central Africa (focused on the DNC, where Kony is now) is this film and website:

    The additional interview clips are worth looking at as well.

    Posted by Carol Black | March 10, 2012, 2:33 pm
  5. Thank you for your post – I think similarly and while I do think the Kony craze presents a great opportunity for young people to engage in critical discussion, I think we need to be extremely mindful of the way we do that. The video has generated such intense reaction that it’s too easy for people to jump on the bandwagon for no other reason than their friends ‘liked’ it on Facebook.

    Posted by Access To Excellence | March 10, 2012, 11:45 pm
  6. hey i live in Uganda , but this threat has to be worked upon before it’s too late , it has been our biggest challenge and weakness for the last 20+ year , thanks to invisible children for spreading the word !!!

    Posted by HAMZA. SSERWADDA | March 11, 2012, 7:59 am
  7. I think you are right on one hand about understanding facts and being discerning yet this is a great opportunity for teachers, parents, mentors, and adults who care to help present this in a balanced light.

    This is also a tremendous opportunity for students to understand that they have the means to make a difference without millions of dollars, that they can make a difference if they understand how to be creative and to be a catalyst, and to understand how others can or may do the same thing for the wrong reasons.

    Social media is touted as being such a great thing yet often it is a complete waste of time unless utilized to create something or to make a difference. (The amount of time spent about whether Trevor did this and what Sarah wore is painful).

    K2012 is an incredible real-life platform to learn: the power of narrative, research, global, ethics, government, film, propaganda, social entrepreneurship,
    technology, social media, tech literacy, etc.

    If we go down the road that when presented with something that is remarkably different and new, and because it is so, is it inherently less trustworthy than something that has been around for awhile (which as we have learned is just not true), this can become a self-fulfilling dark scary route and lesson where students should not travel.

    Students will never become innovators with messages like this – “don’t do or say anything unless you are absolutely sure as to . . .?

    We published a TED talk via a recommendation by Melinda Gates, titled, “The Danger of a Single Story” which addresses what you said above, but that does not equate that every story has to include the other side.

    John, admire your work. Understand where you are coming from – yet there is an opportunity here . . .

    Posted by CJ | March 12, 2012, 12:41 am
  8. Thanks for your insights! I especially agree with #5. Act local!

    Posted by Donna Mikkelsen | March 14, 2012, 5:20 pm


  1. Pingback: “Let’s Be Careful with #Kony2012″ | homeschoolingmiddleeast - March 10, 2012

  2. Pingback: Justics, peace, morality | Pearltrees - March 10, 2012

Join the Conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 4,101 other followers

Comments are subject to moderation.

%d bloggers like this: