The Righteousness of Doing Nothing; Kony 2012’s Critics Assessed

Unless you live in a hole or in the depths of Central Africa, chances are you have at least heard of the Kony 2012 viral video . It aims to make warlord Joseph Kony famous and place his arrest firmly on the agenda of Western Governments. Now, if you’ve heard of the campaign and seen the video then its almost certain that you have seen or read of the backlash.

If a discourse involving 30m people (at the time of writing at least that number have viewed the video on youtube) could be viewed as micro in any regard, then this issue is a public microcosm of the possibilities and problems facing Western activism in the 21st century.   The potential to promote a cause to tens of millions within 24hrs would seem to be ideal until you realise its coupled with the problem of facing down the millions more critics willing to give wide and varied rallying cries explaining why your cause is a waste of time and you are an idiot for believing it.  Yes the Kony 2012 campaign has a lot of faults but most of the arguments leveled in opposition to it don’t bear scrutiny. It is not cool to stick up for the Kony 2012 campaign but hearing the lazy old arguments rolled out again and again against the Kony 2012 campaign here (but also Western activism in general) need to be debunked.

Critique 1 Invisible Children is run by indie hipster do gooder middle class pompous douches with white man messianic complex syndrome.

The video is produced in a  twatty Juno style that like that film makes you want to cringe, vomit and eventually murder the irritating gimp-o-hero star of the show. This is all fair and makes it ideal for satire and sneering (There are literally hundreds now online here is Righting Wrongs Kony drinking game for an amusing example) but it isn’t a credible reason for being against the campaign. What film on this topic would please this crowd artistically? Earnest old fashioned activism and a serious documentary about the plight of Africans facing the Lords Resistance Army (Kony’s rebel group)? No way, even if they liked it a  film shot in this way wouldn’t have gone viral and therefore wouldn’t make it onto their meta-nobhead radars.  When in the business of pouring scorn on popular culture something must first be popular to be worthy of scorn.

Being a real social activist requires long hours training on monkey bars and photoshop.

Ultimately, this wouldn’t be a problem but it’s a significant contributing factor to the general lethargy surrounding global issues.  Activism on anything from the environment to human rights and particularly development is considered lame by people who in the 1960s would have been on the front line.   One of the reasons is the school yard derision that is angled at anyone fighting earnestly for a cause.  Most of the barbs come from the purported left, characterised by inertia and hyper cynicism towards everything except the Colbert Report. The new educated lefts idea of direct action is eating organic food.  Read about something, agree its bad, make an absurdist comment and finally mock for their naiveté any person or group who tries to do anything. End result – nothing except a few cheap laughs and slightly bigger houses for 10% of the world’s chickens.

Critique 2:  expert disgruntlement that it doesn’t tell the whole story

From the opposite side of the left sits the uber-activist who loathe Kony 2012 for its simplification (and success).

But it’s so much more complicated than that! They scream.

Well yes of course it is; potatoes are more complicated than any half hour video would do justice to according to potato farmers.  Ideally, 30m people would read NGO reports, which are obviously much more balanced, detailed, nuanced etc but its virtually impossible to get 30m apolitical people to read a magazine all the way through let alone an NGO report. The point of Kony 2012, as I understand is to put the issue on the agenda, initiate public discourse and bring the problems of central Africa into mainstream along side Justin Bieber. Sadly, to do that required the dumbing down that is ever present in the video, but the ends justify the means.  Now the issue is in the public eye, its up to the other NGO’s  to fill in the gaps, add the detail correct any misinformation.   Hopefully this will lead to concrete improvement  maybe not, but 30m more people now are finding out for themselves about Kony (I don’t think anyone just watches the video in isolation) cannot be a bad thing.  Only a fool can’t see that Kony 2012 campaign has done NGOs working in Central Africa a massive favour.

Critique 3 (and probably the dumbest): the financial argument.

Vice magazine in a surprisingly halfhearted sneer took this up as their first point. So the guys who run Invisible Children pay themselves 80,000 $ (more or less) each for their work.  Do you know what Nike, Al Quada or Oxfam would pay someone to get 30million people to willingly view a 30minute long video promoting them.  I’ll give you a clue – it’s a lot more than 80 000 $.

At the root of this criticism is the general public’s idiot-logic that all activist work should be done for free and/or at the very least be done for well below the market rate. This is counterproductive and one of the many reasons why NGO’s work in general has not been as successful as it might have. Opposing Kony campaign on this account leaves you logically in a place where virtually every major Charity going is not for you, which is fine, but let’s be honest, you probably planned it that way.

4th prong. The West interfering in Africa is always- we only make it worse, etc (so do nothing)

Part of why the educated left find the film so excruciating (and mockable) is because the narrative of the West  “saving” Africa is awkward and embarrassing.  We need to get over this embarrassment. It`s essentially an intellectual sounding justification for shirking responsibility. I will agree some of the academic theory supporting it is quite sound.  For example Post developmentalism asserts that all development is wrong because it homogenises diverse cultures that need to find their own distinct path to development, specifically  not one dictated by western marketisation. So far so good, the trouble is that central Africa is a region not untouched by the west.  Post colonisation during the cold war can be summarised as the drawing of arbitrary lines on a map, then arming all sides with advanced weaponry and wondering why there seemed to be perpetual conflict ever after. Just because its our fault and we fucked up before does not justify refusal to help rectify it now.

Western Intervention in Africa is obviously a sensitive topic and the subsequant call for African empowerment and independent solutions  is compelling and difficult to refute (especially from my lap top in Norway). But while it might be uncomfortable to disagree, disagree we must.  The reality is, a partnership with the West is essential if the problems of Central African region are going to be solved soon.  Again, there is no time here for a long discussion, but more often than not, the permissive cause of civil wars is a combination of poverty (making joining a rebel gang more desirable), lack of efficacy of security forces of the government (caused the poverty) and the availability of weapons that make waging civil war as easy as gathering together 100 men.  I have simplified it here but if you want more detail read David Keen’s excellent article on the topic.  It’s a basic chicken and egg problem; without security you can’t have development and without development you can’t pay for security. Outside assistance is necessary, even if it feels wrong.

Critique 5, Let he who is without sin throw the first stone.

Those that point to crimes committed by government troops say that this means that the West shouldn’t work with them. Well, using that logic would leave us in a world without any co-operation.  Sometimes you have to pick the lesser of two evils, the clichéd example being working with Stalin to defeat Hitler (yes throw  Godwins Law at me at your leisure); both sides in this case are simply not as bad as each other.  It’s worth remembering, Kony 2012 doesn’t call for giving weapons Ugandan Military, it calls explicitly for maintaining the 100 advisers not an Iraq style invasion.  These advisers are there to help train and organise the government forces with the intention of making them better trained and organised (and therefore less likely to loot, torture and arrest arbitrarily) .  If the very reason advisers should not be sent is the reason they are going then the argument against sending advisers thus becomes a circular justification for again doing nothing ever.

Critique 6 The solution proposed is not ideal (so do nothing)l

Yes obviously, as  points out “Seriously addressing the suffering of central Africans would require engagement of a much larger order. A huge deployment of peacekeeping troops with a clearly recognized legal mandate would have to be part of it”. But the Kony campaign is a step in this direction, for this to happen it needs to be on the agenda. Kony 2012 puts it there even if the solution proposed is in no way entirely satisfactory

Critique 7: Raising awareness, bracelets and social media are just a means for westerners assuage there conscience while exerting minimum effort and achieving even less

How does buying a 1 dollar bracelet or watching a video achieve anything?  The implication being that unless you physically dig a well one may as well not bother.  In the case of Koni and the LRA the there is very little an individual or an NGO can do, they are a criminal military organization. Unless you want to form your own militia then one must rely on governments (those with a monopoly on coercive means) to attempt to combat them. The way one tries to influence governments is through public advocacy, raising awareness and putting it on mainstream public agenda. The idea being is to gather enough support to make it politically appealing to bother to try to solve it. That’s how advocacy works.  Social media now makes it far easier to reach far more people than ever before. Just because it’s easier than more traditional methods of advocacy, and in the Koni 2012 case extremely successful, doesn’t devalue its value as worthwhile enterprise.  A test of its value, as of all advocacy campaigns,  is in its ability to gain attention,  spark discussion of the issue in  mainstream discourse and hopefully gain political traction and eventually prompt some form of physical action.  It should not be discredited on how easy it is for an individual to express their support for it. I would argue that the Koni Campaign has achieved the first two in a shorter time and with less money than almost any advocacy campaign ever.  It’s worth noting  how the signing of a petition never comes under the same ferocity of attack as bracelet wearing or viral video posting even though the exertion required for the  is more or less identical.


Correction 13/03/2012.  I wrongly stated in the first version of this post that Invisible Children had deleted a video my friend had posted on their website challenging their campaign.  I then argued that this was the opposite of what Koni 2012 should be about. Well happily it seems they agree.  It turns out they hadn’t, it was my friend incompetence in navigating their site rather than censorship on behalf of IC.  The general comment remains true though, the Koni 2012 video cannot be viewed in isolation and it must be the start of a debate about what exactly the problem in the Central Africa region is comprised of, what action is should be taken and by whom. Failure to listen to criticism and  opposing views in the discourse can will only hurt the chances of reaching the best possible outcome.

Note For Invisible Children’s defence of themselves click here, for those that  want to read  in more depth, read boring old traditional videoless International Crises group’s 29 page report on the LRA.  Btw, these experts come to the same conclusion as Invisible Children, namely that military co-operation with the US (and EU) is required if LRA is to be defeated and the tri-border region  is to be stabilised.


About Paul David Beaumont

Occasional journalist, part-time socialist & full time International Relations PhD student. Available for hire - but never in the morning. Academia page:
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4 Responses to The Righteousness of Doing Nothing; Kony 2012’s Critics Assessed

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