Kony 2012: Human Rights without the Human Heart? ~ LaDawn Haglund

Via on Mar 13, 2012

In early March 2012, a video appeared online about Joseph Kony, a notorious warlord indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2005 for crimes against humanity.

As a human rights scholar, I was aware of Kony’s crimes, but few of my acquaintances were. Within a week of its appearance, however, “Kony 2012” had reached 100 million viewers and suddenly everyone knew who he was. Many were outraged.

It confirmed what I see every semester: as students become cognizant of tragedies they hadn’t known about before, they are awakened, if only momentarily, from the haze of the materialistic, selfish, cynical society in which they are immersed. They feel empathy and they want to act.

As has been amply demonstrated, there are real problems with the Kony 2012 campaign. I won’t go into lengthy critique here; eloquent analyses abound online. But two issues, in particular, stand out from a Buddhist perspective.

The first is that both the means and the ends are questionable. Though Invisible Children (IC), the organization behind the video, claims Kony’s arrest was the goal, the method proposed (militarization) and the tone of the video (stop Kony at all costs) leads one to believe that removing Kony, even killing him, would solve rather than exacerbate the problems in Central Africa.

Following this logic, there would have to be a string of assassinations to “stop” all the “bad guys” out there. This should bring no joy to those aware of the futility of trying to stop brutality with brutality.

The other issue that struck a sour note was the “White Man’s Burden” tone, already widely criticized in the media and by Ugandans and other Africans in the conflict zone. Without too much trouble, the IC could have adopted a solidarity perspective (working with people battling the Lord’s Resistance Army and trying to rebuild their communities), rather than a charity perspective (going to “rescue” those poor defenseless victims), while still harnessing the support of viewers worldwide.

Human rights advocates and other do-gooders take note: It is demeaning and potentially harmful    to communities who have suffered human rights abuses—as well as valiantly fought against these abuses and attempted to find indigenous solutions—to have their perspectives, wishes and goals so visibly excluded from a major campaign.

Having said that, there is a reason the Kony 2012 video has gone viral: college students, children and adults seeing and posting and forwarding it know in their hearts, preconceptually, that there is something profoundly wrong with a world where this reign of terror could endure for 25 years.

The video is reaching directly to that deep sense of basic goodness in the human heart. We should celebrate this spontaneous display of empathy, not banish it from public discourse. After all, “human rights come from human wrongs.”

Of course, empathy and tenderness alone do not solve complex problems: rationality is important; solid evidence is important. But for human rights, emotions are as much a part of the story as institutions and diplomacy.

We esteem our methods and our politics so much that we discount the importance of our humanity. This separation is what allows us to destroy the planet and it’s creatures without stopping to feel. We tell ourselves it doesn’t matter how it feels and we don’t talk about it. End of story. Back to hard-nosed analysis and cynicism. But it is both arrogant and short-sighted to minimize and disparage the genuine human compassion underlying our emotional reactions by dismissing them as stupid or self-serving or incomplete.

The Kony 2012 campaign may be all of those things. But the longing and sincerity of the human beings touched in their hearts by this tragic story are real and worthy of recognition.

Whether or not this video will do more harm than good is an empirical question that remains to be seen. But it is certain and obvious that IC was effective at utilizing a new and very powerful source of global communication to tap into a deep, shared sense of outrage at injustice. This is remarkable.

Perhaps the real problem is that we have few venues and little support from the media, for discussing the complexities of creating a more just and (dare I say) enlightened society. Our human rights institutions have started this process, as evidenced by the fact that Kony is considered a war criminal in the first place. But our discursive, political and security institutions have not kept pace. We need to ask why we have banished the human heart from public policy and how we might reincorporate it.

Can we develop accountable, participatory spaces where we can unite to validate and act upon our deepest human yearnings?

Without this, we can expect simplistic campaigns like Kony 2012 to fill the void.

LaDawn Haglund is associate professor of Justice and Social Inquiry and Fellow of Human Rights and Sustainability at the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at Arizona State University. She has been practicing Buddhism for over 22 years and despite evidence to the contrary, is convinced that Enlightened Society is possible. She can be reached at ladawn.haglund@asu.edu.


Editor: Brianna Bemel

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6 Responses to “Kony 2012: Human Rights without the Human Heart? ~ LaDawn Haglund”

  1. Mark Ledbetter says:

    "despite evidence to the contrary, [she] is convinced that Enlightened Society is possible."

    That certainly brought a chuckle. Whether her optimism is warranted or not, well, we'll see. But she is, IMO, on the right track towards an enlightened political system, anyway: no military adventures to rid the world of bad guys. And towards one point in an enlightened understanding for those of us in the West: beware of the White Man's Burden, especially when the burden involves the military.

    • Mark Ledbetter says:

      Secretary of State John Quincy Adams formulated the principle:

      Whenever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will America's heart, her benedictions, and prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.

      Well, now we do. The whole point of our massive military structure is to find monsters to destroy.

  2. Chad says:


  3. laughingstock says:

    Bush did more harm to the world then kony as done his whole life. we don't see people freaking out about that.

    What makes me laugh about this whole thing, is how people will defend this video to the teeth when they know nothing about the whole story.

    Hollywood at it's finest..

    Next stop.. Poop2013. the new way to make your face beautiful. by rubbing shit all over it.

  4. Weird says:

    if this video thing about kony 2012 was being set up as a thing to catch ppl’s attention. he should be put in jail long time ago way before it gets out of hand.

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