March 9, 2012

Slacktivism Versus Action.

Are we experiencing the 2012 version of “Where were you when you heard JFK was assassinated?” — “How many times did the new viral video, Kony2012 show up in your facebook feed before you watched it?”

The 29-minute videos has already earned over 50 million views on vimeo and youtube since being posted on Monday. Is it merely the latest internet sensation, or the start of a lasting and meaningful campaign?

How did the hitherto relatively-obscure non-profit, Invisible Children (IC), skyrocket this not at all new, though horrifying and critical human rights issue to the forefront of both Twitter and mass consciousness?

Well, as I learned today from TED, videos go viral for three reasons:

1. Tastemakers

2. Communities of supporters

3. Unexpectedness

Evidently, this one has all three.

3. It unexpectedly connects a white dude and a black boy and Joseph Kony. Also: it’s unexpectedly long for our short attention spans. We’re too busy blogging and socially networking; who’s going to watch a half-hour video!?

2. A small community of supporters grew and grew and is now exploding.

1. As for the tastemakers, Oprah’s on board. As if that wasn’t enough, IC is seeking support from 20 pop stars and 12 policymakers to make their dream a reality.

The subject matter is compelling. Children. Suffering. Violence. Human rights. I first delved into the disturbing subject of African child soldiers in 2010 when I devoured What is the What. The book chronicles the life of young Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, as told in the impeccable writing style of Dave Eggers. I was struck throughout the tale by the immense capacity for human suffering and survival and the potential for hope even after such inexplicable atrocities.

It just so happens that my eighth grade students are currently developing social justice campaigns in my class. They are producing videos about issues like human trafficking, air pollution and the cycle of poverty. They also happen to have extensively studied the Holocaust this school year, so oppression, genocide, propaganda and trauma are all relevant vocabulary words.

The Kony2012 film is well-crafted, moving, intense and inspiring. Like all documentaries, it is edited and stilted to reach the filmmakers’ goals. In this case, the filmmaker, Jason Russell, 33, tells his own personal story of meeting a young Ugandan boy and former child soldier named Jacob in 2003. He spotlights his own young son, Gavin, a precocious blonde kid who some crabby bloggers have deemed overly precious. Whatever his tactics, Russell has, according to the New York Times article, “tapped into a vein of youthful idealism that the authorities the world over have been struggling — and failing — to comprehend and keep up with.”

As I watched (and welled up and had tears roll down my cheeks at several points), I immediately thought of showing the video to all 116 of my students…when we have time in class… later in the month. Of course, tech-savvy teens that they are, many already saw the video yesterday. This morning when I arrived at school, there was a handmade Kony2012 flier stuck to my classroom door and my eleven usually unmotivated advisory students begged me to play the video.

They were uncharacteristically silent and somber as we watched.

When it was over, I asked, “Will getting rid of Joseph Kony solve the problem?”

“No,” they knew.

“Is it a good start?”


Later in the day, one student came into my classroom to make Kony2012 posters to promote the cause at our middle school. She and her sister have decided to raise money to buy a billboard here in Guatemala City. Another  student emailed me, saying that her uncle in Texas is working on the Invisible Children campaign, and:

Their goal is to make Joseph Kony famous not to celebrate him, but to raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice. What Joseph is doing, he is kidnapping kids and giving them guns for them to kill there [sic] own parents and others. Just one view can help kids back in Africa have their life back.

Well, maybe not just one view. One view and one “like” or tweet would be the epitome of slacktivism. But one view is a necessary start. What’s the right next step? I guess we’re all figuring it out as we go.

Obviously, untangling the complex web of tangled problems in central Africa is not going to be easy, and it’s going to take more than posturing and postering. Could this be a teenage revolution? The youths are certainly motivated to click. As Russell told the NYT, “No one wants a boring documentary on Africa. Maybe we have to make it pop, and we have to make it cool.”

I admire the Kony2012 campaign, although I haven’t donated money or ordered a kit. I like anything that gets my students (who happen to be wealthy, privileged Guatemalans, in a country with its own share of corruption and genocide) truly pumped for social justice, and this IS. If it’s getting millions of people to learn and care about the plight of central Africans, that’s a step in the direction of success, a movement toward truth, justice and peace.

Social justice is not simply thinking or talking or posting incendiary things online that will only be forgotten in five hours. It is this: Kony getting arrested, going to international trial for crimes against humanity and being convicted and duly punished.

Much of the current debate about the video is useless. Instead of spouting our opinions about the quality of the Kony2012 video, or attacking Invisible Children for any imperfection, how can we transform this momentum into something positive and productive for the affected areas of central Africa? Hopefully that will include the arrest and prosecution of Joseph Kony, among manymanymany other things that must happen for peace to reign.

The NYT continues:

“It’s ultimately a good thing,” said Pernille Ironside, a senior adviser for child protection at Unicef who is an expert on the Lord’s Resistance Army. “It’s not just one organization in the United States who has discovered this issue,” she said. Still, Invisible Children “is essentially distilling a very complicated 26-year war into something that’s consumable and understandable by mass media.”

In every moment of this public discourse, let us not forget the atrocities, although they are unimaginable to we fortunate First Worlders — the rape, the abduction, the constant fear, the slaughter — even as every last minute detail of the IC video production is debated. Let’s harness this energy for authentic action and activism and CHANGE. No idle or uncaring “slacktivism” allowed.


Editor: Tanya Lee Markul

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