Kony 2012 has got the conversation started

This article first appeared on On-Line Opinion. It was also published on The Election Review.

If this campaign looks new to you, then you’ve been living under a rock for the past week.

A few days ago virtually nobody knew who Joseph Kony was.

Now, as a result of one of the most powerful viral campaigns to ever hit cyberspace, Kony is not only a household name, but is shaping up to be one of the most divisive people on the planet.

American Jason Russell – the filmmaker responsible for this sudden spike in Kony fascination – and his non-profit organisation Invisible Children Inc have already achieved their first objective: make Kony famous.

Like so many others I first heard about the Kony 2012 campaign on Wednesday afternoon when a distant Facebook friend invited me to paint the town Kony. Unsure of what to make of this request I followed the Youtube link, to see what all the fuss was about.

My trip there, however, was only brief; the 29:59 figure in the bottom right-hand corner dissuaded me from pressing ahead further. In this day and age, where time is money, I’m surprised anybody had the patience to watch the video in the first place.  But sure enough, somebody did.

Indeed a lot of people did.

One of the more graphic – and contested – scenes from Kony2012

By the night’s end I couldn’t avoid Kony. Facebook had decided for me; I was going to watch the video regardless of whether I wanted to or not.

Having watched the young people of the Middle East make their mark on the world stage via the Arab Spring, it’s no surprise that politically enthusiastic Westerners have followed suit. The controversial Occupy movement provided this avenue for some, even if it frustrated just as many young people as it empowered.

Now Russell is here, to help us fight something more tangible than “the 1%”. In Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, Westerners have found an unequivocal “bad guy”, a face to represent rape, murder, mutilation and child abuse. In Joseph Kony, Russell has given the Western world a target.

Yet just as fast as Kony 2012 has been gaining momentum, so too has its backlash. Cynics and critics alike have spoken out about the fundamental dangers of Russell’s campaign.

One of my fervently right-wing friends called the Kony doco “emotional porn”. While I don’t agree with his sentiment, there is substance to his claim. Is Kony 2012 groundbreaking, or is it just very sharp film-editing? During those 30 minutes, did we all just get caught up in the moment?

One of the only Kony internet memes out there that I’ve actually found quite satirical.

Others have turned Russell’s campaign into a tasteless internet meme. They accuse people who have shared the video of jumping on the bandwagon.

Such cynicism, however, achieves nothing. It’s easy to dismiss an untried idea. It’s not so easy to have faith in a new one.

I propose that we do neither. Before we hit that “Share” button – or graffiti the streets with anti-Kony propaganda – let’s pause and think for a moment. Likewise, before we ridicule Russell and his promise to his friend Jacob, let’s find out what he really wants to do.

There are overt political agendas at play here. Sure, Kony is a bad guy but the issue is undoubtedly much more complicated than that. Uniting against him is one thing. Campaigning United States policy makers to take international action, however, is treading on sensitive turf.

There are a lot of complex factors and unanswered questions at play here. Is the LRA still a threat? How does the Western world hope to bring Kony down? If Kony is eliminated, who replaces him? How can the LRA be taken down without child deaths? Where is the Invisible Children’s money going? Does the United States have to be involved?

I do not have the answers. And chances are you don’t either. As such, we must not jump to conclusions just yet.

Realistically it’s uncertain how United States intervention will solve the problem. But Russell’s presentation doesn’t have to be the solution; he’s opened up the conversation and that in itself is huge.

What has already been achieved – global awareness and engagement with a serious issue – is cause for celebration. Sure, no ruthless terrorists have been brought to justice. But look at what’s happening to us. Over the last 72 hours young Westerners have actually started caring about a deeply important issue.

To all those bleeding hearts out there wondering why starving Africans don’t grace the covers of our daily newspapers, the time is now. Never has the plight of the developing world had such mainstream interest.

Sure, it might be “emotional porn”. But I’d much prefer my Facebook newsfeed to host discussions about sex crimes, rather than sex scandals.

We might not know what to do next; we might still be divided over the value of Russell’s cinematic efforts. But we’re talking about Kony. We’re learning about the LRA. We’re researching about Uganda. We’ve suddenly become passionate about solving the world’s biggest problems.

We’re having this conversation. Surely that’s a good thing.

Interesting links:

The film itself