The Best of Advocacy is the Bane of Scholarship: Kony 2012
by Luke Lanciano | Syracuse University
I’ll admit it: I like Invisible Children’s ‘Kony 2012′ Campaign despite my more scholarly misgivings. There’s little question that Invisible Children has boiled down the incredibly complex conflict in Central Africa to an inspiring slogan and video. As someone who has known about the Lord’s Resistance Army and its brutal, quasi-messianic leader Joseph Kony for several years, as well as worked hard to advocate for both his arrest and international attention, I was annoyed at Invisible Children’s campaign when I first saw it on Monday.
But in just 48 hours, millions of people viewed their video and dozens of my Facebook friends (most of whom I never knew had any interest in human rights) posted about Kony 2012. Just this morning, the Council on Foreign Relations Daily Brief (read: crack for foreign policy nerds) mentioned the video in between updates on Iran and Greece. The Lord’s Resistance Army is all the rage across Twitter. Any long-time advocate for human rights has good reason to be jealous, since this campaign raised more attention to the LRA conflict in days than any other campaign has raised in decades, but to be cynical and arrogantly dismiss this campaign as oversimplified just defeats the whole point of being a human rights advocate.
In my mind, the only useful response to the Kony 2012 Campaign is conditional support. To friends that mention it in passing, don’t guffaw and dismiss; instead use the opportunity to expand their knowledge of the conflict and try to recruit them for important activism work– whether organizing on campus, promoting petitions or volunteering with local refugees. I used to be Chapter President of STAND: A Student Anti-Genocide Coalition at Syracuse University, and some of our most important advocacy campaigns involved simple acts intended to inspire students to learn about topics they wouldn’t approach otherwise.
In November 2010, we held a mock election in tandem with elections in Burma where we threw away ballots for pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi while telling passerby about the crimes of the military junta. Were these elections truly a choice between Aung San Suu Kyi (who was under house arrest and boycotting the elections at the time) and the junta (who was ostensibly stepping aside after “managing” the election process)? No- ours was an oversimplified advocacy effort that gave a general overview of a big human rights issue in Burma at the time. While some of the people who stopped by our table became more involved in our group, others just left knowing a little more than they used to about a repressive regime on the other side of the planet. That’s called successful advocacy.
Daniel Solomon’s article from Wednesday problematizes the Kony 2012 Campaign as if it were a policy action in and of itself–which it isn’t. His critiques could equally apply to basically every advocacy campaign that has ever been successful; especially the one that arguably mobilized more college-age human rights advocates than any other in modern history: Save Darfur. Like Kony 2012, Save Darfur was an inspiring slogan for those who want to live in a world free from genocide and human rights abuses, but aren’t academics. Both campaigns incorporate parochial language and oversimplify complex conflicts- but they both have done more for their respective goals than any academic, well-researched and nuanced report or organization out there. That’s definitely called successful advocacy.
Take it from someone that did it for a chunk of his college career: advocacy work is extremely difficult and often discouraging. Just making a dent feels like a success; meeting someone who is excited to join your student human rights organization feels like you just personally delivered Joseph Kony to The Hague to stand trial for his crimes against humanity. The only real way to raise awareness seems to involve oversimplifying conflict, idealizing processes for justice, and often using language with which any academic would complain.
Unfortunately, we haven’t reached a time where broad support can be whipped up over the International Crisis Group’s November 2011 Report on areas affected by the Lord’s Resistance Army (though I do recommend reading it). Maybe someday advocacy campaigns can be wonky, nuanced, and successful. For now, it’s time for all us human rights activists to support Kony 2012, while also seeking policy options that bring Joesph Kony to justice, demilitarize the hundreds of child soldiers whom he has recruited through extreme violence, and work to stabilize Central Africa.Luke Lanciano is a political science major, whose love of politics is matched by his desire to see the world become better and more just for everyone in it. He has started a wind energy company with his father and written a successful grant for wind feasibility studies out of a concern for the way our economy runs on energy that threatens both our natural environment and all those who rely on on a clean earth to maximize their potential.