Not the Kony way to be heard

19 March 2012

The online documentary sensation Kony 2012 - which highlights atrocities perpetrated by Kony, head of the Lord Resistance Army rebel group that once terrorised northern Uganda - raises an important question for people interested in promoting the cause of human rights worldwide.

Is it more important to accurately convey the complexity of human rights issues or to mobilise more than 70 million people to pay attention and in some way get involved? As academics and the human rights community ponder the limited effectiveness of decades of scholarly analysis, we would all be well served to reflect on Kony 2012.

After all, about one week after the US based NGO, Invisible Children posted the online documentary 74 million people (probably young people as the main conduit was Facebook) have watched (or at least clicked onto) it. Remarkably for the multi-screen generation, many have watched the film all the way through and the buzz created has been extraordinary with young viewers sharing the film, buying campaign kits, talking about a man and a part of the world many had never heard of a week ago, and gaining a sense they too could play a part in stopping some of the most heinous human rights violations in the world.

Just a couple of days after this viral media success became known, a spate of fairly predictable criticisms of the film also circulated the media and more scholarly circles. Those criticisms pointed, quite legitimately, to the simplistic and politically suspect tenor of the film and its message - in some cases, claiming that we would have been better off without it.

Watching these two media trends I wondered whether the business of human rights protection is a zero-sum game between the shallow popularism of the market approach to promoting the cause on the one hand, and the thoughtful, but often esoteric and inaccessible complexity of structural and geopolitical analysis on the other? Are we doomed to either capturing the millions or telling an accurate story? Or is there a way that we can both engage large numbers of people into popular and democratic action to protect human rights, while avoiding the traps of the simple, and all too frequently incorrect, message?

The secret to the film's success in capturing the public imagination seems to be threefold.

First, it adopts a very straightforward narrative form: a story about evil, innocence and saviours. Each of those qualities is embodied in recognisable characters: Joseph Kony is evil, the children of Uganda are innocent, and the young people of the world can be the saviours.

Second it shows a lot of young people doing things that make them feel good: cooperating, feeling effective, making a difference.

The other side of this is that at no time does the film depress by making us feel the problem is hopeless, or bad about ourselves. It does not blame or even implicate us or our governments, our only role can be to save the children from a life of unimaginable suffering and get them back to school.

Finally, it shows us a clear path for action, action that will not only solve the problem, but make us feel good at the same time. Even more ingeniously, some of that action is slightly risque and so especially appealing for young people - putting posters up all over our cities in the early hours of the morning. The criticisms automatically follow for just about anyone who has studied even a single subject in postcolonial theory or structural political analysis.

The film reeks of neo-colonialism, casting benevolent North Americans as the very ones to (once again) bring light to the dark of Africa. By the same token, the evil character is conveniently one in a distant country, rather than one of the war criminals in our own midst. The film drastically oversimplifies an extraordinarily complex problem, ignoring the social, economic and geopolitical factors that underpin conflict in Central Africa and the use of child soldiers, choosing to attribute the entire problem to one man's evil character.

And finally, the lead characters and speaking parts in the drama all go to white North American actors, and when the people of Central Africa speak, it is only to tell us about their immense suffering and to ask us to solve the problem.

Some of the harsher critics have gone even further, accusing the film of performing the very relations of neo-colonial power that lie at the heart of Africa's problems and ensuring that the people of the West can continue to feel good about ourselves without ever looking in the mirror and seeing that we too are complicit or that we need to make some changes in the way international politics is done that may not be as joyous as graffiti after midnight.

A pessimistic diagnosis of these two diametrically opposed positions is that we have a choice. Either we market stories of human rights violations in a way that captivates the millions, or we develop complex and accurate analyses of those same problems. Analyses that avoid the perils of simplistic narrative tropes, psychological splitting and ideological manipulation, but after we have done so, we look up and see that most of our audience has switched off, switched over or tuned back to the latest status update on Facebook.

I'd like to think that the combined ''success'' and ''failure'' of Kony 2012 provides a set of rich lessons about the fine balance between the tricks and the dangers of marketing human rights. And, by the same token, campaigns like Kony 2012 would do well to take greater stock of the work that researchers have done on the conflict situation into which they have weighed.

Sure, the film told a problematically simple story, but it opened a door and millions of people are now in the room, perhaps ready to hear more. From the other side, the campaign could have drawn from a more complex analysis, albeit in digestible ways. It's something of a sweet irony that the critics of the campaign's simplicity achieved a level of public exposure for their more complex analysis that has been denied them for years. Perhaps, we need to be in less of a hurry to point out what is wrong with each other's strategies, and take pause to both notice and learn for ourselves, about what works.

DR Danielle Celermajer is the director of the Asia Pacific Master of Human Rights program at the University of Sydney.

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