Years ago I read A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah, his autobiography about his escape from life as a child soldier (you can read my immediate reaction here). It shook me to my core. Growing up in India, I was well aware (and scared to death) of stories about children being kidnapped into slavery. But this was the first time I understood how children were being converted into weapons of war, and the sheer horror of it all was overwhelming.
This was before Arav was born. Before those nights when I would walk over to watch him sleeping peacefully in bed, gaze at his angelic face (well, they’re always angelic when they’re sleeping), and shudder at the mere thought of what if…
I have struggled ever since, trying to figure out what I could do to make a difference. It’s been easy to donate money to various causes. And I’ve participated in forums and given whatever voice I have to different efforts at various times. I wish I could go off and volunteer my time, but the few times I’ve looked into it, I have found the requirements to be impractical for me to take on. And I’d always assuage my guilt with the thought of “some day”.
That’s why I found the Stop Kony movement so compelling. If you haven’t seen the video yet (um, really? Where have you been?), see it below first (be warned, it’s about 30 minutes long though).
The promise of making a difference through small, manageable actions is incredibly seductive, and the video does a great job of tapping into that allure. There are some that criticize this approach as meaningless, coining the phrase ‘slacktivism‘ in response. But the first wave of attack in any campaign is raising awareness. We need only go back a few months to see citizen action work in the recent brouhaha over SOPA/PIPA.
The key though was in the kind of citizen action that made change happen. It wasn’t a bunch of tweets, avatar tweaks and website overlays that made an impact. It was the way in which all that activity channeled people’s fury into a single call to action – getting in touch with our representatives in Congress and making them hear our concern. It’s ironic that in the current election season, where we constantly hear how disillusioned the country is with their government, the best course of action to affect change is still the age old method of writing a letter to your congressman/congresswoman (updated for the times, of course).
What I have found fascinating is not just how ultra-viral (is that redundant?) the beautifully orchestrated social media campaign for Stop Kony has been, but also the speed at which thoughtful and soul-searching critiques of Invisible Children, the NGO behind the campaign, emerged and become incredibly visible. Critiques like this one literally stopped me in my tracks, because I was definitely getting swept up in the emotional tug the video created. It’s a sobering reminder that research and fact-checking is becoming a rarity instead of a rule in the social media fueled frenzy around causes. Hearing about that thing from friends naturally erodes the skepticism we should feel. Call it cause phishing.
So I am going to watch carefully to see what emerges from this campaign. I truly hope that Invisible Children’s response to these critiques is genuine and holds up, because there can be no greater cause than saving and rehabilitating children from the atrocities of slavery, rape and war. And if it does, and the campaign is able to overcome the critiques and be successful, then we will have opened a whole new chapter in the way we combat the ills of this world. Even if it only succeeds in raising awareness about the need to act and galvanizes people towards other channels, it would be worth it. But if it’s a money grabbing scheme couched behind a social cause, then it could poison the growth of a powerful tool in the people’s arsenal to affect change, and that would be a very bad thing. Because there are so many causes that we need to fight for, in our own small ways.
[ Update - 3/9/2012 ]
Below are some interesting posts I’ve come across about the StopKony movement since I originally posted this.
- Unpacking Kony 2012
- A Partial Defense Of Invisible Children’s Kony2012 Campaign
- African voices respond to hyper-popular Kony 2012 viral campaign
[ Update - 3/16/2012 ]
Oh, for crying out loud:
- ‘Kony 2012′ filmmaker arrested in San Diego “after he was found masturbating in public, vandalizing cars and possibly under the influence of something,”