Kony 2012: A Teachable Moment

Kony 2012, the viral video campaign by Invisible Children to capture and try the Central African military despot Joseph Kony for war crimes. Here’s the video, which has, as designed, exploded in popularity, especially among youth:

The campaign has also generated a fair amount of controversy though, both over its media strategy and over the activism it advocates. Wherever your own stance on these issues lie, it’s possible be dismayed over the bickering that’s resulted.

On the other hand, I see the Kony 2012 campaign as an ideal case study in media literacy, critical literacy, and service learning. The very ambiguity and controversy surrounding it should push our students to question their assumptions and wrestle with what they perceive to be the takeaways from the brouhaha.

I myself would start with the video itself, unadulterated and without commentary. One should watch the video in its entirety first; there are a few flashes of graphic imagery and intimations of war atrocities, and the overall video can be quite emotionally intense. The age-appropriateness of the video should be discussed and cleared, especially with middle school kids and below.

Given that the controversy over the video is already in play, several students may start to vocalize what they’ve heard and read about the video, but I would urge students to first articulate their visceral reactions first. How did they personally respond to the viewing? What did it make them feel or think about? Why?

The “why” is the rub. I think most kids would agree that the video is effective, and a few may even want to act right now (as the Invisible Children organization would want you to). But to think fairly and critically about this text, you have to lower the temperature of the room and take a more clinical look at the rhetorical strategies employed in the video.

Once again, I would advocate tabling the politics at first to make the discussion more focused and manageable. The Action Coalition for Media Education is one of several organizations that have a vast databank of media literacy resources freely available; their web page and PDF on Teaching the Language of the Image: 24 Persuasive Techniques has a nice concise list of common rhetorical strategies used in political campaigns and advertisements. One might print these out, discuss them, and go through the video again, this time pausing at strategic times to discuss which techniques were being employed throughout. How does the video compare to other activist pleas and campaigns that students have been exposed to? What distinguishes it? How does its rhetorical style compare to commercial or political advertisements that students have seen?

First style, then substance. I would have students map out as a group what is the message and context the video lays out. What is the issue and its background? What are the “facts” that dominate, that get emphasized and repeated, and what are the ones that get mentioned only cursorily? Who are the stakeholders? What is the action advocated? This should be considered a fact-finding exercise, laying aside judgment and value-placement.

Once the substance and message of the video is delineated, I would then move into issues of critical literacy. What is the cultural, ethnic, economic profile of the narrator, the author(s) of the video? Why did he/they make the video? What are their stated interests, and what might be more hidden vested interests? Who would be opposed or conflicted about those interests? Whose perspective is missing or underrepresented? Who doesn’t get to speak up and put in their two cents? You might hear more crickets at this stage; most students are not used to asking themselves these questions, and it’s difficult to answer some of them without knowing more context than the video provides. I would still bring them up, though, and post them prominently as questions to return to later.

What next? I would suggest listening to this episode of Talk of the Nation on NPR, which gives an introduction to some of the objections surrounding the Kony 2012 campaign: “Fact Checking the ‘Kony 2012’ Viral Video”

That might be accompanied by a reading of these blog posts by Andrew Sullivan, summarizing the exploding popularity and rising criticism over the video:
“Can Crowdsourcing Take Down a Warlord?”
The Backlash

The blog posts have lots of links that students should be encouraged to follow up on—and perhaps report back on, jigsaw-style.

There’s lots of directions that one can go from here, but one thing I would propose is to go back to the initial questions about the video recursively. Students should, in particular, have more to say to the critical literacy questions at every step along this conversation. Have the students revisit their initial assumptions about the issue now that they’re discovering more context to it. I would try to be careful to avoid telegraphing your own conclusions about the issues but relentlessly play devil’s advocate to all the angles.

One thing worth giving special attention to are the accusations of Invisible Children taking a paternalistic, perhaps even colonialist, approach to the problem. Boing Boing has compiled a series of excerpts from Ugandan activists and intellectuals resisting the campaign (“African Voices respond to hyper popular Kony 2012 viral campaign”). That should be paired with Jacob Acaye’s continued vocal support for the Invisible Children efforts (“Child abductee featured in Kony 2012 defends film’s maker against criticism”). This could lead to an in-depth look at African colonialism and the intersection of U.S. foreign policy with recent Central African history, or it could lead to reflection on how service and activism can be variously perceived by the recipients of that service—and how various forms of advocacy have sought to address those perceptions.

Along those lines, another good pair of readings might be “Think Twice Before Donating to Kony 2012, the Charitable Meme du Jour” in Jezebel magazine with “New Kids on the Block”. The former is a passionate negative reaction to the campaign while the latter is a more guarded let’s-learn-from-this call to make other activist efforts more effective and relevant.

The New York Times’ Room for Debate forum has also recently published “Fighting War Crimes Without Leaving the Couch?”. It’s worth reading not only each featured debater’s contribution, but also the reader comments in response to each of those posts.

Visible Children is a Tumblr blog that enumerates in more detail a number of objections against the Invisible Children non-profit, particularly against its operational effectiveness and financial transparency.

Last, but certainly not least, is an examination of Invisible Children’s response to the critiques. One should remind students throughout that one ought to look at the individual responses and criticisms of the campaign with as much savvy and scrutiny as one has borne to the campaign itself.

As always, a teacher should be clear about his/her pedagogical objectives and orientation to the subject matter. A comprehensive examination of the controversy can easily overwhelm students and make them feel that comprehensibility and action is fruitless—or impossible. We don’t want that; we don’t want students to lose their energy for activism, only to add layers of wisdom and sophistication to it. Students should be encouraged to do something with all this discussion and research. It may be posting a video response on Youtube, it might be writing up a blog post or letter to Jason Russell, the filmographer behind Kony 2o12, or it might be forging an alternate solution to what students now understand is the problem in Central Africa. It’s best if these options come not from the teacher but from a collaborative sense of the energy and concerns of the entire class.

UPDATE 3/15/12:

Anne C. Richards of the International Rescue Committee gives some background the Lord’s Resistance Army and other humanitarian crises in the Horn of Africa and outlines some ways beyond Invisible Children to get involved and make a difference.

Obama Takes on the LRA” is a piece in Foreign Affairs that discusses the political calculations behind the recent provision of U.S. advisory support to Ugandan troops to capture Kony (the initiative that Invisible Children is hoping to sustain political demand for with its viral campaign). The article points out that awareness against the LRA was also boosted by the feature film Machine Gun Preacher, starring Gerard Butler, which almost seems like a Hollywood companion-biopic to the Invisible Children video.

Alex de Waal from the World Peace Foundation discusses the failure of past efforts to capture Kony and why he thinks the Invisible Children campaign is “peddling dangerous and patronizing falsehoods” when it ought to be demystifying Kony as a “common criminal and a failed provincial politician.”

Max Fisher of The Atlantic parses what he sees as “The Soft Bigotry of Kony 2012” and includes, as an addendum, some of the scathing tweets of Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole.

Lindsey Hilsum of BBC Channel 4 says that while Invisible Children could “learn a little from those of us who care about accuracy and context” but journalists “could learn something from them about how to get a message across.

UPDATE 3/16/12:

Local Philadelphia NPR radio call-in show Radio Times dedicated a show to Kony 2012, generally more critical and pointed than the Talk-of-the-Nation show.

The recent episode of Slate podcast Culture Gabfest also has a segment devoted to Kony 2012 (followed by segments on Game Change and On Death Row). A worthwhile listen of a smart media discussion focusing on the rhetoric and subtext of the video.

UPDATE 3/17/12:

More NPR: On The Media talks to Nicholas Kristof and Musa Okwonga. As a Ugandan, Musa provides some first-hand perspective on how Kony is seen in that country. Kristof is also an insider—of humanitarian relief efforts—and makes some choice comments about the backlash. Brian Lehrer and The Takeaway also devote shows to Kony 2012—neither of which I haven’t gotten around to listening to, yet.

This is sordid, but a student might bring this up: Huffington Post reports that Jason Russell, the filmmaker who narrates (and stars in) the video, has been detained for public indecency and seems to be in a bad way.


One thought on “Kony 2012: A Teachable Moment

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