My Facebook newsfeed failed me last week. Usually a great source for news and controversy, this time something was missing. I saw lots of #CancelColbert, the outrage calling for the end of The Colbert Report following a tweet that invoked Asian stereotypes. I read about the rumored haircut policies enacted in North Korea that require all men to get the same haircut as Kim Jong Un. I even learned that if I were on “How I Met Your Mother,” I would be Robin Scherbatsky (thanks, Buzzfeed!). But, for some reason, there were no 30-minute Youtube videos—the same friends who two years ago really wanted me to watch Invisible Children’s hit documentary seemed too preoccupied with 2048 to strike up the energy for Kony 2014.
Despite their absence from mainstream social media, Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army have been brought into the spotlight once again this past week. President Obama recently announced the movement of four Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft from their normal base in Djibouti to Uganda, as well as the deployment of 150 Air Force Special Operations troops, in order to finally capture the infamous Joseph Kony. In the context of pervasive violence in Syria and the brewing threat in Crimea, this move presents an interesting choice on the part of the Obama administration.
In 2012, Malia Obama introduced her dad to the Kony 2012 video, beating his advisors to the punch. But while hundreds of thousands of tweets and Facebook posts prompted huge donations to the organization responsible for the documentary, American involvement didn’t increase. And perhaps it shouldn’t have. 100 Special Forces had already been deployed a year prior, and this millennium certainly does not yield many laudable examples of extensive American involvement in foreign nations.
Joseph Kony is a horrendous individual—the International Court of Justice’s 33 charges against him and his legacy of violence against men, women and children in East Africa attest to this fact. And active efforts to prevent the rapes, murders and kidnappings perpetuated at his command are commendable recourses for any government or organization. His current activity in the Central African Republic, from razing homes to murdering villages wholesale further destabilizes a nation that is already consistently wracked with violence. Yet, why Kony? Why now? And why was it so easy for all of us to forget about him for the past two years?
At times, activism seems very much to become an issue of attention span. Protracted conflicts require extended focus, and they often lose the sense of immediacy that pushes most people to care. Few people have an accurate conception of the relative scale of 2,000, 4,000, or 8,000 deaths, displacements or injuries.
I wrote George W. Bush a letter in second grade berating him for his passive acceptance of a world where seals were denied the right to soda-ring-free seas. In seventh grade, my best friend, little sister and I baked brownies, sang and danced in front of our local Harris Teeter to raise money for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Victims of Hurricane Katrina still deal with the repercussions of that disaster today. Seals are far from safe from trash and spilled oil. Yet I have ‘moved on’ in some horrible and pragmatic sense.
The greatest thing about the vast majority of human beings is our compassion. The most embarrassing is our attention span.
If you think about the world today, it is dizzying. We physically cannot care about everything. We can try to tweet about every Kony but grief is crippling—recovery from traumatic incidents is no simple thing. And here we have far too many places in which ongoing conflicts cause death, rape, extreme poverty and displacement to extend into the thousands. The tens of thousands, the hundreds of thousands.
The Kony 2012 Facebook posts repurposed a real socio-political issue in East Africa into self-congratulation, albeit accidentally. I have no defense for superficial activism. I have no defense for those who bounce from topic to topic, fundraising and lobbying and equating activism with the sharing of news, opinions and outrage on social media. If something is so important today, how can we forget about it tomorrow? Activism has been elevated to a new pedestal by an infinite access to information. But this ultimately damages institutional memory and contributes to a mentality in which real issues are poignant and terrifying while awareness of them is fleeting. Social media is thus presented in a misleading way—while it appears to be a powerful way of reaching millions, the ultimate transience of tweets and Facebook posts prioritizes glamor over substance and immediacy over import. It’s why Kony 2012 was pervasive and Kony 2014 isn’t a hashtag.
Lydia Thurman is a Trinity junior. Her column runs every other Tuesday. Send Lydia a message on Twitter @ThurmanLydia