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Activism, just for kits

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are platforms that enable the viral spread of Internet tidbits. I find it all terrifying. As revolutionary as these websites are in this age of information saturation, they still propel a marriage between personal and public information that’s entirely overwhelming. And I find the rush of facts, stories and media that bombards our generation so completely deeply unsettling. It’s exhausting to lose ignorance as an option.

Kony 2012 appeals directly to the guilt associated with such a loss of ignorance and innocence. The campaign offers a way for viewers to redeem themselves, and takes a simplistic approach that assumes viewers will easily fall for a hero-villain-victim narrative.

Obviously, many people have. The video has apparently become the most viral in history, with 100 million views in 6 days. No matter what the arguments are for and against the campaign, it remains that the organization, Invisible Children, assumes it will garner support by appealing to emotions rather than hard facts in their video. The battle cry to #stopkony isn’t tempered with reflections about what the specific problems are in Uganda, or what can be done to ameliorate them. That’s why the video works—it’s a simple concept that people can take in superficial stride.

Any activist or aid organization has to identify a problem and attach a solution to fix it. Identifying a problem involves making it simple enough for people to swallow, and dire and sexy enough for people to jump on the bandwagon. Identifying a small, pithy, catchy problem also allows for the creation of a manageable solution. A movement is born if such problem-identifiers neatly and narrowly package a country or group’s problems and give people reasonable directions on how to donate or show support.

Kony 2012 plays perfectly into this paradigm, but it’s not the only one. Every single other activist group has had to do this, from the civil rights movement to the “Free Tibet” campaign. Movements are rarely about understanding something. They’re about doing something.

Therein lies the essential friction—with the influx of the information age, we find ourselves exposed to a new map of the world’s problems, updated in real time. We are alerted to surface-level problems and crises and disasters daily in local, national and global arenas. We think we’re no longer ignorant, that we’re now cognizant of the world’s problems. With so many things going wrong, we feel guilty and want to help. It’s this desperate need to help solve the problems that we are now more aware of that drives us to do something—anything—to help them, to displace the guilt and uncomfortable feelings that rise from exposure. And yet, we don’t really know what we can do because we don’t, and perhaps can’t, understand how we could help.

How handy is it, then, that the Kony 2012 campaign comes with its very own action kit? Doesn’t it makes you feel pretty warm and fuzzy? I remember watching the video in its indie glory: the end with the black and white people hugging, the youth putting up posters in tunnels by night, dubstep blaring. It’s easy to want to be a part of this movement. Plus, the campaign allows one to take simple steps that supposedly render you—not policymakers, not the military, not the victims of Kony, but tiny little you—the hero of the saga. You’re the one sparking change and saving lives, even if it just means plastering a poster to a corridor, or putting a sticker on your car. If you watched the film, it made you feel pretty damn great about your role in the world.

But there’s something fundamentally, deeply wrong with making us the hero.

When we make ourselves the protagonists of a struggle like this, we leave those that we are “saving” powerless. We use their struggle to make ourselves seem conscientious, well informed and active world citizens. The Kony 2012 campaign lets us be narcissistic. It lets us boast. We can post on our Facebook timeline all the good we’re doing for the poor, helpless souls in Uganda. We can wear T-shirts and bracelets to show our solidarity. We can sign petitions, we can be in videos, we can tweet—all to let the world know that we’re concerned and troubled by these big, sexy world problems. This type of “activism” announces that we care about, not necessarily about the people that apparently need our help so desperately.

Don’t blindly let Kony 2012 make you the star of this saga. Because you’re not.

Ellie Bullard is a Trinity junior. Her column runs every other Wednesday.

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