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Panel discusses impact of activist film ‘Kony 2012’

Duke students, administrators and professors alike are engaging in conversation about the impact the viral video “Kony 2012” is having on campus.

“Kony 2012” is a film and campaign produced by Invisible Children, Inc.—an organization that aims to end the violence and use of child soldiers in Uganda. The film targets Joseph Kony, head of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a militia in Northern Uganda that has had reports of child solders, child sex slaves and cannibalism filed against it. The film gained more than 75 million views on YouTube and has seen a number of endorsements from both politicians and celebrities.

In an event Wednesday, several campus groups—including Duke Political Union and Coalition for a Conflict-Free Duke—came together with a panel of four administrators and professors to discuss reactions to the video’s message and popularity.

Eric Mlyn, executive director of DukeEngage and a panelist at the event, said this was the first international issue that he learned about from his son—a fact he believes characterizes the nature of this movement. He described that film as both incredibly powerful and well-made, which has contributed to the huge outcry of support that many Americans have expressed.

At this point, the controversy stirred by “Kony 2012” will not have any impact on the DukeEngage program in Uganda.

“The movement is not advocating any change in the status quo in Uganda because it is an effort to sustain Obama’s military intervention, not to end one,” Mlyn said in an interview.

Catherine Admay, visiting professor of public policy; Robin Kirk, director of the Duke Human Rights Center; and Stephen Smith, visiting professor of African and African American studies also served on the panel.

Responses to the movement and its delivery have been mixed, with many expressing their skepticism about the way the film depicts the conflict regarding Kony’s organization. Louisa Lombard, a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology, whose research focuses on the Central African Republic, said the film presents an overly simplified explanation of what is happening in northern Uganda and beyond.

“One reason why the video has been so popular is that it tells us about a really horrible problem and then tells us that there is a simple solution,” Lombard said. “The message is somehow that if only Americans care, the problem will be solved and while this is attractive, it’s not necessarily that simple.”

Charlotte Lee, a freshman involved with the Coalition for a Conflict-Free Duke, is a supporter of the Kony 2012 campaign, noting that one should not distinguish between “good” and “bad” activism.

“People are promoting this without knowing the background, which is why it is getting so much slack, yet people are anti-Kony 2012 without knowing anything either,” Lee said. “Why is it bad that more people know about something like this?”

Other students said the goals of this movement are somewhat nebulous.

“[This] is a really important dialogue to have, but I’m not necessarily sure—other than starting an Invisible Children chapter at Duke, which we don’t yet have—if there’s enough for students to grasp onto to start anything bigger,” said sophomore Stefani Jones, chair of the Coalition for a Conflict-Free Duke.

Jones noted that the Kony 2012 movement is proposing a very simple message—to hang up posters and rally support using social media to talk to politicians and celebrities.

“This movement is propelling a very positive overall message, yet I don’t think that it’s the kind of thing that you can get a lot of people to stick with, because there’s not much to stick with,” she added.

Shilpi Kumar, a junior and co-director of dialogues for the Center of Race Relations, said that an answer to the conflict with Kony and the LRA will not be found on a college campus, though she noted that encouraging discourse, such as Wednesday’s panel discussion, is important.

“I don’t know if a Kony 2012 club would necessarily get much traction, but when you bring in a lot of different perspectives with a variety of organizations involved, you can really benefit,” Kumar said.

Smith said it is too early to tell whether the movement will continue at Duke, though precedents such as the Save Darfur movement might lend some insight.

“We need to ask ourselves what lessons there are to be learned by movements such as these,” Smith said. “It’s about being accountable for what you do and making your actions meaningful, whether they are successful or not.”

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