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Ali: Kony Slacktivism

03/12/12 5:55PM By Saleem Ali
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(Host) As the viral video titled "Kony 2012" dominates discussions on Africa, commentator and UVM Professor Saleem Ali responds to criticism about Western activism.

(Ali) A viral video on the internet about the resolutely evil warlord Joseph Kony has galvanized hundreds of millions of youth to pay attention to a faraway conflict in Africa - even here in the school rooms and college campuses of Vermont.

Such an outpouring of interest from the public is unprecedented and as with any rapid rise to fame, has also brought an onslaught of criticism against the video producers. Common critiques are that the video perpetuates a neocolonial narrative of how the West can save Africa or that it takes artistic license with the facts about Kony's whereabouts and the impact of his actual capture. Still others have claimed that more effort is needed on campaigns against malaria which ruins the lives of far more children than any particular war criminal. Perhaps the most interesting criticism is that it perpetuates the phenomenon that sociologists are now referring to as "slacktivism" - suggesting that wealthy slackers would rather send a check or share a video than do the tough work of field-based activism.

While there is no doubt that physical service is more admirable than distant check-writing, the human resource distribution of the world is asymmetric and we need all kinds of pathways to assist those in need. I would much rather that my son be sharing videos that make him think about the suffering of children in distant lands than some random sitcom skit online. I applaud Jason Russell and his colleagues at Invisible Children for opening the cognitive space among the youth of the world to consider such global problems.
No doubt other issues such as infectious diseases should also be campaigned for with equal vigor, but one kind of need does not negate another.

The charge that Western organizations are profiting from such enterprises is one which must be taken seriously but without cynicism. As we learned from the sorry conduct of the charity that rose to fame with "Three Cups of Tea," revenue transparency is important. However, Invisible Children has been very forthcoming about displaying all their finances with audits on their web site.

Some of my African friends contend that the video implies that they can't solve their problems, and so makes them feel embarrassed. Well, we live in a world of structural inequality, partly as a result of colonial history and so we should think of such efforts as a means of correcting those past follies. The rise of interest in helping those in need must be embraced rather than eschewed for us to work towards our common humanitarian goals. Kudos to the film-makers of Kony2012 for finding the chord in our youth that resonates with the impulse to help children in desperate need.
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