If you have the internet, you’ve probably seen posts ad nauseum over the past few days about making someone named Joseph Kony famous. Today, we’re taking a break from our regularly scheduled delicious and nutritious programming to talk about the illusions of “awareness” campaigns. The struggles of Northern Uganda are real, and the complicated realities of cyclic violence, poverty, apathy and under-resourcing are a terrible crisis for Uganda and the world. It can be stopped. I’m just not convinced that approaches like this campaign’s are the way it will be.
#1: Awareness is not the same as action. Awareness is a starting point, and an important one at that. But awareness does nothing unless it is matched with action. Holland is famous for having saved close to 75% of its Jewish population during WWII, and you know how they did it? By doing something. Imagine if, rather than courageously risking their lives to hide their friends and neighbors, the Dutch had simply worn designer t-shirts that read “Save the Jews!” On a less fatal scale, try and imagine the Civil Rights movement without action: what would America look like today if activists had organized a “Concert for Equality” starring Ray Charles rather than the bus boycotts? My point is not that awareness is bad–it is that we have all been bamboozled into thinking we have done something by sporting a Pink Ribbon clutch or posting a clever Facebook status. Resist this idea. Do something, locally, globally, or personally to act on your new awareness, and preferably something that will require further thought and action. Can we all fly to Uganda and meaningfully contribute to ending this conflict? No–but we can contribute to organizations who are, and we can continue following this longer than the next time we update our social media profiles. On a smaller scale, each of us really and truly does have the power to make local impacts–and we have to match our awareness of our own communities to positive action. Which brings me to #2:
#2: Understand that, even with all the awareness in the world, you are taking actions every single day that make the world a worse place and that contribute to situations like those represented in the Kony 2012 video. This is a tough pill to swallow and, as Americans at the top of the consumerist food chain, is admittedly difficult to dismantle. We have all be raised in a system that relies upon our belief that we need certain things and that the suffering of others is required for us to attain those needs. Each day we wake up in the morning and waste gallons of clean water by showering, dress ourselves in clothes made by faceless, underpaid, rarely-educated women and children across the world, and consume food farmed, transported, and served to us at great cost to individuals and to great profit of corporations–and this is all before we even get to work. Understanding this, we have two choices: to be paralyzed by the guilt of this knowledge or to be empowered by the injustice of this knowledge. The point isn’t to feel guilty about this–this is a reality just as complicated as what is happening in Uganda. The systems that keep Kony in power and that keep us contributing to him have one thing in common: they continue because a lot of very powerful people make money because a lot of less powerful people were raised to understand that this is just the way it is, and that this is how it will continue to be. The point is to critically engage yourself, your family and your friends about how the small things you do every day contribute to local inequality, global inequality and, yes, situations like the one represented in the Kony 2012 video. Which, conveniently, brings me to point #3:
#3: Caring about others, social justice, and the end of conflicts like those in Northern Uganda is not an elitist, hipster, or liberal point of view. It is a human point of view. When we roll our eyes at ideas like fair trade, public service, community partnership and empowerment, and making choices based on the greater good, we contribute to Joseph Kony. When we dismiss equitably-sourced products as “too expensive,” we diminish the human cost of what we buy and contribute to Joseph Kony. When we post about the terrible conditions of humans across the world and then flip to TMZ to see Lindsay Lohan’s latest gaffe, we contribute to Joseph Kony. When we ignore our awareness of the atrocities of Apple’s labor conditions and post about the terrors of childhood in Northern Uganda from our iPhones, we contribute to Joseph Kony. Again–the point is not to feel guilty about the fact that we buy things we don’t need, love Nike shoes, or swear by Perez Hilton. The point is to understand that if we have the time, money, and energy to engage in these things, we have the resources to engage in the things that matter. Are Fair Trade products more expensive? Absolutely. But when we write them off as a luxury of the privileged class, we let ourselves off the hook for privileging our own luxury rather than the extra $1 required to buy chocolate not sourced from slave conditions. Can all Americans afford to make the most just decision every time? No–but we can make more of the fair decisions more of the time.
#4: Know that none of this matters if you do nothing. What I have just gone on and on about is, essentially, a more enlightened form of awareness. I don’t have all the answers, and I DO have Apple products and Nike shoes. What I’m advocating here is not to go tent out in a public park until the cops forcibly remove you–what I’m advocating is that you think about your life, research the impact of your choices, and then evaluate where you can stand to make more fair choices and increase the number of actions you take to improve your world. I have spent time mostly on small decisions–what we watch, which articles we read/share, where we send our money, what we eat and what we buy–which I will admit are important but largely inconsequential given the massive system of inequity facing us. But these systems want you to believe that we exist in a binary of lose-lose choices– either you must fly to East Africa and chain yourself to a young Ugandan to save him from child soldiderdom or you must… post on Facebook about it. Both are equally unhelpful. So what I’m encouraging all ten of my readers to do is to take what action you can every day to create more equity. On some days, this will mean small action and on other days hopefully this will mean big action–but if you’re not doing anything, you might as well not know. And you can post that to Facebook.