I won’t share the video that many of my fellow bloggers reacted to today. Because of its slick production value, Invisible Children’s Kony2012 campaign will get plenty of attention without a link from me.
I did attempt to watch the whole video, but I have to confess that I stopped when Invisible Children’s founder asks his 3-year-old to explain who the “bad guys” are and what daddy does, i.e. he goes after them. The simplistic narrative of heroes and villains – this, among other things, has always been a big concern with Invisible Children’s work. How well has the bad guys vs. good guys paradigm ever really served the world?
The most disturbing part of the film is an intensely emotional moment in the film when a Ugandan young man, Jacob, breaks down and the narrator (the founder) promises to help. It’s heartbreaking for me. Not only because of Jacob’s story of how much he misses his slain brother (though the intimacy of that moment makes me really wonder if we should be watching at all), but more so the founder’s inability to just “stay” with Jacob in that dark, low, hard moment.
Instead, he jumps in and assures him that he will fix it.
He can’t handle the discomfort of that situation and so makes a promise to Jacob to change his life, to alter a history-laden, deeply entrenched socio-economic-political conflict, which he at that moment presumably knows very little about. He may have been inspired to “do something,” but nothing that he or his organization can ever do will ever bring back Jacob’s brother. That may sound harsh and even cynically cruel to some, but I think it’s important to recognize that true compassion occurs when we don’t fight or dismiss sadness. The narrator’s inability to tolerate Jacob’s despair, actually lets despair win.
Watching the video really brought home this article recommended by @mindfulaidwork today, “The Importance of Sadness.” It may help explain why Invisible Children remains so popular among the public. They conjure up a horrible situation, only to let us distance ourselves from the difficult emotions it inevitably brings forth by creating a shallow sense of empowerment, that is, enabling us to believe that we can change the course of another country’s history. It’s a Hollywood blockbuster, the ultimate gaming experience, and we’re the heroes.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m unashamedly hopeful about the ability of humans to change their own situations. But the events of the Arab Spring certainly remind us that lasting change must come from within.
The Invisible Children founder’s real job in that moment was not to solve Jacob’s problem. Aid workers, do-gooders, that goes for us too. We have an immense responsibility to handle these situations with care because our presence as outsiders can and often does provide opportunities for people to tell their stories, often of suffering. It takes effort to cultivate and hone our ability to carry this burdensome, sacred role and work hard not to project or protect our feelings over another’s. But in my experience, simply “being there” can help people reconnect to their hope when it seems lost.
I am the first to say that it’s tough to do this well. I certainly don’t doubt the strength of the connection between Jacob and Invisible Children’s founder. But what the founder could have done better during his moment of inspiration was to simply acknowledge Jacob’s deep sadness and assure Jacob of his own inner strength. Ideas for change can come later. Instead, what the founder doesn’t realize is that he is pushed Jacob’s feelings away and offered him reliance on a white man to solve his problems.
For a more grounded and humble approach to outsider “advocacy” on other countries’ internal social justice issues, I recommend checking out the Africa Canada Accountability Coalition at the University of British Columbia. They provide platforms for Canadians to take a critical and thoughtful approach to advocacy in general through their “So you want to save Africa” workshops, as well as through policy recommendations for Canada’s involvement in the Great Lakes region. Currently, they are working on a research-based policy paper that will stress the social and, ultimately, economic benefits of investing in local initiatives.
Now that’s the movie I want to see.