Sunday, March 11, 2012

What can we do in response to Kony 2012?

“We do not have a choice between purity and violence, but between different kinds of violence”
-Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Humanism and Terror, 1947

Kony 2012, a recent social media activism campaign by Invisible Children to raise support for the capture of Lord’s Resistance Army/Movement leader Joseph Kony, perpetuates all the usual stereotypes about ‘Africa’, as a land of barbaric violence and innocent victims in desperate need of Western intervention.  It erases history, politics, economics, reducing Kony to pure taboo alongside bin Laden and Hitler.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised that most of my lay friends (particularly on Facebook, through which the campaign has spread rapidly) have been quick to ask questions and challenge the infantilized story they’ve been fed.  But, I’m asked, what should we do instead? 

We are perpetually caught between a rock and a hard place.  At the risk of reproducing a simplified explanation of the LRA/M conflict, I think the best way to think about the suffering produced (if that is indeed what we are interested in relieving) is to compare the violence enacted during the course of this conflict.  About 10% can be attributed to the LRA/M’s acts – abductions, mutilations, targeted killings, and so forth.  But about 90% can be attributed to the government, its military, and humanitarian organizations themselves[1], all of whom forcibly displaced the population of the north into camps in which far greater deaths and suffering ensued.  What we have (again, to dangerously simplify to conform to the rules of the very social medium through which Kony2012 has spread) is a case of an exciting spectacle of almost magical physical violence overshadowing the dull, slow, endemic, everyday structural violence that caused far more suffering.  And today, with Kony2012, we are asked in a shockingly naïve and childish message (indeed, one delivered by a privileged bourgeois child), to perpetuate a culture of militarism by pursuing an ‘army’ that today poses little if any threat to the safety and wellbeing of a post-conflict northern Uganda.

But if the alternative to sending an elite force after Kony is to build infrastructure for healthcare, agriculture, and so forth in northern Uganda, then we cannot reproduce by inversion the rhetorical good-evil moral binary used by Kony2012: we are pure, Kony2012 is evil.  Rather, as I’ve suggested by beginning with this realist quote from Merleau-Ponty, we must recognize that there is no choice between violence and purity.  Every potential action is violent in its own way – from building infrastructure (which leads to all sorts of problems of dependency, depoliticization, support of local petit bourgeoisie instead of the poor, and so forth) to even ‘partnering’ with the ‘poor’ (to invoke Paul Farmer’s phrase; in which we risk suppressing genuine indigenous political movements, imposing liberal politics, perpetuating the role of the Western savior, and so forth). 

I don’t propose any solutions, although thinking is a remarkably useful and oft neglected tool today.  I want to boldly and provocatively argue: we should do nothing.  Nothing, because, as Slavoj Žižek argues, “sometimes doing nothing is the most violent thing to do.”  If we have to choose between different kinds of violence, let us choose (in Merleau-Ponty’s spirit) that which is most revolutionary, most radical, one that attacks the root of the problem with knee-jerk humanitarianism today.  In our case, the most radical thing to do is nothing.

What does it mean to do ‘nothing’?  First, of course, to not buy into the urge to ‘do something’ – to hold off on getting your Kony2012 action kit, to stay at home when asked to help plaster these frankly ridiculous posters across America.  Second, not to frantically panic to find other forms of intervening.  It may be surprising to some, but northern Ugandans are quite capable of recognizing and solving their own problems, albeit often against the political strength of the Museveni administration.  Finally, to do ‘nothing’ collectively as the ‘West’ – to withdraw US support for Museveni and to pull out US ‘advisors’, to stop siphoning oil profits out of Uganda, to stop implicit support of land privatization in the north. 

To do nothing is to stop, think, and examine ourselves – why must we define our young American identities against a phantasmagorical narrative of brutality, suffering, and innocence of northern Uganda?[2]  Why should we abandon political engagement (which is always moral) for the moral urge to act (which is always political)?  Why must we always think, as Jason Russell says in the Kony2012 video, that “we know what to do”?  For once, let us do nothing but sit, however uncomfortably, in deep self-reflection in and of our nothingness. 

[1] See the work of Adam Branch, among others. 
[2] Rather than, for example, our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or our complicity in the Israeli occupation, to name just a few of the empire-sustaining projects in which our name, money, sweat, and blood are invested. 


  1. "Finally, to do ‘nothing’ collectively as the ‘West’ – to withdraw US support for Museveni and to pull out US ‘advisors’, to stop siphoning oil profits out of Uganda, to stop implicit support of land privatization in the north."

    If a more democratic and fair Uganda emerges, then all is well and fine. But I want to challenge you on how far you are willing to take this hands off approach? Do we let things play out in Syria? Should we allow full scale war to break out in Sudan/S.Sudan? Should America's poor be fine to manage on their own?

    Perhaps your don't mean to argue a world view that advocates inaction. This might be your recommendation for the situation in N. Uganda only.

  2. Hi Josh, Thanks for your great comments. I should clarify that my view is not pure non-intervention, but rather, a stepping back from the naive humanitarianism that we espouse today and a return to realist politics.

    I'm not as informed on the situations in Syria and Sudan/South Sudan to comment. But I do think, for example, that we should stop to think carefully before acting to help the American poor, for example. Perhaps we should ask - what are WE doing wrong that we can stop that would indeed help America's poor? If you've read some of my other posts, you'll know that I'm a strong critic of capitalism; perhaps we could stop all sorts of things associated with this system (credit card interest, etc.). Yes, this entails a certain amount of action - but it is an action toward inaction, an act of saying no, an act of refusal. It is in this spirit that I argue for us to 'do nothing'.

    I hope this clarifies my perspective. Thanks for your comments!
    Best, Sam