Keep it Simple, Stupid

If you were to ask me what I did this spring break, I’d put it simply: “I traveled to Johns Island, South Carolina with around 40 other students and faculty members to help renovate substandard houses belonging to some of the locals.” As I learned on this trip, however, this description lacks nuance and brings with it a host of connotations about community service and volunteer work that could be discussed for hours–and have been. For example, in this statement above I first imply that I bring some form of otherwise unobtainable help to those living in substandard conditions. Then I oversimplify the matter by failing to recognize why the locals that we helped are in their current situation. Lastly, I use language such as “help” or “the locals” that could be seen as inaccurate, offensive or loaded, depending on the perspective of the different people involved in the whole initiative. Nevertheless, I use this statement for one reason: when people ask me what I did over break, they for a simple answer, not a nuanced and complex articulation of the social injustices present in the costal islands of South Carolina. If they asked for more detail, then of course I would share. This idea that a simplified expression is easier to swallow and more instantly gratifying than a detailed report of the same situation is important and extremely relevant in light of Invisible Children’s recent KONY 2012 movement. Several authoritative voices have released their personal critiques of the campaign, and I’ve read a lot of them. As I examined the criticisms, it appeared to me that several of the complaints people have about this movement revolve around (warning: I’m about to oversimplify) its oversimplification of the complex social issue which surrounds the ongoing strife instigated by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and its leader, Joseph Kony. Some criticize the video’s attempt to explain 26 years of war in a 30-minute video, while actual victims of the LRA have become upset at Invisible Children’s efforts to make Joseph Kony as famous as a celebrity. All of these opinions are exceptionally valid, and I am compelled by these critics’ arguments. However, I still support KONY 2012 wholeheartedly. The reason KONY 2012 has gained so much support is that it is so simple. If it weren’t for the fact that so many people were sharing the video, I would have never sat down for 30 minutes and watched it; if it were two hours and more comprehensive, I wouldn’t have bothered. And the catchy signs, flashy bracelets and “campaign” to make Kony famous, along with the viral video, are all brilliant oversimplifications whose goal is to get people interested. And so, in this sense, the simplified version is not only acceptable, but preferable, because without public interest in this issue nothing would be done about it. The whole thing strikes me as a brilliant marketing scheme, and it has made a vast number of people aware of a global issue that they otherwise wouldn’t find the time for. The hope is that like those interested in my trip to South Carolina, people start looking for more information about the particular subject. It worked in my case, and before I knew it I had spent a couple hours researching more about the issue. Yet when the masses are presented with a simplified issue, some may think a simplified solution to be sufficient. So, share a video, change your profile picture, buy a bracelet, and you can make a difference, right? Unfortunately, not quite. Like every marketing campaign, KONY 2012 is trying to sell something; Grant Oyston, a sociology and political science student at Acadia University, puts it wonderfully: “[KONY 2012 is] selling the feeling that you can change the world. Everybody wants to change the world, and young people most of all.” This is not to say that changing the world is impossible; it is just not as easy as Invisible Children’s campaign makes it seem. For example, while increasing public awareness of the issue has encouraged policy makers to address the issue by continuing to support the Ugandan military (UPDF) in trying to catch Kony, UPDF has had several incidents of rape and similar injustices itself. Even if the public makes catching Kony and supporting the UPDF a priority, the situation is much more nuanced than Invisible Children would have us believe. Stopping one man, even if that man is Joseph Kony, is certainly not enough to solve the underlying issue. In case it got lost in the many nuances and complexities above: I support KONY 2012, so long as it is viewed critically and seen as a way to draw people into learning about an important social issue. Beyond the information about the LRA that KONY 2012 has taught me, the campaign has been a prime example of how to examine community work more analytically and recognize the uses of oversimplification and the inherent nuances of these issues. I strongly suggest looking further into more information about the LRA and Joseph Kony, as well as critiques on Invisible Children’s movement, as this article is merely a simplification of the things I’ve learned, and there are many more complexities worth investigating. Makenzie Schwartz is a two-year Lower from Bradford, MA.