Sensationalizing Africa–more help or hurt?

In the middle of an anthropology class yesterday, somebody mentioned a very controversial and viral video about the LRA. (Check here and scroll down for some of my thoughts on the LRA a few weeks ago).

I found myself, as I often feel, awkwardly trying to wear two sets of shoes: the shoes of an anthropologist, and the shoes of an activist. I find it’s my unique privelege–and sometimes a big headache–to try to see the flaws and advantages of both sides.

Here’s the issue at stake: A big organization called Invisible Children has worked for years trying to care for people who have fled the violence of the Lord’s Resistance Army.  They work in Northern Uganda, and they’re a big hit with lots of North American volunteers who can easily grasp the hardship of kids (now many of them grown up) who experienced crazy brutality at what seems like a mindless onslaught of wild killing.

So then some well-meaning and talented videographers from Invisible Children, wanting to mobilize people around the world to finish off the LRA, made this video.  It’s about half an hour, and it’s engaging.  (You can see it here. Incidentally, I tried looking at the link to Invisible Children’s website, but it kept jamming, perhaps overflowed with so many hits this morning.)

But the problem is this.  It’s mainly told from the side of North Americans doing “good stuff.”  “Saving the world,” if you will. And if you’re the ones “getting saved” by white North Americans, that can feel about as demeaning as being pushed around in a wheel chair when you’re perfectly capable of running.

So there’s been an onslaught of backlash against Invisible Children for making an uninformed, sensationalizing, demeaning video.  It’s not a new story.  Africa has been portrayed as “the white man’s burden” for well-over a hundred years.  It’s insulting, racist, and just plain unhelpful.  I highly recommend six minutes to hear this really well-spoken Ugandan women explain that side here.

Invisible Children also accused (and very likely rightly so, although I’m no expert on the LRA, either) of not dealing with the whole complex picture of what the LRA violence is about, and what work needs to be done now in Northern Uganda where the killing and danger has largely subsided.

But on the flip side, it sure has generated a ton of press.  This morning the YouTube viewer count of the video is over 55 million views.  The spotlight is, more than perhaps ever, on the LRA. And nobody’s denying the fact that they commit terrible atrocities, and it would be real nice if that stopped.  And what are white people on the other side of the globe to want to do something about that supposed to do? The U.S. tends to get criticized either way–when it tries to intervene in Africa, or when it doesn’t.

It all for me raises some difficult questions that I, and I would say anybody wearing either anthropologist shoes or activist shoes needs to grapple with:

At what point are you “informed enough” to try to take action on an issue?

How do you take action without interfering with or demeaning what people more involved in the situation are already doing?

And is there a place for becoming highly informed about an issue without “stepping in” to try to “do something,” if “doing something” risks doing more damage than not?

What do you think?  What should Invisible Children have done differently? What did they do wrong?  Are the news sources (like this one) criticizing Invisible Children just being over-sensitive and picking a fight, or is the criticism valid?

I’m a big fan of a Proverb that says, “It is not good to have zeal without wisdom.” I find knowledge without any zeal is pretty useless, too, though.  And it’s not always easy to catch yourself at the point where your zeal is overstepping your wisdom.

6 Responses to “Sensationalizing Africa–more help or hurt?”

  1. I can definitely see both sides of the argument for or against this viral video. I definitely agree that a perspective of Westerns saving Africans is harmful. But I don’t think that is the sole means of engagment for Insivisble Children. I think that Invisible Children has been working in Uganda with a marganalized popultion. And though I need to do much more research, I think they are engaging in activities in Uganda that empower individuals. If the Kony 2012 campaign were the one and only activity of Invisible Children I would agree that the organization was paternalistic and harmful. However, this campaign is simply one component of the overall strategy.
    The mass population simply doesn’t care enough to act unless they are informed in extremely simple ways to take extremely simple action. But Invisible Children is also raising funds through this campaign hopefully, to address the more issue more holistically.

    In any event it is an interesting social experiment of facebook.

  2. “At what point are you “informed enough” to try to take action on an issue?” What a GREAT question. I often get paralyzed, leaning too far towards informed and not far enough toward action.

    Thanks for adding your perspective to the debate. Did you see that Invisible Children responded to the criticism on their website yesterday? I’m glad they admitted there was a controversy and shared their perspective.

  3. christine says:

    Thanks Stephanie. There’s a ton of stuff you can read by now if you google the video. Here’s a bunch more African responses my friend LaShawn pointed out to me:

  4. christine says:

    And here’s the video’s creator, Jason Russell responding…

  5. Sarah says:

    thanks for your perspective, I have been asking myself many of those same questions… including the very simplistic question of what would Jesus do about this? I absolutely love that last line and it’s truth. finding that point where your zeal oversteps wisdom is crucial.

  6. [...] after posting my 2-cents worth on the issue, which was mostly just raising questions and seeing both sides of the issues, here’s my [...]

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