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Consumerism Trumps Education: The Kony 2012 Campaign

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The poster that the Kony 2012 campaign would like to plaster around the country, and has included in a $30 action kit, juxtaposes Joseph Kony, Osama Bin Laden, and Adolf Hitler. Linking the three figures aims to make parallels throughout history, and emphasize evil. As if they were exactly the same.

As if historical facts do not matter.

We are in big trouble if we leave information on the table and turn to inspiring young people to care by triggering their emotions and providing them with a naive narrative and a toy. Consumerism instead of education. "Buy this" rather than "learn this" to effect social change.

Invisible Children, the NGO running the Kony 2012 campaign, suggests social change depends upon making a $30 purchase rather than actually learning. That we can use consumerism (and marginalize education) in our eagerness to alert a wide swath of people to injustice. But facts are powerful. Analysis matters. Emotions and flash will not sustain effective social activism.

The popularity of the Kony 2012 video speaks to the fact that young people want to be global, informed citizens. And that is exciting. In a nutshell, the video argues that Americans are largely ignorant about what is happening around the world, especially in Africa. And we should not be. With the power of social media and technology, we now have the possibility for global activism in ways that have never been possible in the past. But here is the kicker: according to Invisible Children, this works only if we present simplistic analyses.

Critics of Kony 2012 have shed light on the murkiness of the facts in the video, and its emotionally manipulative delivery. They have written about the Invisible Children's message of American militarized intervention dressed up as philanthropic action. And the problematic nature of we-are-the-good-guys and they-are-the-bad-guys mentality. And the narcissism of the film-maker and the instrumentalization of his own son. Those are all important points.

But my point is different.

My point is that it is irresponsible to prize feel good, simplistic messages over complex history and to treat consumerist-consciousness raising as interchangeable with education. The Kony 2012 movie does not educate. It simplifies. The Kony 2012-inspired claims floating around twitter and Facebook like "Kony is worse than Hitler" are wrong-headed. Using a shorthand, the film-makers shortchange young people. Assuming viewers have little intelligence or real interest, the film-makers go light on information and analysis.

Schools and universities have a crucial role to play. It is our job to equip young people with knowledge and evidence. Education offers a robust foundation for action. Slogans do not. Schools should be teaching about conflict in Africa, and the role of the US. We should be teaching about the armed conflict over natural resources and oil, and the use of systematic sexual violence against women as a weapon in that conflict.

We need Americans to care about crimes against humanity. The best way to do this long term: ground activism in fact and knowledge. We need to do a lot more than to make Kony famous. And we need to start with education.

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