Amongst its many criticisms, one of the common cries against Kony 2012 is that it squarely places the people it aims to serve in the "other" category, which, obviously, is something the world of development and NGOs doesn't do anymore.
Jason Russell makes it seem like "we" Americans need to care about "those" people, often using the word "Africa" when he could be more consistently precise in defining the regions and countries he is, supposedly, asking us to be aware of. Following the deeply dug footsteps of many humanitarians before him, Russell uses images of foreign children, in devastating foreign circumstances, to capture the eyes and hearts of Americans.
We'll get back to that in a second.
Here's another part of the story. Kony 2012 assumes that if people know -- if people become aware of Joseph Kony's existence and his crimes, if they only see the invisible children (30,000 of them) he has maimed, tortured, and brutalized -- then people will act.
And if we've heard of Kony once, seen the film Invisible Children once and were, as I was, intensely impacted, then we need to see the situation again, we need to examine its entrails, drink its dregs, so we stay reminded of what has happened and continues to happen, as if we ourselves were living in Uganda, the DR Congo, the Central African Republic, or Sudan. You know, Africa.
And if we stay reminded, if we're swimming in it, we'll have no choice but to do something about it, or we'll... have nightmares or something. Bad karma. A place reserved in hell. Whichever sounds worse to you.
There are two paths this can take.
One: people see, and, at the same time as seeing, they're given tools to mobilize and they do it. I think Kony 2012 is genius for creating this simultaneous situation on a large scale -- awareness paired with tools to act -- and I want them to succeed. I have my action kit, and I'm excited. The Kony 2012 formula, or something similar, can be to our day and age what marches and boycotts were to decades before us, and finally, Americans, especially young Americans, can join the Arab Spring in using social media to facilitate big change. This is our chance.
Also, Joseph Kony brought to justice would set an awesome precedent. Maybe, if Americans succeed in bringing him to the International Criminal Court, we can next focus on getting our own government to recognize the International Criminal Court? The possibilities are endless, and this is an opportunity.
But it's the second option I am watching for, hoping against. It is the second option that makes me accept the disgusting "othering" of people. Many assume that awareness is the key to action. Why do we assume that? If that's the case, why is it so easy to walk by people who are homeless in America? Then you can move to, say, Afghanistan, and at first you will be giving money to the people who are homeless and limbless -- or the widows in burqa sitting in snow, hoping to catch a cold and die -- because to your fresh eyes the situation is appalling. How long will it be before you, like most locals in Kabul, also walk by the widows and the children dragging themselves along limbless, accepting them as the status quo?
Awareness can make us numb after the initial reaction. In the same way our body adjusts to tolerate new, even freezing temperatures, our souls adjust to protect us from situations that seem unbearable... at first.
Like the proverbial fish, who is the last to discover water, you can't smell shit if you're sitting in it. (I mixed metaphors, I know, and I'm probably using too many of them... I'm Persian, forgive me.)
There is a reason othering works. When you come into a situation with fresh eyes, you can see it, and not only that -- other people (other to you, and you to them) can see it through your eyes. This is partly what happened with me, in the case of Sadat, the young Afghan girl who set herself on fire to escape her desperate situation.
I'd never heard anything like Sadat's story. I'd never seen a beautiful young child bride, sex slave, bandaged head to toe because death was more appealing than her life. I was appalled. I was angry and primed to act though I didn't know how, and I know my reaction seeped into locals around me whose souls, possibly, would otherwise turn on that defensive mechanism that protects us from feeling devastation we (think we) cannot change. It was locals who acted in defense of Sadat -- strongly, collaboratively. My only contribution, if any, was my "other's" eyes and that was a contribution, in that situation, only I could make. And it was just about all I could make.
Many professionals, like psychologists, teachers, scientists, recognize the value of the "other" in their practices -- the outsider, the fresh eyes, the third party reviewer. If it creates positive change to depict "Africa" as the place filled with people different from "us," in situations devastating to "us," (but normal to "them") is it unethical? Or is it a natural phenomenon we should continue to exploit for positive gain?
And also, would the Africans come to America to save our children from obesity and global ignorance and alcoholism and materialism and eating disorders and Real Housewives of Wherever and a lack of connection to nature and racism and carcinogens and debt and suburbia, and of course, Las Vegas? Also a maternal mortality rate in the United States that has doubled in the past 20 years, while the global maternal mortality rate has decreased by 34 percent. Please and thank you.
It is not only beauty that is in the eye of the beholder. It seems like pain and devastation are also more visible to those outside that particular piece of pain. So until we all learn to follow Gandhi and Michael Jackson, and change ourselves first, maybe it is OK, evolved and mature even, to ask the "other" to look at us, and change us, while we do the same for them.