A child soldier in Africa, UNICEF.

Within days, the video KONY 2012 went viral on YouTube garnering over 71 million hits. The 29 minute film is about a rebel leader in Africa, Joseph Kony,  who is a wanted criminal and who has spent years building his rebel army on the backs of kidnapped children he has turned into child soldiers or sex slaves.   My partner is a graduate of Columbia University's School of International Affairs and I have been educated about this unfortunate reality for a few years now.  The video calls for everyday people to rise up and join a movement to bring Kony to justice and to raise awareness about human rights abuses to children. The video, and the organization behind it, Invisible Children have received a lot of backlash from the educated and elite with expertise in international affairs.  There are charges that the video is imperialistic and rooted in "white man's burden," that it is condescending and simplistic,  and an irresponsible piece of propoganda. As a psychologist, who has viewed the video and was impacted by its message, it seems that many critics are failing to explore how the video, KONY 2012,  is a a tool for starting dialogue on human rights, a burden that everyone in the global community should embrace.   Hopefully, now that the video has gotten worldwide attention, experts will turn their attention from criticism to education, and springboard off of the momentum of the campaign and provide more resources and direction for those inspired and interested in "doing something" about child soldiers and sex slavery.  

"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler"--Albert Einstein

Since its post on YouTube, the video has received millions of hits, been featured in local and national news stories on television and in print and blogged about.  Hopefully this translates to millions of people learning a bit more today than what they knew yesterday, about human rights abuses of children.    The short film takes a very complex topic and simplifies it---very similar to the approach of a Michael Moore documentary.  People these days prefer to communicate in 140 character soundbites through text or Twitter.  Simplicity sells and it is also  the root of one of the the biggest criticisms leveled against the film.   

For me the message advocated in this video is to raise awareness about a war criminal who is wanted by the International Criminal Court and puts a spotlight on an issue that unfortunately millions upon millions of people do not know the first thing about.   Child soldiers are recruited in conflict zones not only in Africa but in many other parts of the world as well.   The rape of children and sex slavery, trafficking and prostitution occur all over the world, yet it is not part of our national dialogue and it should be.  We live in a world with a short attention span, so if a tweny-nine minute video can educate enough people with enough information to start a dialogue, then millions of interested people all over the world, not just in the United States, have a lot of questions right now and need more information.

White Man's Burden?

Often, when there is a call from the West to confront the political or social or legal realities of another country, especially when it comes to Africa,  the charge of "white man's burden' is leveled against those interested in becoming involved.     Rudyard Kipling first coined the phrase "white man's burden" in an 1899 poem which warned about the costs and consequences of imperialism.  The term was adopted by imperialists in the United States to justify their policies as noble ventures.   The term often confuses the desire to "help" others with the arrogance that it is our job to "save" others and that others, the "less fortunate", need saving or are unable to help themselves. If you are a child who has been kidnapped, whether it be here in the United States, in Africa, or on the moon, you deserve to be helped and protected. It is a pretty simple issue when you break it down and for most kidnap victims, awareness has been the key to their rescue and they could care less about who or how they were saved, just that they were.   This identifies a  known kidnapper, confirms he is wanted by the international courts, and suggests that increased awareness will bring him to justice.   

Raising public awareness about crime is pretty commonplace.    I grew up with missing children's faces on milk cartons (a campaign that since the 1980's alone has rescued over 20% of the children that were featured).    A pretty simple idea yielded some profound results for many missing and exploited children.   As technology developed so did the opportunities to create more efficient awareness campaigns.  The FBI's list of most wanted which used to wallpaper the post office is now online. The television show Americas Most wanted contributed to the capture of over one thousand fugitives through its public platform and located over sixty missing children.    We also have Amber Alerts which can provide information about missing children on radios, traffic signs, and television.  So, kudos to a small non profit in San Diego, whose mission it is to raise awareness for the plight of thousands of children in Africa  to use social networking and You Tube creatively.   The video is not advocating we save or take over Africa, only that we place priority on bringing someone to justice an intent to inspire Western youth to open their eyes to the world, become educated on world issues and to "do more than just watch."

"Human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge."  -- Plato

KONY 2012  has also been criticized for appealing to the emotion of the audience.  The director relates his own interest in the issue of child soldiers to his own relationship with his son.   The video has been called,  "emotionally manipulative," "narcissistic,"  "condescending".   Again, for me, these criticisms are shortsighted.  I experienced the director engaging the audience by giving us a relateable subject  (a relationship between a parent and child) which for me, did evoke,  empathy for the children and families in war and conflict zones and their realities.  The emotional appeal of the video engages the heart strings and suggests we as everyday people are part of a global community and can do our part in getting really loud about human rights abuses.    Did he dumb it down and condense a broad, complex topic into a small soundbite, of course he did.   Will some people experience that and shut down and reject the message, of course they will.    Others though, will become curious, engaged and hopfully see the forest through the trees and want to find out more.    Ideally, in their search for more, they will come across the blogs and the articles of the experts in the field who can educate them more on the issues and guide them in the next steps of taking effective action in the affairs of the world. One of the frustrations I have with academia, and "experts," be it in psychology or international affairs, is the lack of credit given to the average person to use simplicity as a jumping off point into the complex. 

This video is not perfect, it most likely has inaccuracies, it may be self-serving and it certainly is important that these issues and criticisms be investigated.  Ultimately,  it is our own responsibility to do our own due diligence on this non-profit and to determine if the campaign is worth investing in financially, but more importantly, is KONY 2012 an effective tool for opening dialogue or shedding light on the issues of child soldiers and sex slavery?  The day this video posted, a client's  teenage daughter came home from school with a lot of questions about this video.   Sadly, my client couldn't answer any of them.  Fortunately, that was unacceptable to her and she immediately began to search for  answers not only for her daughter but for herself.  The dialogue and education that ensued is encouraging.   Many people are hungry for more information to ingest and feed upon, hopefully some of the critics can build on the platform established by the work of Invisible Children.

"We shall have no better conditions in the future if we are satisfied with all those which we have at present." --Thomas Edison

Criticisms have been made the video advocates military action on the part of the United States or encourages vigilante justice. The video explains that the United States has offered some military support for the local governments interested in bringing Kony to justice and that without public support, this military support will likely wane.   This does not appear to be a call for more government action or a suggestion that "military might" is right in dealing with this issue.  Rather, it reminds us that human rights abuses are not necessarily priorities for the United States and that public support could determine the course of action going forward.    We can not expect our government to police the world or determine the policy in a soverign nation, but as citizens we are free to determine our own course of activism.   We should be encouraged that millions of people can suddenly be  inspired to "help" because of a video and that often it is the simple fundamentals of right and wrong can move people to action and  must not always be viewed with such cynicism. Instead, we need experts in  international affairs and the critics of this video, to provide more information and direction on how to impact policy, understand these complex issues, and how to engage and educate the average person SIMPLY in the language of the modern age which, like it or not, is though Twitter, Facebook, and yes, on YouTube.    

Decades after atrocities like the Holocaust and Armenian and Rwandan genocides (this is far from comprehensive), the world continues to decipher how such human rights atrocities could be executed without earlier intervention.    The technology of the world at that time certainly did not afford its citizens the opportunities to bear witness in real time and across borders to what was happening, and it is hard not to keep that in mind when we have those resources today.  Facebook and Twitter are giving us access to conflict in real time and we are afforded the information to then act and participate.  We will still have to abide by the laws, and politics and bureaucracies that make up our global world, but those realities are influenced by the masses--we have seen this unfold in the Arab spring and we are seeing it beginning to unfold in this viral campaign.      Within days, a relatively small non profit organization in San Diego reached millions of people with their online video.   In the coming months, the Invisible Children has a movement planned to keep the attention on apprehending a war criminal, and has ignited the passion of the people.  It is pretty simple actually---human rights issues resonate and it is our responsiblity to get educated, mobilized and involved.   KONY 2012 says now is the time--what do you think? 

About the Authors

Brett P. Kennedy Psy.D.

Brett P. Kennedy, Psy.D., has a private practice in New York where he provides psychotherapy to adults and couples.

Tamara J Hicks Psy.D.

Tamara J. Hicks, Psy.D., is co-founder of Potrero Hill Psychotherapy in San Francisco and provides psychotherapy to adults, children, couples, and families.

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