70 million people and counting have now seen Invisible Children's "Kony 2012". Criticism has been substantial, and judicious in most cases. Yet there is a serious issue largely unaddressed: many troubling elements of the "Kony 2012″ campaign are not unique to Invisible Children, but reflect wider problems with the pursuit of international criminal justice, in particular the mission of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and their controversial prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo.
In the film, Jason Russell addresses his audience in the same way he addresses his five-year-old son Gavin, which is inappropriate given the complexity of issue, yet Russell's framing of the evil of Joseph Kony and "our" responsibility to stop him is importantly similar to the narrative of the ICC. Russell's messianic film is an apotheosis rather than a transgression of popular perceptions of international justice.
The ICC's use of a similar moral narrative should give us pause. Ocampo has claimed that bringing leaders to justice is vital to preventing violence, but his efforts are as yet unsuccessful, leading to criticisms that the ICC pursues individual justice at the cost of peace. He also repeatedly professes his role as the hero that cares and speaks for those who have been forgotten, but like Russell seems to do more talking than listening. The self-regarding indignation shared by Russell and Ocampo should inspire introspection into the desire that leads us to demand that Kony stand trial.
The Kony 2012 film is defined by two moments. In the first, Jacob, a Ugandan boy who lost his family in the war and was an early inspiration for Invisible Children, speaks of his hopelessness. He says he would be better off if he were killed because he is alone and cannot see any future for himself. This is the only insight we get into Jacob's struggle to put his life back together. Russell responds clumsily to Jacob's pain, and most of us would – but he turned his response into a global campaign, so we are obliged to judge it. Russell tells Jacob that he is going to "stop them" – the LRA, Kony, the war – the specifics are not clear. What is clear is that it is Russell who needs to find someone to blame for the suffering he sees. In the second defining scene, Russell explains to his son who Kony is. Gavin is old enough to feel sad and frightened by the story; we see him struggling to make sense of what he's been told. He does not understand why someone would do that or why the children Kony abducts would fight for him. Gavin knows that something is very wrong. Russell steps in to soothe him, telling him that Kony is forcing the good people to be soldiers and that his father is going to stop the bad man.
The moral narrative offered in Kony 2012 is simple and attractive: Kony is an evil man and the cause of violence in Uganda; therefore he must be stopped. This narrative gives us a sense of what to do without having to ask ourselves difficult questions. Worryingly, Invisible Children's narrative matches the underlying moral logic of international criminal law. The ICC's fundamental purpose is to punish international criminals and deter future violence, work that depends on identifying exceptional individuals that can be held morally and causally responsible. Focusing on individuals allows us to satisfy our desire to punish and overcome the discomfort we feel when faced with injustice.
Like Russell, this narrative leads us to be narcissists – justice is reduced to our desire to punish those who offend our sensibilities. This dynamic is perhaps justifiable where justice is sought between individuals within a relatively cohesive society. However, that is not the context of international justice, and there is a risk that it will prioritise the interests of an "international community" rather than victims. This leads to a focus on how the international community can capture evil individuals rather than resolving conflicts and rebuilding communities. Thinking in terms of innocent victims and evil murderers saves us having to ask why the murderers kill – Kony's evil is simply posited without cause, which makes it easy to ignore the culpability of the Ugandan government and the international community in the conflict. It also allows us to avoid troubling question of what should happen to members of the Lord's Resistance Army who were child soldiers but are now simply soldiers. Where do they fit into the narrative of good guys and bad guys? And most vitally, focusing on international justice makes it difficult to prioritise social reconstruction over criminal trials.
Thinking in terms of evil individuals creates the need for saviours as well – particularly outsider who can fix the problems insiders cannot solve. This simplifies the political and moral reality greatly. The international community has hardly been uninvolved in the conflict in Uganda and a first step would be to stop enabling and profiting from the conflict. Saviours are needed because the suffering is caused by individuals who are exceptional to the social context – which reproduces the dynamics of colonial intervention and superiority, while justifying a superficial approach to understanding the conflicts "we" are trying to stop.
We need to examine our desire to respond to suffering and violence, as this is as often about our anxieties rather than the suffering of victims. In Kony 2012, a careful viewer is struck by Russell's insensitivity – Jacob is not asking for someone to arrest Kony, but for help finding a place where he can feel secure and loved. We do not need more saviours. They cannot solve the deep problems that lead to prolonged violence, nor can they effect the deep social transformations needed. For now we would do well to listen more, to speak less and let victims lead in these situations.
Posted 16 March 2012
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Joe Hoover. This article first appeared in The Disorder of Things.
Dr Joe Hoover is an LSE Fellow in the Department International Relations.