Invisible Children Has More Questions To Answer

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They have shown that they have to answer neither to critical thinkers, nor to historians of public policy, nor to the victims that they claim that are trying to serve.

[On Invisible Children]

On Tuesday April 17th on the top floor of the building that houses the NYU law school, I sat on a panel with several powerful intellects to discuss Kony 2012 the video made by Invisible Children.

The purpose of the discussion was to have a productive dialogue concerning the issues raised by the Kony 2012 video and its incredible viewership success. Two members of IC were present: Jolly Okot and Adam Finck. They sat on the panel as well. Amy Goodman moderated: it was a forum in which we could give and ask for reasons, an opportunity to clear the air.

My colleagues and I were excited about this event; we had noticed a trend concerning Invisible Children and the way that they addressed criticism. It seemed that they were into addressing questions under their own terms --like on their web site or in their videos-- which left room to strategically omit certain claims that, in a world of reason, it would be vitally important for them to address. This panel would be the first time, perhaps, that IC sat together with their critics to speak at length about such problems. Hopes were high.

Then they were dashed in a sea of stonewalling and question dodging.

Invisible Children's showing was bitterly disappointing. Not just for people who seek straightforward answers to simple questions, but to the victims of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) who are hurt by the harm to dignity wrought by the Kony 2012 video. There is not a single question that was put to them that they answered straightforwardly.

I told them that the narrative of their Kony 2012 video had a strong colonial-era tone, that it smacked of the kinds of assumptions about the world that led Teju Cole to refer to IC and others as the "White savior industrial complex." In response to this they said nothing.

Victor Ochen, a victim of the war and founding director of African Youth Initiative Network (AYINET), told them that many people in the northern part of Uganda were appalled at the campaign to make Kony famous. They felt offended that this video, that referred to their pain and their struggles, was happening to them as opposed to happening with their consent. IC spoke immediately after this and commented almost not at all on anything that Ochen said.

A writer in the audience, Arao Ameny, who was Ugandan, asked simply: "What would you tell my family members who are offended by your video?" If what Okot said can be counted as a response, it must be something like The victimhood of your family is not worth addressing. We have victims who work for us and theirs are the only voices that matter.

IC was even asked several times about the date of their Cover The Night campaign yesterday, April 20th. Some Ugandans felt that this date was in terribly poor taste because April 20th, 1995 was the date of the massacre of hundreds of innocent people at the hands of the LRA in Atiak. It is a day of mourning in the northern Uganda, and it is the day that IC asked teenagers and college students to take to the streets in a bizarre show of solidarity that only underscores their ignorance of the plight of the LRA's victims.

To this, IC said merely, that the date was a coincidence. They did not apologize. They did not even extend a hand of recognition to the mere fact that others are upset. They did not say that, actually, this Kony 2012 campaign was more successful than they could ever have dreamed and that if they had a notion of how high the stakes were going to be, they would have done things differently, maybe did a bit more research.

They did not say this despite the fact that their Kony 2012 part 2 video, which they had not planned to make, was clearly an attempt at a response to criticism, a de facto admission, in my view, that the first video was insufficient for reasons that came to light after its release.

What is clear from the talk is that IC is a business. People who work for IC depend on it for their livelihoods and are interested in maintaining the organization's image. They act as though they are not concerned with the dignity of victims. They seem unable to admit even the possibility that they, as an organization, can make mistakes or missteps for which they are responsible.

They speak of victimhood only to establish the superiority of the victims who work for or support them, to the exclusion of all others. In doing so, they silence the voices of those they are trying to help. Like their colonial predecessors, they sustain the subaltern. They speak like politicians that are unwilling to meet on the terms of the discussion.

The thing that is the most disappointing is the thought that Invisible Children will never again agree to speak in a forum under which they do not have sole control. They have shown that they have to answer neither to critical thinkers, nor to historians of public policy, nor to the victims that they claim that are trying to serve. These audiences are not significant for them. They need answer only to the legions of high schoolers and young college students that are their constituency. And this can be done from the ideological safety of their computer screens.

IC did not publicize this event. They did not post it on their blog nor their Tumblr nor their Twitter account. Similarly, they have not posted about the reported negative reception of the Kony 2012 video in Uganda. Perhaps those who agree to and set events are not the same who publicize those events.

Or perhaps Invisible Children did not want to make known to their support base a forum in which they had no intention in truly participating. I hope that this is not true.

I hope that what happened at the panel was simply a matter of two representatives not being properly prepared to speak, or simply being poor speakers.

We call on reps from IC to continue, or in this case, start, a discussion. It doesn't have to be as high profile as the talk at NYU.  Let's just meet on skype or over the phone and have a discussion that we release to the internet for the world to hear.  Here's our email:

We hope you will take us up on this. But I doubt it.

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