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Regardless of our personal feelings about Invisible Children and their slickly-produced viral video, we’ve been handed a gift-wrapped teachable moment, and I intend to use it as such.

On Thursday afternoon, my students begged me to watch the Kony 2012 video that has to date been viewed by more than 71 million people on YouTube (and millions more on Vimeo) after only 6 days.  My curiosity was piqued by their obvious passion and conviction, so we gave it a look.  I definitely had reservations about the filmmaker’s methods while and after I viewed the video, but I listened to the students intently before offering a few brief comments. Since then, I have taken the opportunity to reflect on our conversation and the messages that I spontaneously communicated to them (some of them, admittedly, half-baked).  I imagine that as we near the April 20th date that Invisible Children has set aside to ‘Make Kony Famous’, we will witness the involvement of more and more of our students.  How will we talk to them about a cause that has suddenly captured the attention of our culture? Let’s start the conversation.

Here are the 4 messages that I recall offering my students:

1. “Outrage is Justified”
He may not have been a household name in the western hemisphere until this past week, but the injustices and atrocities endured by the Ugandan people at the hands of Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have been the cause of much concern and heartache for years.  Why shouldn’t this sudden awareness of an extremely bad guy and his grotesque actions inspire moral outrage?  On some level, I am thrilled that the before-the-bell-rings chatter in my classroom has temporarily shifted away from hockey suspensions and weekend parties to a subject with a little more gravity and significance!  Of course, much has been written already on the role that social media has played in the dissemination of not only a video, but a message.  I guess that if all of these ‘trending topics’ and Facebook ‘Likes’ represent heartfelt responses to a problem, and not just our own vain attempts to imitate compassion, then who am I to squander them?

More than anything, I think it’s valuable for students to feel the complicated emotions that emerge when they are angered and afraid for strangers on the other side of the planet.  To incite the type of cultural response that 71 million views represents, the emotional impact must outweigh the sad sighs and fleeting bouts of regret that occur when we catch a World Vision commercial sandwiched between ads for toothpaste and fast food.  As a parent, the mere thought of so many children exploited in such horrific ways compounds my confusion and frustration about how a group can ‘get away with’ crimes so despicable over such a long period of time.  In a world where moral compasses are oriented around such disparate world views and philosophies, it is a powerful experience for us to unite around a cause that many agree is right and call to accountability an individual that quite clearly embodies our idea of what is wrong!  Outrage is justified!

2. “Maintain a Critical Eye”
At the same time that I championed and validated their indignation, I implored students to view all media they encounter–and this video especially–through a lens that is critical of the filmmaker’s bias and the rhetorical methods he employs for the advancement of his message.  Good intentions alone do not suffice.  What potential harm may come of presenting a child with an image of a black man then proceeding to demonize him?  Should advocating for a worthy cause outweigh a father’s desire to protect his child’s innocence, shielding him from the realities of child soldiers and mass kidnappings until he is mature enough to comprehend and process them?  The seemingly obvious solution understood by Russell’s son (capture Kony!) no doubt served to elicit much agreement among viewers, but child exploitation is a slippery slope. Where do we draw the line?

Russell would be hard-pressed to deny that his film is propaganda; his purpose is definitely to promote and publicize his point of view in hopes that it will inspire political action.  Not all propaganda is to be dismissed, but students must be taught to guard themselves against manipulation.  Idealistic thinking at their age is common, and as educators we need not burst their bubbles, but I want to fuel their innate energy and enthusiasm while at the same time urging them to think for themselves.  How is Russell framing their ‘responsibility’ as individuals who are suddenly ‘in the know’?  Is he welcoming of suggested solutions to a perceived problem or has he already narrowed the field to one solution that we all must accept and support?  Are the channels his group has selected as conduits for the message intentional rallying points for the naive and idealistic, and if so, why these avenues when so many more are in place?  Invisible Children has attempted to respond to questions like these (look here and here if interested), but regardless of the varying quality of these responses, my desire is that students will ask the appropriate questions!

3. “Where human beings are concerned, it’s never that simple!”
I asked my students this question, and they found it difficult to answer (as any of us would because we don’t really know): “Does eliminating Kony really solve anything, or do we just feel good about punishing yet another of the world’s notoriously evil men?”

Isn’t it usually the case in organizations such as the LRA that if a leader is deposed, another steps up to take his place?  I will avoid digging myself into a hole with any comments that suggest I have a profound understanding of the situation in Uganda and North Africa as a whole.  Instead, I will defer to Ethan Zuckerman, founder of Global Voices and researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.  If you read his weblog, you’ll quickly discover that his “heart is in Africa” and he has a lot of on-the-ground experience with which to back up his comments.  He has written a wonderful post called ‘Unpacking Kony 2012‘ that you can read in its entirety if you wish. I will share with you a brief quote found toward the end of his post:

The problem, of course, is that this narrative is too simple. The theory of change it advocates is unlikely to work, and it’s unclear if the goal of eliminating Kony should still be a top priority in stabilizing and rebuilding northern Uganda. By offering support to Museveni, the campaign may end up strengthening a leader with a terrible track record.

A more complex narrative of northern Uganda would look at the odd, codependent relationship between Museveni and Kony, Uganda’s systematic failure to protect the Acholi people of northern Uganda. It would look at the numerous community efforts, often led by women, to mediate conflicts and increase stability. It would focus on the efforts to rebuild the economy of northern Uganda, and would recognize the economic consequences of portraying northern Uganda as a war zone. It would feature projects like Women of Kireka, working to build economic independence for women displaced from their homes in Northern Uganda.

Such a narrative would be lots harder to share, much harder to get to “go viral”.

Zuckerman explains that Museveni, “the dictatorial and kleptocratic leader of Uganda”, has rigged elections, suppressed freedom of speech, and is even working to introduce the death penalty for practicing homosexuals.  In short, this isn’t a government we should be eager to support politically or financially. As a result, co-operation with the Ugandan military to coordinate a search resulting in the arrest of Kony is far more complicated than Russell and co. imply.

No doubt it is easier to buy into a story where black and white–good and evil–are indisputable.  As an English teacher, I immediately recognized the power of this narrative and its presentation.  It’s not necessarily a lie, or even purposefully misleading…it’s just far too simplistic.  Since it obviously intrigues students, we must encourage them to seek out the whole story!

4. “Follow Your Convictions”
Lastly, despite all of the evidence suggesting that this type of action may prove futile, I can’t help but conclude that if a 30-minute video has compelled students to act on behalf of the voiceless and toward the betterment of others, then this action (however ill-advised) is better than inaction!  I am skeptical as to whether the putting up of posters or wearing of bracelets can truly be a step toward the capture of Joseph Kony, but I never want my skepticism to promote inaction in others.  This blog post (in part at least) emerges from my own belief that at our best, we educators are respected and influential people in the lives of our students, and our responsibility is to foster their growth as individuals.  We defy this worthwhile pursuit if we deny them a sense of purpose.

I admit that I look ahead to the morning of April 20th, 2012 with moderate anticipation.  If the cause doesn’t flounder as quickly as it surfaced, millions of people may end up peacefully stating to governments and leaders around the world their intention to stand on the side of justice.  For many of the teenagers that I encounter in an average week, it may be nothing more than a first opportunity to participate in and feel a part of something bigger than themselves, but maybe some day a few of them will get on an airplane, and cross an ocean, and see first-hand the struggles that plague a continent, and recognize that their “heart is in Africa”.  We don’t know what the outcome of this bizarre campaign will be, but we do know that it suddenly seems to matter to us.  However it turns out, I am quite sure that my classroom will continue to be a place where students are encouraged to speak their convictions and put them into action!

How will you approach ‘Kony 2012’ in a classroom setting?  What will you say? What advice might you give?  What questions should we be asking?  I look forward to your ideas/feedback on this topic.