The Soft Bigotry of Kony 2012

It's good for people to care about Central Africa's problems, as millions more people now do, but not if that caring leads them to do less of consequence, or to do things that make an already-bad situation worse. This is not to say that the video's many sharers are racist or anything less than well-intentioned; a very non-scientific survey of my social media and my friends' suggests that it's the good-hearted, the socially aware, and the thoughtful who are most likely to want to share this video. But there's a reason that the ideas behind imperialism and colonialism found such fertile soil in enlightened Europe, and that it was often Europe's most charitable who led the charge. Kony 2012, and the centuries-old white man's burden of which it is a part, appeals to our highest instincts. But it also exploits them, and whether Invisible Children's leaders are greedy or misguided or just delusional marketing experts out for an adventure, they are steering you wrong. Sometimes good intentions aren't enough.

Update, 1:57pm: Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole has tweeted "seven thoughts" on the Kony 2012 drama and the "banality of sentimentality." It would be impossible to not include them in a discussion of the campaign's cultural undertones:

Cole is not wrong, even if his language is soaked in resentment, that sentimentality has driven some of the Western world's worst abuses, and that behind this sentimentality is an assumption of the rightness of privilege. Paternalism, after all, is a way of casting oneself in a loving and familial role that also happens to exercise power over someone else, who is cast as subjugate whether they want to be or not.

But Cole makes the same mistake as Invisible Children, reducing an entire culture to his interactions with it and a few easy stereotypes, a monolithic mass to be judged and maybe even solved. Not all Western involvement in Africa is driven by the "White Savior Industrial Complex" -- just as there are capable African leaders, so are there responsible Western aid workers -- and some of it has been remarkably productive. Criticism of Kony 2012's subtle paternalism, after all, has so far mostly come from American development workers in Africa. It's hard to find a group of Westerners more conscious of colonialism and its ugly legacies. The story of Western-African relations is bigger than colonialism, just as it's bigger than Invisible Children's misguided quest. Resentment doesn't create any more solutions than does arrogance.

Update, 2:30pm: Cole responds, "Wrong!" to my statement that "Criticism of Kony 2012 has so far mostly come from American development workers in Africa." He links to a post aggregating several African reactions to the campaign. Surely we can agree that many Western aid workers in Africa have been critical of Kony 2012 and are thus probably not motivated by the "White Savior Industrial Complex."

"I'm an American, critiquing from within," Cole added, later describing my post as a "Good critique of Kony2012 in the Atlantic, followed by a frightened repudiation of Teju Cole."

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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