The Exclusive Club of Moral Authority: From Nick Kristof to Kony 2012

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If "armchair critics" don't get Africa, then why did Invisible Children's "Cover the Night" follow-up campaign on Friday target young Facebook users, the most armchair-bound demographic there is?

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Groucho Marx as "noted explorer Captain Spaulding" in the 1930 film Animal Crackers. Movie DB.

First came the video: Kony 2012. Then came the backlash. Then came the backlash-to-the-backlash. Except that Invisible Children and its supporters didn't just rally to defend the video, they challenged its critics' standing to express an opinion on it in the first place. One particular insult kept popping up: that those who questioned the campaign were just "armchair critics," inferior to the brave activists who were taking "real" action.

The most prominent articulations of this argument appeared in the New York Times opinion pages. On March 12, Roger Cohen wrote that he backed Invisible Children co-founder and Kony 2012 star Jason Russell over his "armchair critics" because "he's put his boots on the ground and he's doing something." Two days later, Cohen's colleague Nicholas Kristof dismissed criticism of the Kony 2012 campaign as "the sneering scorn of do-nothing armchair cynics." Similar sentiments could be found across the internet as well, on blogs and in the comments sections of Kony-related articles.

But the Kony 2012 campaign, whether its organizers and champions realize it or not, is enthusiastically pro-armchair. Its goal is to motivate the heretofore-uninformed denizens of Facebook and Tumblr to change the world by speaking out against Kony and his atrocities. Invisible Children's big follow-up, "Cover the Night," urged web-surfing youth -- an armchair-loving group if there ever was one -- to spend last Friday night plastering their neighborhoods with anti-Kony stickers and graffiti. If their voices are important enough to be the focus of a multi-million dollar awareness campaign, how can Invisible Children or its supporters suggest that experience "on the ground" is a prerequisite for a credible opinion?

These jeers about upholstered seating, like so many ad hominem attacks, ignore the substance of the critiques. No one is saying that the Kony 2012 campaign is flawed because Joseph Kony is an awesome guy who should be left in peace to maim and murder as he pleases. Rather, the critics -- including us -- have pointed out that the campaign's shortcomings may lead to real harm.

For the most part, critics of the campaign were not "armchair" anything. Rather, they were Ugandans, aid workers, journalists, survivors of LRA atrocities, and researchers who had lived in the region and are experts on the LRA. Boots can't get much more "on the ground" than that.

Dismissing these critics' concerns as "sneering scorn" reveals a belief that only certain opinions are worth listening to. In deriding critical voices as "do-nothing armchair cynics" whose input is less credible than that of the Kony 2012 filmmakers, Kristof and his pals seem to believe that expertise come not from knowledge or practical experience, of which the critics have plenty, but from emotional engagement and personal risk-taking.

Establishing his own credibility as an expert on the region, Kristof notes, "I've been held at gunpoint in Central African Republic and chased through the Congo jungle by a warlord whose massacres I interrupted." This story echoes the Invisible Children founders' story of their group's origins: They stumbled upon the conflict in northern Uganda during a summer filmmaking trip in 2003 when the LRA attacked the car in front of theirs.

It seems that the difference between an armchair critic and a person of moral authority is that the latter possesses a personal narrative that includes an eye-opening discovery of suffering in distant lands, followed by the decision to forgo the comforts of the developed world and risk life and limb to help. If that story sounds familiar, it's because we've been hearing it, in one form or another, since Rudyard Kipling wrote his 1899 poem urging readers to "take up the White Man's Burden."

While bravery and self-sacrifice are admirable, this particular brand of credibility-establishment isn't available to everyone. Kristof is lauded for a commitment to investigative journalism that doesn't flinch from threats to his personal safety, but female journalists who put themselves in dangerous situations sometimes meet with very different reactions. Consider the case of Lara Logan. When the CBS reporter was sexually assaulted while covering the protests in Egypt last year, variations on the theme of "what was an attractive blonde woman doing there?" were a common response. Not only was there a conspicuous dearth of praise for her bravery in pursuing an important story in a difficult context, but many reactions denied her agency entirely, asking why her editors "sent" her to such a dangerous place.

Likewise, being a Westerner, male or female, offers certain protections even in highly dangerous environments. As the New Yorker's George Packer wrote in 2009 of being a Western reporter in a war zone, "it's always the fixer who dies." The local drivers, interpreters, and journalists too often seem to lose their lives in situations from which the Western reporters they were assisting managed to escape. There was Sultan Munadi, the Times fixer who died in Afghanistan during a British Special Forces raid intended to rescue him and Times reporter Stephen Farrell, who survived. And Ajmal Naqshbandi, the Afghan fixer who was working with Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo. Naqshbandi was beheaded, Mastrogiacomo eventually released. In 2011, in Libya, driver Mohamed Shaglouf was murdered at a checkpoint by Qaddafi loyalists. The four journalists in his car -- the New York Times' Anthony Shadid (who later died in Syria), Stephen Farrell, Lynsey Addario, and Tyler Hicks -- were kidnapped and eventually released. 

This doesn't mean that Western journalists or researchers put their own safety ahead of their local colleagues; in fact, they often work, sometimes for years, to bring the fixers and drivers and their families out of harm's way. And the "boots on the ground" narrative doesn't intend to privilege the voices of "brave" men over "foolhardy" women, or "self-sacrificing" Westerners over "compromised" locals. But beneath the surface of the criticism-of-the-critics of Kony 2012 rests an implicit assumption that only certain voices should be permitted to speak -- the same voices that have dominated Western discourse regarding the non-Western world since the earliest days of colonialism. That's the tricky thing about privilege -- you don't notice it when it's yours. 

For our part, we are more than happy to cop to being armchair critics. Unlike the founders of Invisible Children, we have never headed off to Africa with a carload of video cameras, looking for people to save. Nor have we ever been held at gunpoint by warlords whose massacres we've interrupted. Although between us we have done human rights work on every continent except Australia and Antarctica, we also spend as much time as possible in armchairs. If our ideas are wrong, no amount of "on the ground" experience will make them right. And if we're right, it shouldn't matter if we've never left the house.

Adapted from Beyond #Kony2012: Atrocity, Awareness, and Advocacy in the Internet Age, available for download here.

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Presented by

Kate Cronin-Furman & Amanda Taub

Kate Cronin-Furman is a lawyer and a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University. Amanda Taub is a lawyer who teaches international law and human rights at Fordham University. They write regularly at WrongingRights.

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