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

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."

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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