There is plenty of criticism and praise around the KONY 2012 advocacy video viewed millions of times over the past week. I do find it helpful that the video has generated a significant amount of interest and critical reflection in the way social media is used to get a message out and the role NGOs play in addressing human rights. To side with some of the critics, I do find the video overly simplistic. The creators can justify this by saying they were targeting people who had never heard of Joseph Kony. Fair enough, but I think you can get a lot past simplistic in 30 minutes.
I did watch the entire video, and while I could add to the online discussion on its merits or faults, I will choose only one aspect I did not agree with: the director’s inclusion of his five-year-old son. In the video, you hear the director Jason Russell speak to his son about Joseph Kony, how he abducts children, arms them and makes them “shoot and kill other people.” After showing this clip on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart faces the camera with his usual deftness and says, “OK goodnight, sweetie.” Stewart goes on to invite viewers to purchase the fictitious “Family tragedies, horrible history, and mysteries of human illness, as explained to a small child” CD collection, with such classics as “People you love can die unexpectedly and for no good reason” and “Sometimes when you’re at the beach, a giant wave can sweep everybody away.”
The use of a five-year-old child in this video is a shamelessly manipulative. Footage of actual child soldiers who have survived and suffered is far more difficult to watch, but more compelling and authentic. The director’s son is not at an age where he can fully comprehend the scope of Kony’s horrific acts. Granted, there are children his age who have been abducted by the LRA. Children around the world are victims of unspeakable acts of violence, from domestic abuse to being slaughtered in the streets of Homs in Syria. Regrettably, children who are victims of such violence cannot forget what they experienced; but those who have been spared this violence should learn about it in a thoughtful and careful way. Stewart jokes that one hit part of the collection is “The psychological security you feel is merely a bubble your mom and I have created.”
Adults should provide children that psychological security. Telling children about human rights violations should be done only when the adult thinks their child is ready, and even then, a great deal of care has to be put into the message the adult crafts. For years I kept the nature of my work from my children. They knew I “traveled around the world to help people” but knew little more than that. I never did anything resembling the work of NGOs working directly on the ground with victims of human rights violations, but I did train many people, human rights defenders, who were very much on the ground and who had witnessed acts of violence. Their stories of revolting human rights violations were – and in many cases still are – too much for my children to fully comprehend. I thought long and hard what to tell my children of the world that is really out there. By the time they were ten and nearly eight, I finally decided the time was right, so I began a series of blogs entitled “Letters to My Sons.” I stumbled more than once, trying to put into words the absurdity of torture, rape, poverty, and civil war. Writing these letters ultimately helped me understand my own work more clearly and reinforce my conviction that teaching others about human rights is essential. But when it comes to children, please let them be children for as long as possible. They’ll have plenty of time later to hear about how badly we adults messed up their world.