Is Raising Awareness the First Step?

I wanted to follow-up briefly on my post earlier this week about Kony 2012 and the complexity of true compassion.

It bothers me that modern media, whether videos, blogs, or photographs, is so truncated. I realize that in discussing the over-simplification of Kony 2012, I too simplified a complicated issue.

Nick Kristof’s column in The New York Times today addresses some of the concerns of Invisible Children’s critics. In it he expresses frustration that “a young man devotes nine years of his life to fight murder, rape and mutilation, he produces a video that goes viral and galvanizes mostly young Americans to show concern for needy villagers abroad — and he’s vilified.”

I and many other critics don’t want to vilify Invisible Children. When I was at NYU, a number of my friends got behind the organization when they first launched a campaign to show solidarity with child soldiers. It was the first time I learned about child soldiers, and even though I didn’t get involved in the campaign, the people who did do amazing things now: they produce documentaries, travel the globe, and work tirelessly for people who have less than them. In part because of groups like Invisible Children, I now volunteer with and write on behalf of refugees.

Awareness is a great thing. Awareness isn’t the problem. It’s the solutions this viral video offers that I have a problem with.

Kristof goes on to say, “If I were a Congolese villager, I would welcome these uncertain efforts over the sneering scorn of do-nothing armchair cynics.”

Talk about vilified. Critics of Kony 2012 include Ivy League lawyers, humanitarians on the ground in Uganda, and Africans – yes actual Africans – who find it paternalistic and insulting. They and I are not do-nothing armchair cynics. We simply want solutions that are realistic and respectful, and we’re concerned that a generation of me-now millennials is learning that neither realism nor respect are necessary as long as you raise awareness and “care.”

Parents all over the country applaud the film for introducing their children to something better than usual YouTube fare. They, along with other supporters, say over and over that raising awareness is the first step. If I had children, I’d probably feel the same thing. Raising awareness is wonderful, and it’s certainly better than nothing. Shining light into darkness has a lot of power and can lead to conversations like the many we’re having about Kony 2012.

But it’s only a first step. It’s not the first step.

Other first steps, in Kony’s case, occurred when African groups began to protect and defend themselves from his forces and establish organizations to help victims. They occurred when the International Criminal Court added him to their wishlist. They occurred when multiple documentaries began showing these children’s plights.

In other words, the first steps started a long time ago. Just because we weren’t a part of them doesn’t mean they weren’t happening.

We should be grateful for the opportunity not to start something against Kony but to join something that’s already been around for years. Are young people really so narcissistic that they can’t learn to listen to the Ugandan, Congolese, and South Sudanese people with whom they are joining up to fight? I don’t think so, and I hope Invisible Children will encourage them to do so once they’re done hanging posters.

And while I love Kristof’s willingness to write about difficult, relatively unknown subjects, my criticism of him has always been the same as my criticism of Kony 2012: war instigated by the United States isn’t the solution to every problem on earth.

In fact – and I won’t go into a list here (as much as I’d like to) – we have a concrete reputation around the world for making things worse.

I am thrilled that more people want to raise awareness for some of the many atrocities happening in the world today. I don’t want to be – and don’t think I am – a cynic. I certainly don’t want to sit from my armchair (if I had one) and criticize people who are doing good.

But is it really so unloving, lazy, and cynical to want to have a reasonable discussion of what “doing good” means in a world of too much PTSD, battle fatigue, and rubble from war?

18 Responses to “Is Raising Awareness the First Step?”
  1. There is a mindset in our culture – maybe in many – that says that since something need to be done about a problem that it justifies doing pretty much anything in response. I usually think about that from the perspective of how it creates a response to criticism of crime and military actions, but I think it applies here as well.

    The idea that there’s no viable criticism of IC because their cause is just and important seems to fall into that. Saying that there are more effective and older operations, or ones who have a better administrative spending ratio, gets knocked down as if it’s a defense of what IC proposes to attack.Which is inane, but it’s consistent – opposing police brutality means you’re soft on crime. Opposing the drug war means you’re a pothead. Etc.

    The do-nothings aren’t the people who want better, they’re the ones who just don’t care at all. Is it a cliche yet to say that the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s apathy? Maybe it should be.

    • JCM says:

      Love this comment. It saddens me to think some people see it as discourse = criticism = cynicism = apathy = siding with the “enemy.” The drug war is a great example.

      With IC, the cause is just and important, as you imply. Hopefully opening up honest discussion won’t scare away all the young folk. I don’t think it has to, but if they’re offered an easier option they’ll probably take it, as I did when I was their age.

  2. Ben Irwin says:

    Well said. We cannot turn a deaf ear to the voices of those we seek to help. I used to be a communicator for a global NGO; one of the biggest challenges I faced was how to present the need to people back home in an urgent, compelling fashion – but while respecting the dignity of those whose story we were trying to tell.

    The reaction to the KONY 2012 in N. Uganda (see should make all of us stop and think about how we engage complex issues of poverty and injustice in the developing world.

    Thank you for expressing it so well.

    • JCM says:

      Thanks for the feedback and for your incredibly interesting post on the reaction in Uganda. Amazing. One reason I think it’s hard to discuss issues like this is that we’re scared of living in the tension of wanting to help and not knowing how. The more deeply we learn to feel compassion while at the same time talking openly about contentious issues, the more able we’ll be to do something with both the urgency and respect of dignity that you mention.

  3. Josh Linton says:

    Really appreciate this thoughtful post.

    I think there is a sense that even if I am an “armchair cynic” I play a vital role in shaping the larger effort and pursuing its intent. Of course, “cynic” might be too harsh a word to describe the needed people who work in the realm of theory and thought, but aren’t necessarily the ones doing more hands-on works of justice. I guess I’m tired of this assumed, unspoken hierarchy of roles within large efforts of activism that deem certain roles as more engaged than another one not as noticeable. Doing something less tangible doesn’t mean I’m a “do-nothing.”

    Again, this was a solid post.

    • JCM says:

      I agree, Josh. My husband is a policy guy and wants to help create effective solutions using his gifts of critical thinking and study. Does he get to have a place in the conversation, too? So he really related to what you said. Thanks for your insights.

    • Lydia says:

      I don’t believe that the input of let’s call them “armchair theorists” is without value, and obviously intelligent public discourse is vital in shaping public opinion and activism, but I also don’t think there is anything wrong with saying that certain activists/actions ARE more important than others in terms of bringing about real solutions to humanity’s most pressing problems. Ms. Castle Miller has cogently expressed her opinions on the Kony 2012 video and various responses to it. You responded to her post and now I’m responding to you. That’s all well and good, but if none of us actually turns that discourse into action, (by “action” I mean anything from actually becoming involved with foreign or domestic aid organizations in an administrative or field position that directly works with/for those in dire situations to donating money to such entities), and if no one reading this takes any action either, how does that benefit the people of central Africa? It doesn’t. In that scenario, the net positive change for the actual human lives at the center of this discussion will be zero.

      Intelligent discourse that recognizes the complexity of the world’s gravest problems is wonderful, but discourse without action is meaningless. I personally would prefer it if “armchair theorists” who have taken Invisible Children to task would also say things like, “Although I will not be joining the Kony 2012 campaign, I did make small donation to organization ABC because I believe their work in central Africa is doing XYZ,” and then provide a link to ABC’s website, thus making it easier for those who want to take action and simultaneously raising awareness for organizations whose actions they do support. So far, I haven’t seen anything like that in the dozens of critiques I’ve read of Kony 2012.

      • JCM says:

        Lydia, thanks for this response. This article wasn’t specifically about groups who are serving on the front lines, but perhaps I’ll write a post on that next. It’s a good idea. I’m sure that many people do criticize from their armchairs, and hopefully nothing I say sounds like a support of that, because if anything I want to call people out of apathy and encourage them to use their gifts effectively.

        At the same time, while making a small donation to ABC is great, there is also value in having policy makers and legal experts look at a situation objectively. They don’t do that from armchairs – rather, they use centuries of legal and historical research to help governments and NGOs create lasting and effective change. Without them, large-scale aid efforts will never improve or become more effective (and they need to). So hopefully there is room for both.

      • Josh Linton says:

        Right. I believe both are important…as important as the other. I still don’t see that those helping frame the discourse need to move into different areas of activism in order to be relevant to the intentions of the larger effort. Certainly, as you say, the hope is to move the discourse into action; however, I don’t think those two distinct efforts have to be managed by the same person/people. Personally, my gifts are better suited to theory/critical thought than they are in other areas of activism. This, again, doesn’t mean I don’t wander into the action and do what I can at times, but that I’m more useful to the larger effort of justice in another way.

        Thanks for the conversation.

  4. Jake says:

    Can Invisible Children now do a follow up documentary about their pals in the SPLA and how they treat civilians?

  5. Loren says:

    Although I respect Nicholas Kristof’s as a journalist for many of the chances that he has taken to bring important stories that are wrongly underreported in our media, it seems that he may have been a little heavy-handed with his criticism of the those critics of the Kony 2012 video. I have seen the video and it does have some merits. However, I believe that your critique is an important addition to the discussion topic and that is why I have discussed this post in my blog post on the topic at Moreover, I appreciate Josh Linton’s comment because I do believe that many within the establishment brush aside the efforts of individuals who are making important contributions because they are not participating in an “official” way. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] We have an “opportunity not to start something against Kony but to join something that’s… (*) […]

  2. […] U.S. in the hunt for Kony is one of several interesting points made by Joanna Castle Miller in this critique of Kristof’s view on the Kony project and the project […]

  3. […] – and not surprisingly one of them took it very hard. After Nick Kristof advertised my criticism of his post on Kony 2012, it led me to other criticisms of him on the web that are simply presumptuous and […]

  4. […] response to my recent criticism of Nick Kristof’s Kony2012 column, one commenter asked that I offer up better solutions: I personally would prefer it if “armchair […]

  5. […] may remember that I’m not a firm believer in raising awareness as a first step. I think the first step should always be to look to the people […]

  6. […] response to my recent criticism of Nick Kristof’s Kony2012 column, one commenter asked that I offer up better […]

  7. […] – and not surprisingly one of them took it very hard. After Nick Kristof advertised my criticism of his post on Kony 2012, it led me to other criticisms of him on the web that are simply presumptuous and […]

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