The Rise of Slackivism
If you don’t like this status, we are going to shoot this poor African child
KONY 2012. If you don’t recognize the name, you are probably either A) A deaf-blind-mute, B) that Amish girl from my old FREN141 class, or B) living in a wifi-less hovel out at Aramoana with a sinister, scrawny man in horn-rimmed glasses named David. The 30-minute video, produced by American charity Invisible Children, aimed to “Make Kony Famous”. “Kony” is Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in East Africa. The LRA specialises in the abduction of children for use as child soldiers, among other murderous pursuits. It is undeniably a very evil organisation. Kony is undeniably a very evil man. And the video was undeniably very viral. Within 24 hours of its release, Facebook news feeds worldwide were saturated with “MAKE KONY FAMOUS” statuses, promises to attend KONY-related events, and shared links to the video.
Suddenly, without setting foot outside your flat, you – yes you! – could become an activist! Social change now requires no more than a few seconds of your time, in between stalking the guy you slept with on the weekend and doing the stuff.co.nz daily quiz. How easy! How wonderful! The world’s problems, all solvable via a simple equation: you + Mark Zuckerberg + a WLAN connection = world peace!
So far, so “like”-able. So how did the campaign become so, well, unlikeable? Within a few days, it had become the most widely disparaged movement in recent memory. A month on, it is the dubstep of social media coups: hating the video is so mainstream that it’s almost clichéd. However, the mocking and the memes, like those directed at Skrillex, are ubiquitous for a reason: there’s just so much there to hate.
The first big problem with KONY2012 is the video itself. It is slick, patronising, and grossly oversimplified. The level of generic cheese is astronomical. The first five minutes could be an ad for any family-friendly brand, from Kodak to the Natural Confectionary Company to Persil. Puzzlingly, the film’s star is not Kony, but Gavin, the cherubic son of Invisible Children founder Jason Russell. Russell plonks Gavin in front of the camera, shows him a picture of Kony, and explains how evil the big bad man is. Gavin fidgets adorably in his Breton-striped sailor tee and eventually says that we should stop Kony. It’s not hard to imagine him following that up with an impish grin and cry of “Don’t chop the Dinosaur, daddy!”
Quite what this flaxen-haired child has to do with Uganda is never really explained. Then again, not much in the 29 minutes is ever explained. The basic premise of the video is that by “raising awareness” of Kony’s crimes through social media, public pressure will force the US military to capture Kony and free thousands of Ugandan kids from fear by December 31, 2012. One can only assume that at this point all those poor downtrodden Ugandan children will then be free to once again frolic barefoot through the lush savannah, dressed only in leopard-skin loincloths.
Unfortunately for Invisible Children’s idyllic vision, Kony is not in Uganda, having fled to the central Africa The US military is also in central Africa helping various militaries fight the LRA, and has no immediate intention of leaving. So what exactly are Invisible Children trying to do? Putting an expiry date on Kony’s capture may make sense from a marketing perspective, but deposing the leader of a child army is a little different from throwing out some mouldy colby.
Then again, the mouldy cheese method seems to be Invisible Children’s approach to “raising awareness”. In lieu of any actual facts, what we get over 29 nauseating minutes is shots of Gavin’s birth, emotive pleas from Jason Russell that “the time to act is NOW!”, single tears running down Ugandan cheeks, endless close-ups of the Facebook “share” button being clicked, a romcom-ish soundtrack, and shots of the earth from space to emphasise our Zuckerberg-enhanced sense of “togetherness”.
The best moments of the film are merely diarrheal. The worst reminded me of my extended amoeba episode in rural China. Case in point is the montage of Ugandan houses being built by apple-cheeked young Americans. This footage is interspersed with the Americans and their grateful African beneficiaries shaking their respective booties to a frantic rock soundtrack on their smoko breaks. Just like Team America, Invisible Children clearly understands that to get shit done we’re gonna need a montage.
So the movie is aesthetically offensive and factually incorrect. But none of this would matter if it were really doing something to help the children in Uganda. I would happily watch Twilight every night for a year if it would depose a warlord or two. Well, maybe a month; anyway. The point is, montage or no, shit hasn’t gotten done. Because KONY2012 has the dubious distinction of setting an all-new gold standard for “slacktivism”.
Slacktivism is the idea that by simply liking, retweeting or sharing something, you can change the world. Russell drawls nasally in the voiceover that “nothing is more powerful than an idea”. Actually, nothing is less powerful than an idea if it fails to be realised. Every Monday I have the idea of attending all of my lectures; I am yet to successfully execute a week of attending evert class. Similarly, updating your status and clicking “attend” is no guarantee of, well, anything, except annoying all of your Facebook friends with a constant stream of news feed items.
Actually, that’s not quite true (watching KONY2012 has clearly got me in the mood for half-truths). Updating your status and clicking attend does guarantee a self-esteem boost. There’s an argument that all charity work is just a vehicle to boost one’s self esteem. Even if that is true, there’s nothing wrong with it as long as actual charity work is getting done. But by simply “liking” and “sharing”, people are getting the self-esteem boost without doing anything to help. If you can save the world in a click, why would you bother actually getting your hands dirty? Slacktivism is the one-night stand of social activism. You get your satisfaction from a couple of likes and pokes then disappear before morning without leaving your number. Commitment phobia never felt so heart-warming.
Michelle is a pretty girl from my high school who now divides her time between her Communications degree at AUT and Instagram. She chose to share the video, attend a KONY “Cover the Night – Hamilton” event, and update her status with “See u all there in April people, Me and Ben will be doing our part in making sure these sick criminals are brought to justice!!” At the time, I asked her why. She said it was a “really really important” issue. While writing this article three weeks later, I asked her if she still planned to attend “Cover the Night”. She replied, “Oh, is that still a thing?”
Reducing important social causes to just another “like” on Facebook reduces their perceived importance. When the plight of African children is just another post in Facebook’s constant stream of banality, the issue gets mentally filed in the “Not Important” section, next to pictures of freshly-baked cupcakes and links to not-funny articles on Stuff. Invisible Children aims for awareness, but there is such a thing as too much awareness. When you’re aware of everything, it becomes hard to care about anything. Or at least to care about anything for more than the two seconds it takes to click “share” or “retweet”. Instead of encouraging real activism, slacktivism is just fostering apathy – a department with which our generation needs absolutely no help at all.
On Thursday 15 March, a week or so after the release of KONY2012, the world experienced a collective moment of schadenfreude not experienced since Kim Kardashian’s divorce. Jason Russell, he of the soulful, beseeching gaze and angelic offspring, was detained after running around San Diego naked, swearing at motorists and vandalising parked cars. Police dispatcher reports described Russell as “banging his hands on the ground, screaming [and] incoherent”.
All things considered, it was a brilliant finale to the KONY awareness campaign, if perhaps not exactly the sort of awareness Invisible Children were after.
Russell’s meltdown perfectly encapsulated the narcissism that defined the KONY campaign. When a charitable cause is dumbed down into a vehicle for your own ego, you’d better be damn sure that your ego isn’t going to spontaneously shed its clothing and start twisting and jerking as if it were being sucked off by an army of, ahem, invisible children. Likewise, when the ego of the benefactor becomes more important than the beneficiary, social activism suffers. Where once we Raged Against the Machine, now we can’t be fucked doing anything that can’t be quickly accomplished in a new tab while illegally downloading the latest from Florence and the Machine.
KONY2012 begins with Invisible Children founder Jason Russell drawling nasally that “humanity’s greatest desire is to belong and connect”. As usual, he is full of shit. We have learned a lot from KONY2012, including the importance of not being caught on video leaping naked between parked cars with one’s penis flapping freely in the breeze in the manner of a horny toad navigating a lily-pond. But most of all, in the post-Kony weeks we know exactly what twenty-first century humanity’s greatest desire is. It is not “to belong and connect”. It is not even to eat, drink and procreate all at the same time. It is to find ever more new and improved ways to wax our own egos to the point of gross engorgement.