About 25 minutes before writing this sentence, I vomited.
Please keep reading. I’ll explain. I vomited because of a series of images flashed rapid-fire in a viral video: kids, children, with mutilated faces, mouths shredded, infected, inflated, sealed in unspeakable reconfigurations.
Obviously it’s awful. But sort of mesmerizing. The latter is what I’m interested in.
These images show up about eleven minutes into Kony 2012, the half-hour web documentary by Jason Russell meant to draw attention to the crimes of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. Most Northwestern students already know why they shouldn't swallow the thing wholesale. The video has drawn plenty of criticism that questions the legitimacy and transparency of Russell's Invisible Children charity and draws attention to the fact that Kony hasn't even been in Uganda for like six years. It has also become apparent that J-Russ himself has at least a few personal problems of his own, which no sincere voiceover or FinalCut post-production can fix.
But this isn’t about Kony. I’m not equipped to address these aspects – just its effect. This is about the video, why it’s actually successful and what that says about average Internet-using human beings like you and I.
One of the video’s self-professed goals is getting people to “pay attention” – to the Kony crisis in general, but more immediately, to the video itself. It uses the delirious editing of a Jersey Shore montage. And it works. It has been posted on the same Facebook profiles that stream Shit _____ Say and Xzibit memes. Getting anybody to linger on a YouTube link for even just 28 minutes these days is no mean feat, especially if (like myself) you have six other tabs open at the time. Which means it’s actually gotten an internet-using audience to care about something that doesn’t exist exclusively in the realm of the Internet. But why do we need the internet to care about doing good?
I mean, here’s the thing: When I blew the aforementioned chunks, I did so, after a brief, dizzy sprint, using a trash bin which had been lined by a housekeeping staff member of whose existence I am all but ignorant. That is, my head was so full Kony and the truly terrible shit happening a world away that I had neither the attentional capacity nor any incentive to think for even a moment about the human being whose job it is deal with my actual bodily reaction to the much more viscerally-stimulating video. Which is weird, isn’t it?
Much of Kony 2012 is devoted to driving home the fact that Kony is, as Russell’s son Gavin (featured prominently in the video to a weird degree) a “bad guy.” Which he most definitely is. But there’s an implicit reassurance here, too: If Kony is the “bad guy” here, you and me watching the video are not bad guys. No way. We’re good guys. But does a good guy vomit in a trash bin lined by a lady whose name he doesn’t even know, who scrubs his floors and replaces his toilet paper and quite literally cleans up his shit and urine on a daily basis, and not even bother to thank her, much less sit down, share a smoke break, ask how her day is going?
I’m generalizing a bit here. I live on campus, and, like many Northwestern students, enjoy a friendly relationship with several housekeeping and NUCuisine staff members. And I’m not saying we should all go out and, taking our cue from The Help, give the nearest member of a different race and/or socio-economic class a great big bear hug. But this same sort of negligence lays even closer to home. For example, the other weekend I totally skipped out on a friend’s birthday party, for no greater reason than the group of people I was going with fell apart, and I had fallen into an inertia-heavy X-Files marathon on Netflix. This may seem like a trite, inconsequential example, but this friend has been nothing but kind to me, and on her birthday I left her a bit more alone than she should have been. Which is not a trivial thing. It might even be a little bit evil.
Part of what has made Kony 2012 so effective is that it inserts itself into the same activity that has slowly overtaken greater and greater segments of every American undergrad’s day: surfing the web. That is, Kony 2012 is a call to action that exploits inaction – I’d bet that at least 30% if not more of its views have come from U.S. students trying to procrastinate. What’s more, as much as Kony 2012 highlights the power of the Internet to connect people, what it’s really doing is tapping into the latent power of a whole unimaginable mass of people sitting alone in rooms staring at pieces of glass and plastic. So the great, effortful struggle Kony 2012 encourages us imagine ourselves taking part in (there lots of shots of blonde, well-fed shaggy-haired young folk holding up peace signs and jumping up and down) is actually far easier than going out and conducting a conversation with a real person.
(Note: One little irony of the whole Kony 2012 phenomenon is the fact that many of us, including myself, watched the thing on products produced in conditions causing a degree of suffering not incomparable to that which the video decries.)
And on a much deeper level, one of the traps of art and entertainment is that it’s in many ways easier to believe in than actual reality. Heidegger said something to the effect of art, by virtue of its being a framed entity, puts truth into motion. One logical extension of this (though I’m not sure Hi-Digs would approve this statement) is that in our normal, everyday lives, truth is nearly impossible to really feel – even when we’re dealing with living breathing sweating worrying human fucking beings. So all these glistening, high-res. shots of Kony and his victims – who deserve all the love and support they can get – are somehow realer, truer to us than the people we brush by on our way to class, or even those we consider our friends.
Writing in the 90s, in broadcast television’s bloated heyday, David Wallace remarked that, when hanging out, "Most of the people I know...all sit and face the same direction and stare at the same thing and then structure commercial-length conversations around the sorts of questions myopic car-crash witnesses might ask each other – 'Did you just see what I just saw?'" The Internet has made this even more the case. A huge percentage of the time when I hang out with people – even outside, even on a day so gorgeous you want to believe in some sort of genius deity that brought it all into being – usually we do it not by walking, talking, or otherwise sharing, but by sitting and standing hunched over screens watching the “Sitting on the Toilet” video, interacting only enough to say, “Oh shit, that reminds me, have you seen–” and typing away at the YouTube search bar.
The Flow and What it Means to Go With It
One of Northwestern’s most popular classes, “Intro to Russian Lit,” as taught by Gary Saul Morson, offers a reading of Tolstoy that encourages doing good in expanding concentric circles. Meaning, if you throw all your energy into fighting a cause halfway around the world, a cause you’re probably neither really familiar with nor equipped to do anything really effective for, you’re probably going to miss a whole lot of equally actionable, more immediate stuff going on right under your nose.
In a related vein, G-Mo also emphasizes a certain idea of living in the moment. The danger here is that a lot of undergrads sort of elide this idea into one of just “going with the flow” – which students (including myself) sometimes abuse as an excuse to just continue to sit and click through Tumblr and watch The X-Files and ignore the human beings around you. This not living productively in the flux of the immediate world. Doing good work in your everyday life is extremely difficult. Levin, protagonist of Anna Karenina, discovers that while it might seem free and easy, like floating peacefully in a rowboat, the reality is that there is “water beneath one, and one must row.”
I can’t judge Kony 2012 as a good or a bad thing. Any help Ugandans receive because of it is a good thing. But wiping Kony off the face of this earth will not bring us closer together, nor will it strengthen anybody to go about their lives in any way that might be meaningfully called “better.” Just because there’s evil in Uganda doesn’t mean there’s none in our own lives, our own actions, or our own decisions (or lack thereof). There are people right very near us – friends, family, employees, classmates, profs, maintenance staff, cooks, cleaners, people, people – whom we effect hugely, to whom we might be unthinkingly cruel and who deserve better. There’s water right under us. All of us. Everybody row.