"Telling Stories is the Most Powerful Thing": Kony 2012 and Narrative [Dis]Unity

Curator's Note

One of the year’s most polarizing media spectacles followed the March launch of Invisible Children’s video “Kony 2012.” Written, directed, and narrated by co-founder Jason Russell, "Kony 2012” was viewed more than 100 million times within six days of being posted online. Russell is both authoritative narrator and emotional touchstone, inviting audiences into intimate—and infantilizing—conversations that distil complex Ugandan history for his five year-old son, and presumably, for us. The video’s circulation was unprecedented. In a national poll taken days after its release, over half of young people in the United States had heard of the campaign.

Cited as both the acme of viral marketing genius and the ultimate spectacle of white U.S.-saviorism, vigorous debate ensued. Commentators dissected the campaign’s historical claims, representational politics, and pro-military advocacy. Belying its reception, however, this November 2011 video of Russell speaking at Liberty University draws out the underlying evangelical agenda driving the “Stop Kony” campaign. For the organization, storytelling is the most powerful social unifier, the moral mission exemplified by Jesus. Moreover, it is the only way to get people to do anything, individually or collectively, to positively change the world. It is precisely by reaching the “hearts and minds” of the uninitiated through storytelling that Russell argues one can avoid polarizing audiences. “Kony 2012” thus imagines itself as the spark igniting a new, universal revolution to end human suffering.

In effect, Russell & Co. trade in explicit religiosity for ostensibly secularized narratives of social justice.  This universalizing sleight of hand, however, is one of the oldest colonial tricks in the book and many balked at its naïveté and affected emotion. By occluding the subjectivity, experience, and aspirations of Ugandans themselves, how could Invisible Children’s “universal” appeal ever work when it reproduces the very invisibility it organizes against? “Kony 2012” thus raises important questions about how a coalitional politics of social justice involving a totalizing ideology such as evangelical Christianity could ever take shape without inciting the polarizing effects that arise when one community sets out to save the world in its image. 



I'm curious, have you come across much critical work seeing to understand the wild success of Russell's storytelling techniques? Even if we set aside Kony 2012's neocolonial implications, and the film's manipulative conflations of geography and time, I think it still stands as a remarkable work of art. Fiction, to be sure, but tapping into something very real in young viewers. Not just their deep desire to change the world/save others, but also to rebel against "the man" through low-level vandalism--in the safety of social groups, mind you--and usurp parental authority by "discovering" the world's "worst" (yet somehow unknown) criminal "on their own." This is not the wonky foriegn policy or feed-the-poor charity of grown-ups; it is the adventure of a fairy tale pitting the innocent against the evil. Not a war that becomes an occupation and slowly sinks into quagmire, but rather a quick confrontation with a man set up as the ultimate (read: Satanic) antagonist. Story indeed. As Rambo was to Vietnam, Russell was to Iraq. Kids that were his son's age on 9/11 were hungry for a decisive victory and Kony 2012 promised to deliver the goods. Justice can be born again, in an instant, just like Saul became Paul on the road to Damascus. This is the Good News. Tell all your friends.

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