24 April 2012

The Red Herring that is Attacking Armchair Critics

These jeers about upholstered seating, like so many ad hominem attacks, ignore the substance of the critiques. No one is saying that the Kony 2012 campaign is flawed because Joseph Kony is an awesome guy who should be left in peace to maim and murder as he pleases. Rather, the critics -- including us -- have pointed out that the campaign's shortcomings may lead to real harm.

For the most part, critics of the campaign were not "armchair" anything. Rather, they were Ugandans, aid workers, journalists, survivors of LRA atrocities, and researchers who had lived in the region and are experts on the LRA. Boots can't get much more "on the ground" than that.


[T]he "boots on the ground" narrative doesn't intend to privilege the voices of "brave" men over "foolhardy" women, or "self-sacrificing" Westerners over "compromised" locals. But beneath the surface of the criticism-of-the-critics of Kony 2012 rests an implicit assumption that only certain voices should be permitted to speak -- the same voices that have dominated Western discourse regarding the non-Western world since the earliest days of colonialism. That's the tricky thing about privilege -- you don't notice it when it's yours.

For our part, we are more than happy to cop to being armchair critics. Unlike the founders of Invisible Children, we have never headed off to Africa with a carload of video cameras, looking for people to save. Nor have we ever been held at gunpoint by warlords whose massacres we've interrupted. Although between us we have done human rights work on every continent except Australia and Antarctica, we also spend as much time as possible in armchairs. If our ideas are wrong, no amount of "on the ground" experience will make them right. And if we're right, it shouldn't matter if we've never left the house.
That is Kate Cronin-Furman and Amanda Taub (better known as Wronging Rights) sharing an edited version of their Beyond Kony 2012 chapter with the Atlantic. I posted the sample chapter on Friday, but the above section is worth repeating. Criticisms of Kony 2012 came from people with vast experience on the ground. Though the criticisms may have been written in an armchair, it does not make them any less valid that the video itself.

As Amanda and Kate point out, attacks on the individuals ignores the substance of what is said. Right or wrong, such a dismissive point of view misses the opportunity to engage in meaningful conversation and ultimately lead to greater understanding and possibly a few changes.