"Telling Stories is the Most Powerful Thing": Kony 2012 and Narrative [Dis]Unity
by Justin Owen Rawlins and Zenia Kish — Indiana University; New York University
August 17, 2012 – 00:00
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.