The fight against Joseph Kony has become a human rights sensation nearly overnight, leaving many scholars of new media and marketing asking why (not to mention numerous postcolonial/anti-racist scholars gasping in horror). There’s some low hanging fruit to be critiqued here (yay western world saving Uganda using the twitter!), but I’d like to go for the much more implicit issue of colonial racial violence at work.
In his column “Would you let this girl drown?,” Nicholas Kristof asks why it is that people in the western world (he leaves that part out) are less inclined to help others when it involves a mass of people? He arrives at the same conclusion of psychology professor Paul Slovic, who suggests that there is a level of empathy exhaustion that comes with trying to solve ‘big problems’, i.e. structural issues — he calls this psychic numbing, our inability to appreciate losses of life as they become larger.
Now, the default reaction from those like Kristof is that this campaign focuses on one single person, someone we can rally against.
But the problem starts with Slovic’s study. There is a confounding variable of racial and imperial relations that is left out of Slovic’s study, meaning that the dimensions of inter-racial and international power relations is not controlled for — leaving use to ask if race has anything to do with it (yes). To guess, purely guess and not critique, it would seem that there are traces of issue here with the U.S. white-majority (in terms of power, not population) unable to comprehend what millions of dying Africans — or Jews if we want to go back further — would be like… and thus unwilling to give dollars. I’ve always wondered about the racist implications buried in Slovik’s study, but my hunch is purely speculative and something Prof. Slovic could address easily.
What happens with Kristof-ian ruminations about Joseph Kony, however, is that we have a predominantly white privileged global north/west rallying together to kill/capture an Ugandan man. The colonial and imperial presence of the mob mentality is not even subtle enough to call a trace.
The popularity of the Joseph Kony media apparatus forces us, as scholars of colonialism and race, to ask in what ways this campaign plays on historical tropes of the dark continent, the white knight, and political paternalism — as well as deep seated fears and anxieties that surround racial violence in the United States. In a time of increasing police brutality in the United States, particularly targeted at men of color and immigrant, along with the war on terror and war on immigration (and war on militarized drug trade), we are forced to ask if the Joseph Kony trend is an articulation of U.S. racial dynamics in the age of hyper-militarization.