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Kony2012 and its discontents: how much snark does it take to fix all the world’s solutions to the world’s problems?

So, Invisible Children posted a video (which video henceforward I shall refer to as “KONY 2012″) in order to develop awareness about a terrible person named Joseph Kony who has done some reprehensible things and is currently at large. One of the terrible things of which he stands accused is abducting children and pressing them into military service and/or sex slavery.

In response to aesthetic and rhetorical choices on the part of the film’s producers, all the people who think they’re smarter than you or too cool for school (or both) started tearing it down. Not from the right, mind you–this wasn’t a case of “who cares about African kids?” No, this is criticism from the left. There is a drinking game. This kind of nonsense is as nauseating as it is sophomoric. It’s snarky, and elitist, and counterproductive…and my people (by which I mean ridiculous, absurd intellectuals and/or academics) are to blame.

And while I’ve been annoyed by this dynamic in the past, this particular episode feels like the apotheosis of this idiosyncratic brand of annoyance, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to get down a few thoughts.

First: if you’re so smart, then why is your life such a meaningless morass of mundanity? If it’s not mundane, then why is it so gratingly super-fabu? [tl;dr: y u mad, brah?]

Not a rhetorical question. Answer: it’s because you’re either not very or way too self-aware. What follows is a brief sketch of a deductive proof.

I had a wonderful literature professor who taught me how to think better. One of the question she would constantly hit us with: what does this piece do?

So let’s start with KONY 2012. My take on its rationale:

Joseph Kony is a bad dude.
We want to get him to trial.
We can do that if we can find him.
We can find him if we can bring international force to bear.
We can bring international force to bear if we can get American celebrities, politicians, and upper-middle-class Americans to care.
We can get celebrities, politicians, and upper-middle-class Americans to care through high production values, innovative use of social media, and cute kids/white people acting as though they already care.

So let’s try to take it apart:

Is Kony a bad dude? It would appear so.
Should he face trial? It would appear so.
Can we put him on trial if we can find him? It would appear so.
Can we find him if we bring international force to bear? Maybe? Probably? Hard to say, but no one has caught him yet.
Can American celebrities, politicians, and upper-middle-class U.S. Citizens bring international force to bear? Again, maybe? Probably? Somewhere in there.
Finally, will a high-end marketing campaign get people to care? Maybe or probably.

To me, that logic seems sound. There is nothing in KONY 2012 that runs counter to anything there.

So what are the arguments people are leveling against it?

It’s neocolonialist. (So Americans should be solving problems in other countries?)
Corollary: it’s patronizing. (We’re the saviors? Africans are invisible?)
It’s facile. (So we can solve all the world’s problems by tweeting?)
Parts of it are misleading or glossed over. (Kony’s not in Uganda!)
It uses Manichean arguments. (Picture of Hitler?)

Fair enough. So what? The short version: shut up and do something of value with your life.

The long version: you’re right.

It might be facile and patronizing and neocolonialist, mildly misleading and reductive. That’s okay.

I would like to reiterate that last part: it’s okay.

This is not a Ph.D. dissertation. Neither are Hollywood movies. If you’re very smart, and if I’m scolding you then everyone agrees that yes, nicely done, you are very smart–if you’re very smart then you know that Inception really manages to ignore a heck of a lot about the philosophy and psychology of dreams. It’s a goddamn heist film. You’re over-thinking it.

But providing a subtle, nuanced, intellectually rigorous explication of the problems faced by Ugandans, their institutional origins in paternalistic attempts to counteract the destruction wrought by European colonial policies, and the geopolitical consequences thereof–this is not what KONY 2012 is trying to do.

Maybe you think that’s what it should be doing. My guess is that that’s what you would like to see, what would convince you, but you’re special. You care about the subtleties in ways that other people don’t.

So then the snark comes. Where does snark come from? Maybe you were once idealistic and you’ve been burned, and now you know how the world is and you want to let the world know that you can’t be duped anymore. Maybe you’re insecure about your intelligence, and you learned in your senior seminar or Race and Anonymity that if you articulately burned somebody else’s idea or articulation, approbation and accolades were your reward. Your peers now think you’re smart–smarter than you fear you are–and so you have to keep tearing things down to ensure that no one finds you that you don’t really belong here. This works great for journal article peer reviews, by the way, but is not so great for maintaining healthy human relationships. No one likes a pedant.

When is snark ever appropriate? In my opinion, only as a way of showing that the emperor has no clothes, or as counter-snark. Snark is a defense mechanism against openness and inclusion–if it becomes ubiquitous, it is a poison to a society.

The world suffers from a lack of genuine, open-hearted people trying to make positive change the best way they can. What possible harm can come from Invisible Children’s campaign and the KONY 2012 film?

Again, that’s not rhetorical. You could argue that funds could be misapplied toward awareness rather than action. You could argue that the U.S. and the U.N. have no business intervening. You could also argue that unhelpful attitudes are propagated by such awareness attempts.  The first is an empirical question: look at Invisible Children’s books. It’s easy to do. Snarks usually don’t want to be refuted, and so very rarely can you look past confirmation bias to actually investigate such claims, but ah, such baseless claims are delightful little conversational rejoinders.

The second one is merely political. Reasonable people can disagree about how much other nations and international organizations should get involved. Generally the critics I’m talking about, though, they have long accepted that USAID funds pay their nonprofit grant-based salaries.

The third one is tougher, but I think it points to some of the source of the snark: What is the counterfactual? What would the world look like without KONY 2012? There is this fantasy, I am convinced, among detractors that the people tweeting about #KONY2012 might be spending their time educating themselves about some other policy issue–or this one, only more nuanced–if only @jasonrussell had used the newest sociological/critical models to “consider the (dis)located-ness of the [un(in)]formed self vis-a-vis physical, metaphysical, and temporal borders” or something like that. But c’mon. You know that’s nonsense. I know you spend your time reading International Criminal Court case law and writing short stories about vagabond fishermen from French Guiana, and you’re super-proud that you got rid of your TV and only watch Tremé online when you’ve finished your Wittgenstein for the night. And I sound sarcastic, but I think that’s awesome. It sounds like my life, to be honest, which is, I’ll admit, kind of weird. But most people don’t like that. I like math. Like, I really like it. Like I’ll gladly spend free time trying to wrap my head around the relationship between metric spaces and metrizable topological spaces. I also really like thinking well about probabilities, and ethics, and tropes and story, and flow.

Just because I like to spend my time that way, though, doesn’t mean that other people do. And it doesn’t mean they should. This is the hard part for us intellectuals to get over, I think: just because we like thinking about stuff a lot doesn’t mean anyone else should. If you’re like me, then you’ve had people telling you what you should do your whole life. So stop the cycle of normativity. People should do whatever they can to make the world better, the way they can.

As much as I would love it if everyone would just improve their statistical thinking, I don’t think they will. Not much, at least. And I don’t think pointing out people’s flaws, or the ways in which policies cater to or reinforce bad statistical reasoning, will solve problems. Maybe we should take those into account. Maybe we should accept people as they are.

And ultimately, that’s my message to the snarky: I accept you. That’s hard for me to say. Snark is hard for me to deal with. But I kind of know why you do it.

If I believed in afterlives, or saints, or thought it would come to any use, then I would be actively fighting for the canonization of David Foster Wallace. He taught me about this struggle: he was too smart for his own good, and much of his writing was about that. About fighting the desire to correct your child when they write “I EVOL UOY”. About fighting the desire to criticize your younger self for what he could not have known; about fighting the desire to shake people who are enjoying their lives, and shouting at them “It all comes to nothingness, anyway.” It’s also about the other fight–refusing to beat yourself up today–right now–for not knowing everything, not being perfectly aware. And finally, it’s about the last fight: the fight to realize that being smarter than everyone else–seeing all the angles–that it’s neither virtue nor vice. It’s just the color of your hair. It’s just the way it hangs. Sometimes knowing how the machine works doesn’t matter, and other people are more right than you even if they don’t “get it”. That maybe “getting it” is just a hobby, or a quirk, or a compulsion, like counting bathroom tiles. You can learn to live with it. You can learn to love it, but it’ll kill you, if you don’t learn to be gentle to the people around you. If you let it rule you, it’ll push people away until you’re surrounded by people who hurt each other out of self-defense.

Not everybody will get it, and not everybody has to, and as long as someone is trying to improve the world, they’re on your side. It takes all kinds to make the world go round. If people are being good, offer your qualified support. Insofar as we disagree, we can argue about it over beers.

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4 Responses

  1. Tom says:

    I agree that snark is wearying (although I thought the KONY 2012 drinking game was funny), but I think your logic is wrong on this one.

    You write: “What possible harm can come from Invisible Children’s campaign and the KONY 2012 film?”

    Well, the answer is: a lot. The analogy I used on my blog was Live Aid, another event that was “facile and patronizing and neocolonialist, mildly misleading and reductive.” MSF estimates that as many as 100,000 people died directly from the resettlement program that stemmed from that aid.

    Humanitarian intervention is a thorny issue, prone to unexpected consequences.

    Oh and DFW was prone to serious snark, ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again’ is dripping with contempt for his fellow cruisers!

    http://thegoldenlatrine.blogspot.com/2012/03/kony-2012-yes-social-media-can-raise.html

    • jadelane says:

      Fair enough, although I would like to quibble with a little bit of context: I pointed out that that was not a rhetorical question. I even presented some answers. I think yours roughly falls into category #2 – “that the U.S. and the U.N. have no business intervening”. I have no problem with that line of reasoning. I’d agree that it *can* cause a lot of harm, but not that it *will*. I think awareness would have to get mighty high before it tipped over to the level where people demanded action so fervently that it caused harm. I think it’s unlikely. But reasonable people can disagree.

      If you’re willing to engage with the argument on its merits, then I think that can lead to a perfectly productive conversation. My problem is with snark in the face of idealism. Snark–and more generally, irony, is a contemptuous response often grounded in intellectual cowardice. If one could actually win the argument, one would not need to resort to snark.

      DFW was prone to snark. But he felt deeply conflicted about it. If you read his piece in the same book on the Illinois State Fair (available as the original Harper’s essay here: http://harpers.org/media/pdf/dfw/HarpersMagazine-1994-07-0001729.pdf, he agonizes over it. The search for authentic experience, unmediated by internal monologue, is rough for some GenXers.

  2. Guest1117 says:

    But is there not an argument that the snark of the drinking game post provides the rhetorical counterbalance to the original video? You say that it is ok that the original video is ‘facile and patronizing and neocolonialist, mildly misleading and reductive’, but then suggest that critics of its message must only ‘engage with the argument on its merits’. Is this not denying the opposition the tools you have just granted the proposition?

    I’m not saying I entirely like the tone of the drinking game post, by the way; it could easily have been leavened by adding a paragraph of a kinder tone at the end putting the snark in context (‘I’m sorry if I sound rude and negative, but seeing something unnecessarily misconstrued can be frustrating’) and/or suggesting ways in which a reader’s idealism might be profitably redirected (‘perhaps take a look at this article/charity’s website to better understand the problem’).

    • jadelane says:

      Thanks for the comment.

      I’m not sure rhetorical counterbalance is necessary or even good. I would say the issue is not whether the snark is legitimate–it’s whether it is effective. So what does the snark do?

      I would argue that it mostly just consoles and reinforces those who already agree–which is to say it’s pretty ineffective, rhetorically. It might also serve to strike fear and insecurity into those who might be inclined to give in to qualified optimism.

      They don’t have to engage with the argument on the merits…it’s just that responding with irony puts criticism off the table, and attempts to end the conversation without engagement. Which they have every right to do, but which strikes me as callow and ill-advised.

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