Bridging the Distance between Criticism and Activism
As we all watched the groundswell and subsequent backlash of the Kony 2012 campaign, I could not help but get wrapped up in the momentum.Â As one who promotes student service and social action, I was overwhelmed by the attention garnered by a movement fueled in large portion by youth.
I have had more than moderate exposure to the work of Invisible Children and have seen the organizationâ€™s marked ability to empower young people.Â As I watched the video, I perceived a bit of what critics would begin to highlight in coming days.Â I want to briefly share my opinion, not because it matters, but because it helps contextualize my comments.
Did the film smack a bit of â€śThe White Manâ€™s Burden?â€ť Sure.
Have I occasionally found myself struggling with similar false messianic expectations while in developing communities suffering grave injustice?Â Absolutely.
Did I cringe a little when director Jason Russell included so much video of his young son, Gavin, processing the brutal tactics of the LRA?Â Yes, but not because it was inappropriate, for I have committed to speak frankly with my own children about injustice.Â I recoiled a bit because of how intimate this familial moment was and questioned the wisdom in sharing it with a staggering viewership.
Did I think that the organization oversimplified the complexities of the conflict and resolution?Â Without question.
Do I think this was dishonest?Â Absolutely not.
I raised some of these questions with my Social Action students because I thought the video occasioned a great conversation of not only the brutality of the specific conflict but also about the nature of true activism.Â Their thoughts were a smattering of opinions, but most came down to, â€śWhy would anyone fault these guys for trying to change the world and help kids?Â I think they really care and believe in what theyâ€™re doing.Â At least theyâ€™re giving us [young people] a way to do something.â€ťÂ Their comments aligned with much of my own sentiment regarding the film and organization, but surprisingly, their dialogue was far more revealing to me about the state of our education system and the opportunities and expectations afforded them.
As an educator and founder of an educational nonprofit, I spend a lot of time in small groups of teachers and administratorsâ€”from the lounge to the board room.Â There are days when a teacher walks into their twenty minute lunch break absolutely effervescent in the afterglow of a light-bulb moment with a student, but the conversation more regularly degrades into war stories.Â â€śYouâ€™ll never believe what ______ did today.Â I assigned this project, and only half the class turned it in.Â Kids these days just donâ€™t care.â€ť
This industry is undeniably brutal.Â Nowhere else are the stakes so high and the rewards so paltry.Â You can have a seeming pivotal breakthrough with a student one day only to find they are withdrawing the next because of instability at home.Â It can be gut wrenching and leave one jaded, prone to grumbling.Â We saw this same tendency in response to the Kony video.Â Again, I welcomed the discourse the movie afforded, but what began as an honest reflection on activism by some concerned individuals quickly degraded to the nastiest sort of character attack imaginable.Â Forbes posted an entry in which the contributor harangued Jason Russell as â€śan atrocity tourist and Kony capitalist shopping for a cause to fund his film career.â€ťÂ Many seemed almost giddy to watch video footage of Jason Russellâ€™s tragic reactive psychosis as a result of the stress following the Kony video going viral.Â The world seemed to shift too easily from watching a 30 minute video purposed at changing the world to a 30 second spectacle of a naked man pounding the pavement and shouting obscenities.Â There was a vein of folks whispering, â€śSeeâ€¦told you so.â€ť
On the heels of the most successful social media campaign in history, critics were already spewing why they hated it.Â Again, I shared some of their concerns, but why did such venom manifest so quickly?
I think one of the greatest contributors is an almost reflexive sense of guilt when we see a tragedy like that depicted in the Kony video.Â This guilt requires a genuine human response; yet, instead of the adaptation that would be required by such a response in our current routine, we settle for critique.Â By quickly formulating a negative presumption of the subject, we essentially justify our distance while at the same time appearing informed.Â We are never required to actually do anything. It is infinitely easier to engage in criticism than activism.
As I painfully waded through the muck of the blogosphere, I could not help but find it eerily familiar to the teachersâ€™ lounge.Â Our fatigue and frequent disappointment seem to relegate us to the most anemic response to our ailing education systemâ€”complaining.Â We critique the latest strategies on assessment and resent the increased expectations coupled with decreased resources and compensation.Â We are quick to point out all the reasons why it will not work or how unfair said policy is, but what are we doing to fix it?Â We feel like martyrs for struggling so heroically in a broken system, but we rarely engage in the activism and innovation that the current state of our schools should evoke from their most stalwart proponents.
On my worst days, I can find my disdain for the system seep into my perception of my students.Â I begin to define them by their shortcomings and prophesy their lack luster performance.Â What must it feel like for a student to enter a classroom with the intention of learning only to be met with a presumption of his indifference?Â Maybe in some small, similar way, Jason Russell felt people having no experience with him as a person begin to not just critique his nobly intentioned lifeâ€™s work but bludgeon his character.Â I hear these presumptions from educators across the country, â€śKids just donâ€™t care.Â How can I teach if they donâ€™t want to learn?Â These students lack a moral compass.â€ťÂ We use these sentiments to justify the growing distance between ourselves and the students we serve.Â It is easier to have an opinion than a responseâ€”criticism vs. activism.Â If these excuses to disengage are true, then we should be scared witless and broken hearted.Â If we are on the cusp of losing a generation, then we should conjure every innovative practice possible in response, not bitch in the lounge.
Educators are not the only ones fighting this entropy; critics of the Kony film quickly moved from maligning the content and creator to demeaning its supporters (namely young people) with pejorative terms like slacktivistsâ€”condescendingly dismissing their naĂŻve assertion that they could change the world by clicking a mouse or switching their profile picture.Â Rather than getting behind these excited and impassioned kids, the world labeled them.Â Was their enthusiasm naĂŻve and their message idealistic?Â Absolutely.Â But before you use that as a disqualifier of the movement, I challenge you to find a more naĂŻve and idealistic piece of rhetoric than Dr. Kingâ€™s â€śI Have a Dream.â€ť
Invisible Children and the young people they inspire were derided for merely building awareness and offering no sustainable change.Â I whole heartedly disagree with that characterization of awareness as a sort of poor manâ€™s activism.Â All true activism is built upon the essential first step of awareness.Â In fact, at Finding Heroes, we design entire systems for schools on this basic principle of developing students through a progressive three step process:
Invisible Children is doing a laudable job of developing leaders and advocates, and we should be learning from their model.Â Just look at this video of one of their interns and how her experience with the organization has shaped the ultimate direction of her life.
When is the last time you saw so much enthusiasm from a group of teenagers for something that really mattered?Â They are hungry for an opportunity to make a difference.Â They want their lives to matter.Â They need schools that believe in more than their ability to amass grade points.Â They need adults to model passion and engagement while affording them opportunities to join in.Â I am finished masking my disillusionment as critique, and I am committed to doing whatever it takes to bridge the daunting distance between my whiteboard and their desks.