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Joseph Kony and the Moral Ambiguity of the Modern World

The film everyone's talking about reminds us that hardly anything is black and white anymore.

One week ago, nonprofit group Invisible Children started a firestorm on the Internet with its Kony 2012 video. At first glance, the 30-minute film seemed innocuous, a passionate plea to get the world interested in the plight of Ugandans and other Africans forced to confront the murderous rebel leader Joseph Kony. But soon the backlash began. And then came the backlash against the backlash, which later led to backlash against the backlash against the backlash.

Essentially calling the film pointless, Foreign Policy wrote, "[I]t is unclear how millions of well-meaning but misinformed people are going to help deal with the more complicated reality." The Atlantic questioned Invisible Children's financial dealings. And still others saw the video as another toothless addition to the "guilty white liberal" genre. Writing for GOOD, Ugandan-American Patrick Kigongo wrote, "At best, Kony 2012 is a hyper-simplification of a complicated issue. It allows most of us to skip the frank, involved discussion in favor of just furthering a meme."

The people behind Kony 2012, however, stood their ground. In an interview with GOOD, Invisible Children Director of Ideology Jedidiah Jenkins said many critics were missing the point. "Our films are made for high school children," he said. "Our films weren’t made to be scrutinized by the Guardian. They were made to get young people involved in some of the world’s worst crimes." Jenkins also fought back against the idea that Invisible Children isn't doing anything of real value in Uganda, noting that, among other programs, "we have 12 partner schools we rebuilt from the ground up; we have 1,000 kids whose secondary school we pay for; we have several hundred kids in college and mentors for all of them." He added, "sure, we’re after Kony...but we’re also doing a lot of other things to help create sustainable peace."

Who is a person interested in making the world better supposed to believe: the do-gooders, or the naysayers attempting to do good by exposing the do-gooders as frauds? It's a difficult question, not to mention an increasingly relevant one. Kony 2012 and the dialogue it's created can symbolize a variety of different things, from neo-colonialism to the power of social media. But in their immediate wake, what they seem to most starkly represent is the dizzying moral ambiguity of the modern world, and the frustration to which that ambiguity can lead.

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about the ethical quandary of electronics. On the one hand, most people don't want others to suffer for their luxury. On the other, there is currently no mass-market electronic device being produced that doesn't cause people and environments pain in places like the Congo and China. I suggested an imperfect solution: Buy less stuff and thus contribute less to things like conflict minerals and Chinese factory suicides. Projects like Last Year's Model have codified not buying new electronics into a full-on movement, where keeping your old iPhone instead of constantly upgrading is less a consumer choice and more a political statement.

My piece hadn't been live for more than a day when my friend and GOOD's business editor Tim Fernholz told me he disagreed with me. Tim believes that instead of buying fewer electronics to help the poor people involved in their production, the ethical consumer should actually buy more, which will result in gradual but significant upticks in living and working conditions in the Third World. Award-winning New York Times columnist Paul Krugman agrees. "[S]ince export-oriented growth, for all its injustice, has been a huge boon for the workers in [developing countries]," Krugman once wrote in Slate, "anything that curtails that growth is very much against their interests. A policy of good jobs in principle, but no jobs in practice, might assuage our consciences, but it is no favor to its alleged beneficiaries."

As with the case of Kony, what to do about your next smartphone is muddy. Buy a new phone and you're contributing money to civil war in Africa and reprehensible working conditions in China. Don't buy one and people in far off lands lose their jobs. Which option is more ethical? Which option shows more appreciation for the world's needy?

The more you read, the more you realize everything is a gray area. Vegetarianism is good for the environment, but studies also show that a diet including a little bit of meat might be more efficient when it comes to land usage. Hybrid cars may be wasting resources that could be used to develop far more smart and sustainable vehicle alternatives. Fast food is a staple for millions of obese Americans, and yet legislating how consumers can buy unhealthy food seems too Orwellian. It's the double-edged sword of living in a time of unprecedented access to information: You get to form opinions about a lot of things, but the minute you think you've got the right answer, some new piece of knowledge comes along and decimates everything you believed previously.

When it comes to the Kony film, it's unlikely society will reach a consensus about it anytime soon, and with good reason: It's extraordinarily hard to unpack. Does the film distill a complex problem with centuries of backstory into a simplistic soundbite? Yes. But it has also illuminated tens of millions of people to an issue they didn't know existed before. And it has thrust the plight of central Africa into popular culture, leading everyone from the Guardian to TMZ to Oprah to have thoughtful conversations about child soldiers and charitable giving to Africa. I'm not sure anyone believes Kony 2012 is perfect, but it doesn't seem wise to toss it on the scrap heap, either. Whether or not you like it, at least it serves as a reminder that the world is messy and hard to organize. The best any of us can do is keep reading, keep talking to each other, keep trying to do the right thing, and keep hoping that there's more than one way to destroy a warlord.

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