I don’t know enough about African politics to know how great an evil Joseph Kony is.
I don’t know enough about charity financials to critique Invisible Children’s accounts.
But I do believe the KONY2012 campaign was an important moment, and indeed a force for good.
We are supposed to live in a democracy, for the most part. That doesn’t just mean we get to put a ballot in a box once every few years. It means that we, as the people, get to contribute to the way our society operates. And an important part of any democracy is the people understanding the mechanism through which they can exercise that power, and believing that power is real.
Once, we believed that we truly exercised that power through voting. In its purest form democracy is driven by the popular vote and our elected officials. And that still plays an important role. But last century many lost faith in government and we saw the emergence of protest movements. A new generation found power through new means – the march, the sit-in, the hunger strike… the tools of the protest generation.
The anti-war protests during the Howard years were a clear demonstration that the protest era – the time of ‘people power’ in that sense – was past. Social movements that wished to contest the actions of their government had to find new ways to do so. When groups of citizens decide to act on their beliefs and try and change things for the better, they draw on a ‘repertoire of contention’ – a set of tools and techniques for bringing about change. This repertoire is constantly evolving – we see new types of organisations, and new ways of contesting power. The protest march was an 19th century European innovation in response to particular situations that then diffused around the world to be deployed by many groups in many contexts.
I believe the KONY2012 campaign is significant not because of the impact it had around a particular issue, but because of the way it expanded the repertoire of contention. It showed us how affordable, accessible skills can be more successfully deployed to engage people and work toward change. It pulled aside the arcane black curtain of marketing a little, to democratise some of the techniques and strategy previously reserved for corporate advertisers.
The largest impact of KONY2012 will not be the swelling of Invisible Children’s coffers. It won’t be the additional international pressure on Joseph Kony. It won’t even be the dramatic increase in engaged popular discourse around Uganda, and Africa more broadly. The largest impact of the campaign will be the way it influences the next Amnesty campaign. The elements that find their way into the next World Vision campaign. The communications thinking that starts to inform the work of local action groups and special interest lobbies.
You might not agree with what all these groups are working to achieve, but their ability to draw on tools that provide access to power is what breathes life into democracy. In a time when people are increasingly disaffected with party politics, as we explore new ways of shaping tomorrow, we are best served the broadest repertoire of contention possible .
Who knows, you may need it one day too.