KONY 2012 and Trayvon Martin: the power of story

23 Mar

[Note: I’m going to jump right in with a reflection on the KONY2012 and Trayvon Martin controversies. For some background, see the resources listed at the end, or just search your trusted news sources.]

What do KONY2012 and Trayvon Martin have in common? That is, what does a US-based Facebook campaign to capture an African war criminal have to do with the shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Florida?

An all-too familiar story line: one man’s crusade to stop the bad black guy. This is not to say shooting a kid is the equivalent of trying to take down a menace like Joseph Kony (that would be ironic), but to point out the ideology and conviction behind these actions, which in both cases would not be thwarted. The narratives are variations on a theme: Jason Russell of Invisible Children is the white savior of the poor black Africans, while George Zimmerman is the white-Hispanic defender against the black threat). Each was so sure of his role as the good guy in his own personal narrative of good v. evil, that he was able to justify his actions by any means necessary (Russell disseminating misinformation in the KONY2012 video, and Zimmerman pursuing and shooting Martin, despite 911 dispatchers’ instructions). Their motivation? Zimmerman said it on the 911 recording, but he might as well have been speaking for Russell, too, when he fumed, “these assholes, they always get away.”

Arguably, by “assholes” Zimmerman may have meant “criminals” rather than “black people,” but I don’t think it’s a question of whether he intended one group or the other, as much as it is how one label leads to the other. Fundamentally, KONY2012 and Martin’s shooting have not just race, but racism in common. Much has been made about Zimmerman being white and Hispanic, in hopes of exonerating him from any charge of racism, but that’s a red herring. Two words: internalized racism. In a system that advantages white people, you don’t have to be white to try to make the system work for you. You can side with those in power and hope that works to your advantage. So white, white-Hispanic, Hispanic, Asian, black: we’re all susceptible to the racist narrative in which black equals villain or hapless victim. (And helplessness is required, in order for a racist society to ally itself with blackness, which is otherwise a threat. While the good intention behind the KONY2012 campaign is evident, the deficit assumptions about black Africans upon which the whole initiative is founded are also apparent.)

But I invoke the r-word with caution. “Racist” is supposed to be shorthand for “bad guy,” just like a “up to no good” or now “Joseph Kony.” And what both of these controversies illustrate is that shorthand can short-circuit any good intentions: Zimmerman ended up shooting an unarmed teenager, and KONY2012 supporters may be throwing their weight behind a government with its own history of human rights violations. Actually, I agree with economist Tyler Cowen, who suggested at a December 2011 TEDxMidAtlantic talk:

As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you’re telling a good vs. evil story, you’re basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more. If you just adopt that as a kind of inner mental habit, it’s, in my view, one way to get a lot smarter pretty quickly. You don’t have to read any books. Just imagine yourself pressing a button every time you tell the good vs. evil story, and by pressing that button you’re lowering your IQ by ten points or more (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RoEEDKwzNBw).

Cowen is suggesting that as we consume the KONY2012 and Martin shooting controversies from our media, we have a choice: swallow and regurgitate the good v. evil narrative, or think critically about the messy reality that the story omits. We can’t help but respond not only to these particular people in these particular circumstances, but to the stories that we recognize. And that’s our opportunity for discernment. I agree with gawker.com that “All This Has Happened Before and Will Happen Again”–at least if we don’t notice the script and our complicity in it.

For background on KONY2012:

For background on Trayvon Martin’s shooting:

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