Kony 2012 – sticky sticky sticky

The unexpected rise of #StopKony coincided neatly with a great Radio 1 documentary I happened to catch post-gym on Monday night. Presented by Greg James and in traditionally R1 colloquial style, it dealt with trends and social memes; although largely focused on Youtube videos and funny Twitter trends, I was impressed with how much theory it managed to pack in and how insightful it was. (I was also surprised at how many agencies there are that deal solely with managing the content and ‘talent’ behind viral videos like Nyan Cat and Fenton-the-dog – although working in the industry I do I really shouldn’t have been).

There was a great explanation of memes about halfway through that described them as parasitic – exactly how I was taught to understand them when I studied psychology of religion. Dawkins and his fellows have gone to great lengths to explain exactly why religion spreads and sticks as it does, and have floated really interesting theories about the specific conditions that a religious idea needs to fulfil in order for it be accepted by the subconscious part of our brains and become ‘sticky’ – it’s actually amazingly formulaic.

Anyway, the #StopKony craze this week has been really interesting. I first heard about it on Monday when my friend-from-home sent me a message asking me to watch the Invisible Children documentary, and inviting me to a protest in Southampton next month. (I’d never heard of Kony before that, and as someone who keeps a fairly keen eye on international affairs I felt a little bit stupid about this). It’s clearly a very compelling documentary, and I don’t think anyone is disputing the factual contents of the IC output in the abstract. Since then, I’ve read up about the past of LRA and it is, inarguably, horrendous: child soldiers are definitely one of the most saddening and emotionally wrenching global issues, as well as one of the most complicated. I can see exactly why the film and its content has stirred up so much anger and revolutionary spirit in so many people, and as an example of some of the atrocities that occur every day in various places around the world it’s a very absorbing one.

What interests me though is why exactly #StopKony has captured the public imagination, as opposed to hundreds of other human rights abuses, brutal military or revolutionary regimes or social-economic injustices worldwide – the fact that it plays upon some of our most common and dearly held moral convictions is obvious, but there are so many other instances’ of this type of thing all over the world. What is it about this that makes it so sticky? The LRA is pushing 25 years now, and has actually declined in its power, numbers and activity in the last 10 of these. Joseph Kony hasn’t actually been in Uganda for something like six years, and it seems that the modern LRA numbers only in the hundreds and is scattered across East Africa; even when Obama sent troops to support the Ugandan counter-LRA forces last year, the rhetoric was very much to ‘hunt’ the scattered members down (incidentally, the information in reports that many of the local LRA hunters were ex-child soldiers originally recruited by Kony is strangely satisfying, at least to me)[i]. Ugandan spokespeople are said to be pretty angry that the IC video has created so much focus on their communities, the majority of whom seem to be focused on building their local infrastructures and getting on with their lives[ii].

Maybe what #StopKony is in actuality is a very, very good marketing campaign. It certainly has succeeded in creating a story for public consumption, despite its possible temporal irrelevance. Somehow it has fulfilled the criteria for meme status, ensuring its spreads like wildfire throughout social media channels – even if we don’t agree with it, we are all talking about it. And isn’t that the point of marketing, to set something on the public agenda, despite the facts?

Making #StopKony both an event, and a celebrity. IC were very clever at building up anticipation to the documentary, the style of which was not unlike the release of a film, or the release of the Brit award nominees. Since its ‘release’, continued assertion and reassertion of its existence throughout its Twitter account has transformed #StopKony from a hashtag to a separate entity: IC posing questions to followers, replying to Tweets and continually name dropping and thanking supporters and donators has separated #StopKony from its origins. #StopKony is not the documentary makers, the IC or even the Kony 2012 campaign itself, but a conviction and a concept personified and made ‘alive’- supporters can interact with this ‘voice’ that Tweets, LOLz and hashtags back.

Setting temporal limits. The scope of the campaign is psychologically inviting. Giving Kony 2012 a ‘release’ date and an ‘expiry’ date creates a clear window of opportunity which makes the whole concept so much easier to comprehend, get on board with and feel like we are contributing to. Open ended campaigns with no clear resolution are too vague and feel insurmountable. This, on the other hand, has a limited time frame so it feels manageable, as if energy invested in it won’t go to waste. Essentially, #StopKony is a great narrative with a clear beginning, middle and end, story like in its structure and composition.

Clearly defined roles. The characters in this story are clear, and by extension our role is also clearly defined. #StopKony has a clear protagonist – Joseph Kony is the focus of the campaign, and his status as ‘wanted’ by the ICC and the UN gives him ultimate ‘bad guy’ creds.  The idea that everything will be ok if he is taken out of the equation (never mind the insecurities of the nation as a whole and the unavoidable complicity with the Ugandan government that will need to happen if he is ever to be brought to justice) is pleasingly simple and attractive. And the roles of everyone involved are clearly defined – the LRA are shocking Kony is the ringleader, the UN and ICC, in this instance at least, cast as the morally righteous world powers that have officially decreed him to be so terrible.

Uniting the audience. And we, the Tweeting, ‘sharing’, ‘Liking’ global public, find ourselves comfortably cast as the empowered, united front that have the combined means to bring him to justice. Our role is clear, and the required action is relatively simple yet, potentially, vindicating and powerful. There have been various global ‘events’ planned which I’m sure the majority of those pressing ‘Attend’ on Facebook will actually show up to, but it’s really enough just to Retweet, thumbs up, email and chat about #StopKony. It does two things: shows how moral we are, and unites us with others. The diffusion of the campaign through celebrity Tweeters doesn’t need much analysis; all in all it just goes to strengthen the idea of a moral unity, a worldwide stand against something that no-one can argue is wrong.

The White House has backed #StopKony, complimenting the “hundreds of thousands of Americans who have mobilised to this unique crisis of conscience.” And I think this is broadly right – it is testimony to the continued existence of human conscience and morality that we care about these things and want to help. It shows a clear yearning for unity and empowerment that can only be made greater by the current uncertainty we face as our world slips further into economic confusion every week. In a world where the powerless feel ever more side lined and weak, this is a massive boost to morale and a chance to feel like the things we do can really matter.

The only thing is, though, that it seems that this morality and outrage may be misplaced. The critique of IC has highlighted flaws in its fund distribution as well as raised questions about its cooperation with the Ugandan government.  Its elevation of status through Tiwtter and Facebook may actually be misinforming the public about the best ways to contend human rights aberrations, and be oversimplifying the issue to a ridiculous degree. Drawing complex global issues in broad brush strokes does not educate or inform; in its worst form it makes a mockery of both those that are victims and those that are trying their best to ‘help’.

The key issue for me is why #StopKony is sticky with social media users (without being too generalistic, the young, connected and vocal) and why issues that are closer to home are not. Think of what could be achieved if young people felt empowered enough to start a similar furore over issues that actually affect them; furthermore, imagine what could happen if my generation and the ones just below understood not only the process and effects of political and social legislation, but also the methods to counteract them, and applied the same kind of moral indignation and technological propulsion to their campaign.


Trainers (or: a wide ranging comment on Western consumerism)

So I need some new running shoes. I’ve had flu for a while, pretty much bed ridden last week, and now am feeling the urge to get back on the run, back erging and back on the water (if I don’t, I literally go mental).

This personal issue – being poorly,  highlighting an obsessive compulsion to get back training – has made me think about a few things; mini ideas that would have crossed my mind anyway but have been given loads of space to germinate and grow in my fever-addled brain the last week or so. And I thought this would be a good place to start writing.

So here is my first ever blog post, casually entitled:

1)      Trainers (or: a wide ranging comment on Western consumerism).

Now, I LOVE running. And more than that, I love rowing, for which, while you don’t need trainers in a boat, to do well you need to train hard and well on land. Both these things necessitate a good pair of shoes. Running and rowing makes me feel strong and calm and happy and together. And if I’m going to spend money on a pair of shoes that I’m going to wear more per week than any other pair of shoes I own, I want them to be good. I want them to feel good and wear well, and to help train hard – when you have a good pair of shoes on you feel like you could run forever. And I’m a girl, and I’m 25, and I want them to look good. I’m not going to lie about any of these things.

So I’m going to treat myself to a new pair of trainers – I’ve felt ill since the middle of January and am so impatient to get back on top of it and go hard. BUT – and here is the issue – I’ve been reading a LOT of Naomi Klein lately, and supplementing my general awareness of certain brands perpetuating horrendous labour and human rights laws in the developing world with more specific stories of back breaking, monotonous work for next to no pay for individuals, and whole countries caught up in constant ever decreasing spirals of incentivising multinationals to outsource to them by screwing their labour force over (what Klein and others call ‘enclaves’ of tax breaks and desperation in  the face of globalisation). And while I’m not sure how much difference me buying the really fit looking Pegasus’ I saw in JJB the other day (Brixton Footlocker still not open after last summer!) actually makes,  I guess this decision has become less of a briefly considered pragmatic decision thing for me (had Asics last time, do I go hard and get the Nike Airs this time around? And also: which ones are most on offer?) and has actually been a lynch pin in deciding what I think and where I actually stand on so many issues that I’ve always been really interested in, and variously passionate, angry and sad about. I feel like it’s time to make a stand, it’s just I’m not convinced what my stand is.

So on the one hand it’s the trainers, and on the other hand it’s the rediscovery of a wicked collection of essays by Arundhati Roy on the American Empire that I picked up in Dhaka airport when I was interning in Bangladesh. I spent time in 2008 working in rural communities around Dhaka and getting a feel for the issues that abound out there – in particular I remember one really interesting conversation about sweat shops that I want to think about and research a bit more before I commit it to paper. But my time out there and everything I learnt, felt and saw is definitely playing on mind recently, and definitely informing my dilemma at the moment.

Someone said to me a few weeks ago that you can’t live in the western world without exploiting others. They may have just been trying to quickly stop me ranting at them, but maybe this is true; in fact, it’s definitely true. Now, I am a ‘liberal’, I’m way more left wing then right, and I hate the Tories firstly on principle and secondly because Cameron’s face makes me want to throw up. However, I am not too big a fan of the later Blair either, I don’t appreciate the inclusive, Oxbridge dominated nature of Westminster, and I think that Ed Millipede may be lovely and charming but has a way to go to creating a party I could properly get behind. So I’m also not one to start promoting the virtues of socialism or large scale social welfare, nor, now I’ve done some proper reading on economics in the last couple of years, do I “hate” capitalism.  I think that the idea of capitalism is essentially a neutral one, and possibly a natural one that sits neatly alongside our biological evolution and also makes sense from a business perspective. I also believe that multinationals are inherently neutral constructs, that they make sense in view of how we conduct business nowadays and that, managed differently, there is potential for them to act as be forces for constructive and productive action around the world. So far, so good in terms of being able to spend my hard earned, much appreciated wages on a pair of shoes that will make me flyyyy (in both sense of the word) (maybe).

On the other hand, I hate several things that all have an direct or indirect impact on how much I will ultimately love my shoes. Firstly, as mentioned above, I need to get up to date with the status of Nike (and I use ‘Nike’ as shorthand for ‘all major multinational sports shoes manufacturers that I may want to consider buying from because they make good shoes, innit) in terms of its labour regulations in wherever it is it is currently producing shoes. Apparently here is a good place to start: http://www.labourbehindthelabel.org/

I also take issue with the general problem of outsourcing, and the shape of ‘work’ in the modern day world. This is a bit of multifaceted one for me. Firstly, I hate the fact that manufacturing is a dead art in the West, the UK and USA especially, and that jobs like my granddads are now obsolete (he was a joiner in the docks in Southampton). I know I am a little biased as I work, to all extents and purposes, in “the city”, and so am stuck in that London-centic bubble, but it annoys me that so much of our ‘industry’ is essentially intangible – we don’t make “things” anymore, we construct ideas, create brand images and market them to varying levels of moral and commercial success. That goes for my job, even with the more ‘noble’ clients that I actually enjoy working for, and is one factor driving me to really think about what I want from my life. It also goes for much of the media: I’ve been told that the UKs highest grossing export in 2011 was the format for reality panel shows like X Factor (I am yet to confirm this but it wouldn’t surprise me). It also goes for Nike in the sense that they don’t ‘make’ shoes anymore, they assemble suitable parts together into a concept and market that. I find this sad, and I think it accounts for much of the dissatisfaction we feel in the West but can’t put a name to. Maybe its horribly clichéd, but I always feel a tiny bit jealous when I go home and go to the pub with mates in Southampton, and they’ve had a long hard day making things, or fixing things, (lots of them are sparkies or engineers or joiners) and have it all done and dusted and can enjoy their pint and relax. Because our office essentially deals with ideas and concepts and theories, I never feel like I ever really finish anything or create anything of real value; and this frustrates and annoys me. I guess nowadays the majority of us don’t go home at the end of the day having created something useful, and that doesn’t sit well with our natural need to work in cycles, and truly complete things for mental closure and satisfaction (I guess what Marx meant when he talked about alienation).

The process of globalisation and outsourcing has, as far as I can tell, directly contributed to this, moving jobs abroad where they can be done cheaper by people (arguably) more desperate for work. Furthermore, multinational outsourcing has not only moved jobs abroad but deprived whole other continents of their own source of livelihood and creation, destroyed their economy and set the population to task doing menial, mind-numbing jobs  for humiliating wages and crap conditions, setting whole countries and continents in a competition to provide the lowest wages and least effective unions. Does anyone really benefit? I don’t know… I guess I do because I can afford to buy nice shoes whenever I want, but this clearly isn’t a nationwide luxury, especially when it comes to shoes which are such a status symbol – I don’t think it was an accident that Footlocker got so royally trashed during the riots. (On another note, I read a really interesting case study about an American youth project that educated disenfranchised youths about where their trainers and trackies really came from, sparking massive political empowerment and getting kids socially fired up and really engaged in politics and trade regulations – inspiring stuff that I think could have a proper place in the UK today and something I want to get my head around properly).

I guess my urge to get back on my training and run around a lot with some good, supportive shoes has made me really think hard – about things I already knew and cared about hadn’t quite connected the dots on. And it is all connected. My trainers (as yet a metaphysical entity) are part of the same spider web of questions and issues linking social justice, domestic policy, international trade and the developing world. The two most infuriating issues for me at the moment are the fables that abound any reasonable discussion about any kind of socio-economic issue – firstly that capitalism equals meritocracy (social mobility in the UK is arguably worse than it was in the 1950’s) and secondly that outsourcing perpetuates a trickledown effect in poorer countries. I don’t see that it does. When people can’t afford to turn down overtime even when they’ve worked 20 hours straight, then where do they get the time or resources to contribute to their economy?

I’m not going to rehash the wonderful Klein or start citing Chomsky; that would clichéd and I couldn’t do either justice. But the older I get the more I understand how it all fits together (more about this below), and the more p*ssed off I get.

I haven’t quite decided about the trainers yet. Somehow (possibly due to the flu-delusion I had all of last week) they have become a really crucial issue in my head. On the one hand, I like having the money to buy what I want, never really having quite enough when I was growing up. I worked hard, went to a good uni and got a good job out of it. I’m living the capitalist dream, essentially, and I like spending my money on things I want, especially when they make me feel so good and make me run so fast.

But equally, I’m angry about a lot of things, and for some reason this purchase has become, at least in my head, the seminal purchase that will define what I do from here, and who I am (granted, that’s possibly a bit over dramatic). I’ve always known I’ll end up working in social policy, and I’m starting to get the urge to move and start looking for jobs there – maybe that has something to do with it too. In any case, I’m 25 and I feel a change in the air. When I look out the office window over St Pauls and the Shard, oddly, I feel inspired and I feel hopeful, I don’t see a stronghold of greed and money like I thought I might. There is space, as Chomsky and others have pointed out, for business to be moral, and for individuals and companies to make a difference, and maybe this is my first (very baby) step in that direction. Or maybe not, who knows. What I do know is that, flu-addled as it may be, the discussion I’m having with myself about these trainers and the issues around them has been the most interesting I’ve had for a long time.