Saturday, March 10, 2012

Tweeting Against Evil

I'd be surprised if, even now, after the Invisible Children Kony 2012 Campaign, 5% of Americans could pick out Uganda on a map. I'm mildly shocked that a Youtube video 30 minutes long has been viewed 66 million times in five days. Whether or not Joseph Kony is ever caught, life will probably not change to the slightest degree for almost all of those 66 million people.

Machiavelli famously argued that people (i.e. "subjects") are motivated primarily by self-interest ("men more quickly forget the death of their father than the loss of their inheritance"), and that a prince or politician should base policy decisions on whether subjects will perceive that their interests are being met. To be sure, every instance of American interventionism has been met with at least some criticism that it does not advance the interests of the American people to get involved in messy affairs of foreigners.

A cynic would point out that it takes very little effort to "like" something on Facebook or to re-tweet a link to the video, that the outpouring of support for this campaign has only occurred because no concrete action or sacrifice is required on the part of the would-be activist. But then again, there are countless opportunities everyday for one to "like" a cause or to share a link to a video produced by an activist group (most of which are far shorter than the Kony 2012 video). There does have to be something crystallizing about this particular cause.

To help understand what that is, I think we can consider the popularity of Adolf Hitler. I don't mean popularity in terms of favorability, but in terms of awareness. Although some argue that our society has a high level of cultural illiteracy, everybody knows who Adolf Hitler was (I'm convinced more Americans know who led Nazi Germany than know who the presidents were during the second World War).
We have Godwin's law for a reason. In a world of complexity, we love to have a cut-and-dried supervillain to help us orient our moral compasses.

A few years ago authors Lisa Adams and John Heath wrote a book that analyzed "persistent themes" in over 200 bestselling books. One of their findings was that villains lacked complexity, that they were evil for the sake of being evil. Also, they were inherently "different," possessing characteristics that made them distinctly "other" than the protagonists of the stories that readers are meant to identify with. Unfortunately for those who enjoy rooting against such bad guys, those types of characters tend not to surface in real life, and when they do, they rarely have the means to accumulate much power.

In our "culture wars," segments of the population routinely designate individuals as villains, but often such a designation just makes the designee a hero in the eyes of another population segment. In an obscure Ugandan warlord we have found someone that unites us, someone we can all agree is a "bad guy" that we can root against.

I hope that he is caught and brought to justice. I hope his victims find peace and that he has no further victims. But I also hope that in our pursuit of him, we don't shirk out responsibility of navigating more nuanced moral issues, or that we come to think of evil as something that only exists in African jungles. And even if he is caught, I hope we aren't lulled into thinking that we have achieved a decisive blow in the fight against evil.


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