For those of you that watched and shared the Kony video, did you feel (just a teensy bit) that there was something a little off about the whole thing? Not the video per se but the entire explosion of discussion/criticism that followed in its wake? Did you have this odd feeling that by sharing the video you were telling people to buy something cool and shiny but also to do something really selfless and sacrificial at the same time? That paradoxical feeling that so many of us had (or are having now) is merely the modern brain freeze of the salty/sweet drink we call consumerism. Here’s a little backstory:
• We believe that something is important based on how many online sources and friends talk about it.
• We sometimes feel guilty about how many toys, trinkets and jingle jangles we have, especially when we see commercials for malnourished children, homeless people or child soldiers.
• We’ve been told that everyday life, unless radically punched in the face, will eventually smother our spirits and make us corporate zombies (think Fight Club, Truman Show, etc…)
So when we see a film like Kony 2012 all of the above subconsciously sets in and we’re left with a weird desire to both share this and also critique and dismiss it at the same time. The proponents of Kony 2012 say this is a powerful movement driven by a passion to help and the response proves that this generation believes in the good and the strength of community. The critics say the whole thing reeks of indie/hipster consumerism and is just this week’s cool new thing. I want to suggest that the paradox we’re all feeling is merely the spirit of western consumerism compressed into a week’s time, that activism is hopelessly ensconced in consumption but simultaneously driven by a deep desire to make lasting change for good in the world.
Capitalism for a Cause
Blatant all-out Capitalism is a no-no. Even Donald Trump, the most capital of the capitalists, now talks more about giving to charity and “making a difference” than anything else. No one cares about making hoards of cash for cash’s sake anymore; in fact, you can’t unless you want to be ostracized by the ruling idea class. David Brooks in Bobos in Paradise explains the modern spirit of moneymaking, highlighting how one becomes rich “incidentally” while chasing your creative vision. You have to have a cause; no one makes money just to have it any more, that’s just ugly. The ever-blurring line between money-making and personal meaning has made cultural objects like Kony 2012 and Justin Bieber concerts almost indistinguishable.
Addicted to Radicalism?
If you want to get a read on how our culture thinks about money and the world, just watch primetime commercials. Products like detergent and cars tout their functional benefits but always remind you that by purchasing their product you are protecting the earth, saving the whales, helping kids read, etc…. Brooks says, “Ice cream companies now possess their own foreign policy doctrines.” It’s the era of company-caring, world-wide sharing and “making a difference,” a phrase that you will hear 460 times on TV before 10pm tonight. Nothing that’s pitched to consumers merely extols it’s benefits, it has to contain some ingredient that benefits the world and makes consumers feel that they are helping to save it (and ultimately themselves).
When products like Chapstick or beef jerky tell you that you can change the world by consuming their product, you begin to think like that about everything. A lot of the imagery of modern consumption has incorporated key radical elements, as if to further the “Fight Club” motif and make people feel that they are really, truly breaking out of their WASPy bubbles by buying whatever-it-is, and therefore attaining personal meaning. Enter Levi’s. Did you know that if you buy a $79 pair of jeans you will become a shirtless radical? You will wave your flag, flaunt your rippled abs and fight for freedom even if it costs you everything. It’s the Revolutionary War in the Beverly Hills. You can see how the imagery in this Levi’s campaign captures the same radical spirit as the Kony video (and everything aimed at youth in advertising).
[Warning: It’s a little racy FYI]
Ultimately, what comes through is the following:
• Radicalism is cool, you should have a cause and be willing to give up everything for it
• Radicalism is a collage of images, vignettes (bonfires, running, etc…) and has no over-arching story, just loosely inter-connected experiences.
• You can make a difference in the cause by buying something
I’d like to suggest that youth in the West are addicted to radicalism. Not any particular ideology, just the spirit of being a radical. Like being in love with love. You’ll see evangelical youth groups, Occupy Wall Street, hardcore bands, Gatorade, and Universities all tapping into this same idea. It’s why one semester a student can be passionate about sharing their faith and being a Christian and the next semester be just as passionate about Occupy Wall Street with no particular qualms about transferring their radicalism to another cause. It’s because we’ve been taught to be restless with Suburbia and embrace a “radical” lifestyle instead (even though we never do). It doesn’t matter for what, it just matters that it’s radical. Since free-floating radicalism is never attained, we examine rather the experience of being a radical, an experience I categorize under the heading of “consumerism.” Vincent Miller in his book, Consuming Religion, captures this in his assessment of all consumerism: “Consumer desire is, surprisingly, not really about attachment to things, but about the joys of desiring itself. It is the joy of endless seeking and pursuit. Actual consumption always comes as something of a disappointment, as the object can never live up to its promise.” Enter Kony.
The Commodification of Dissent
Miller also states that one of the most disturbing aspects of our consumptive age is that it’s impossible to have a voice of dissent without becoming packaged, branded and marketed in the very same way as the capitalist culture you oppose. Churches struggle with this all the time. “We’re not marketers,” says Pastor X to Pastor Y, trying to remind/hope/believe this statement as he talks about promoting the Christmas service or outreach event. It’s the paradox of the age- everything is marketing, in the same way that in agricultural societies, “everything is land.” Yet somehow we’re shocked or confused when we see the paradox emerge more clearly in instances like the Kony 2012 video, a video that perfectly illustrates the triple paradox of radicalism-addiction, “making a difference” and buying cool stuff. Here, Miller again hits the nail on the head, “Advanced capitalism has show itself to be strangely immune to ideological criticism. It seems capable of selling anything, including the values of its most committed opponents. It turned the 150th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto into a marketing opportunity.”
If You Really Cared
So let’s say you’re the Invisible Children leadership team. How will you make a difference? Should you have a website? What about T-Shirts? Should you spend thousands on this film? Why ask people to buy a promo pack? If people really cared wouldn’t they spread the word without any of these things? The short answer is No. You, me, Invisible Children, churches and non-profits are all trapped. We’re trapped in consumer culture, in a cycle of consumption… or maybe “trapped” is the wrong word. Just accept it. It is the climate in which we find ourselves and we should stop being shocked that we have to package and sell things in order to achieve our goals. Some people see this as selling out, others have no qualms with it and sometimes lose themselves in the maelstrom of bumper stickers, CD’s, web video, Facebook campaigns and T-Shirt design contests. I wish I had a more lofty approach to take but I conclude by merely suggesting the pragmatic approach. Does it work? Did the Kony video work? Is it working? Is your church’s marketing “working”? This is actually a far less tacky way to think about things because, to be honest, many of us don’t have a metric to use to answer the question of effectiveness for the causes we’re involved in. Pragmatic thinking in consumer culture isn’t that easy after all… It’s not just fun websites and cool videos; it really forces us to ask the question, “what do we want to happen?” If you really cared about your cause you would just call or visit people and tell them about it. But you’re not… and you most likely never will. The reason is because we’re not that kind of society any more.
Mixed Emotion is an Emotion
To summarize, Invisible Children did a great job with their film. We can’t conclude whether or not it has worked yet but we do have a tangible metric of success and that is the arrest of Kony. Many organizations cannot put together any such goal as clear as that. Is it exploitative or reductionistic? Maybe, but I believe that only those who are familiar with the organization (for more than 30 minutes) can comment on it. For 99% of the Likers and Posters of this video, we simply don’t have enough to go on to make that call. God judges the hearts. Is the video a slick, shiny campaign to buy something? Yes, but so is everything. Don’t be so lofty, this is the West and everything we do is through the lens of consumption. You have to play the game if you want to be heard and that’s what Kony 2012 has done. The trick is not to lose yourself in it. Invisible Children has been open with their financials and yes, they want you to buy something. The reason is probably that they’ve tried everything else and haven’t found nearly the same responsiveness with the previous less-consumptive approaches they’ve tried. Ultimately you have to come to terms with this paradox and realize that it’s not going to resolve anytime soon. Consumption is the new agriculture and we have to realize that our response to radicalism is somewhat contrived. It’s a Pavlovian response based on thousands of Levi’s, Chevy Trucks, and Rihanna videos coupled with our deep-seated hunger to do something meaningful with our lives.
Finally, the true litmus test of authenticity is longevity. If you really care and there really is a cause then you won’t just hit “share” and be done with it. You’ll be a part of it for the long haul and you’ll see yourself less and less of an observer and more and more as a creator. Similarly the critics owe this to the things they criticize, to come back and observe again and again, over time, until it is seen whether their critique is accurate or not. An organization that is trying to create substantial good and is doing their best to “play the marketing game” and not lose themselves in it will ultimately be tried and found true. These are not the one-hit-wonders of our age, these are the organizations led by the Wilberforce’s of the world, those who know that their motives aren’t perfect but are trying their best in humility. If you understand the difficulty inherit in creating meaning in an age of consumption then you know the importance of supporting those that have chosen to take a risk and step out into a paradoxical landscape. If Invisible Children proves to be one such organization then we should support them.
*Update: I just wanted to add a quick “about me” since so many people are reading this. I’ve been on the inside of non-profit world as a full time pastor, been on the inside of advertising as an ad agency CEO and have had the opportunity to help non-profits like IC work through this weird paradox I’m talking about and have acted as both critic and creator.