The McActivist Happy Meal

Since you’re reading this blog, the odds are good that you semi-regularly use one or more forms of social media. That also means in the last few days you have come into at least passing contact with the slick new video from Invisible Children, a U.S.-based organization seeking the arrest and prosecution of Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a Ugandan guerrilla group. The video has gone viral (as of this writing it has 67,106,844 views on YouTube), but just in case you’ve have somehow missed the bazillion tweets, Facebook posts, and such, here it is:

Since its posting, the video has garnered a great deal of support (Oprah’s on board, and where Oprah goes people follow) and a great deal of criticism (the Huffington Post has a nice summary of the critiques). While it’s tempting to wade into the waters of debate surrounding the immediate intentions and impacts of the video and the campaign, I’ll refrain from doing so here because I keep finding myself thinking much farther down the line.

The big call to action in the video asks viewers to donate to Invisible Children and to order a Kony 2012 Action Kit. The kit includes stickers, posters, buttons, two bracelets (one for you and one for someone you get to join the effort with you) and details about the plan to spread the word about Kony. It comes in a tidy little paper box emblazoned with the campaign logo (skip to the 26 minute mark of the video for details on the kit). On seeing this, I could not help but think “Wow… it’s a Happy Meal for activists.” It’s inexpensive, easy to get, and easy to consume use.

For the purposes of the campaign, this tactical approach might be great. The idea is to provide a very simple way for geographically dispersed people to engage in coordinated action. The approach clearly has appeal; the kits have already sold out. We’ll see on the morning of April 21st how well it works (in theory, you should wake up to Kony 2012 posters, stickers, etc. all over the place wherever you live). Let’s say the campaign succeeds in all its goals. Pressure is applied to governments, more attention and resources are focused on Uganda (and environs, since Kony probably isn’t in Uganda anymore), Kony gets caught, the LRA disbanded, and the world is a safer place.

But then what? What are the long term impacts of this effort? One thing movements have long done is train people how to be organizers and connect people to new social networks that might broaden their thinking about politics and public affairs. In this case, for a brief moment, we’ll have new activists all over the U.S. and the world, suddenly made aware of problems far beyond their homes and motivated to take action on them. But they aren’t put into meaningful local organizations with one another. They’re not developing new skills as organizers. They’re consuming activist boxes with a friend.

So, I wonder, then. Will all those young people, coming together, ready to be part of something bigger, just consume their box, feel good, and move on? And if that happens, will a suddenly successful movement campaign have missed its real civic opportunity?

7 Comments

Filed under Daily Disruption

7 responses to “The McActivist Happy Meal

  1. Dan Myers

    That’s interesting, Matt. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit because my kids have gotten caught up in McKony-mania (an all-too-obscure reference to McNugget Mania for those of you who recall that ad campaign in the 1980s). And as I’ve read the critiques of the Kony 2012 movement, I’ve very much appreciated their logic and more nuanced interpretation of the situation. Nevertheless, I’m not quite as down on the movement as some of the detractors are because I see something else going on here–more related to the movement structural/tactical issues you are glancing toward. This is a youTube movement and it is therefore, in many senses, a youth movement. We often bemoan the weak state of political awareness and efficacy among “today’s youth” and this movement–whether it accomplishes its goal or not (or if the goal is even really worth accomplishing relative to other ways the resources might be spend), is inducing mobilization. If it does accomplish its stated goal, to arrest Kony, it will also be an efficacy-producing movement for many young people who have contributed in some small way to the movement. Thus, Kony 2012 might end up being more important for inviting the activism of 67,000,000 viewers who might not otherwise engage in anything political. As Matt says, there are more steps to them becoming more robust activists, but just like the Happy Meal is the gateway drug to the Big Mac, activism has to start somewhere, and perhaps McKony is a starting point for a lot of people who are just coming into the possibility for political awareness. Better that they do so out of a sense of social justice and caring than self-protection, greed, and hate.

  2. Matthew Baggetta

    Dan: You make a good point about this campaign as a potential point of entry into activism that appeals to non-self-interested motives. I agree, that’s a great thing to see. But, to push the metaphor farther than it ought to go, my real question is whether or not there is a Big Mac for these Happy Meal eaters to move on to. So far as I can tell, Invisible Children doesn’t seem to be offering it. Once you put on your bracelet, hang your posters, and recycle the box… you’re done. I expect some participants will find this experience to be empowering (“we let the world know!”) and will seek out more action. Others may find it frustrating (“wait… we’re only hanging posters? Can’t we do more?”) and will seek out more action. Still others will consider this a satisfying experience (“I did my civic duty for the year”) and will move on. If the hurdles to finding more structured action are too big, a good many of the first and second types will have something else catch their attention first (How many of those 67,000,000 have Fab Melo’s name on their Facebook news feeds today more than Joseph Kony’s?). And the third group? Without someone making the second invitation on the tail end of the first activity… well… maybe the postering experience will have a sleeper effect… So yes, I don’t want to criticize IC for inviting a whole bunch of young people to think and act in a more globally altruistic way–taking the first step on the activist path. I just wonder how long that path is for today’s potential youth activists and who is out there ready to help them take the next steps down the path.

    willhmoore: Thanks for the link. I hadn’t seen that one yet. I love the varied reactions she’s getting from her students and I’m glad she (and others) are taking the time to do that kind of collective consideration and interpretation in class. Following on my response to Dan, though, I think it’s unfortunate that these students who are asking probing questions and whose consciences have been pricked (in several directions) may not have tangible interpretive communities beyond the classroom that can help them work through these questions and connect them to action they find more meaningful or appropriate.

  3. Happy Meal for McActivist. Hahs! Good one.🙂

  4. Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick

    Following this discussion on various lists/boards/walls and I’m convinced that A) IC is providing a service by mobilizing youth to a sort of advocacy; B) IC, however, is doing a disservice to itself, supporters, and its own movement potential by not having a Big Mac (in Dan’s parlance) on offer.

    Groups like Oxfam, World Vision, etc have long used the electricity of current events to charge the batteries of long-term advocacy and service. Unfortunately, I’ve yet to see, in any of the discussions of IC’s role, that they are laying the groundwork for a more substantive critique of the Ugandan conflict, nor of the culture of militarism and war that underpins it.

    But none of this is new. I remember when these guys were undergrads with a video camera in San Diego. The critique was the same, and so was the enthusiasm. The question, in my mind at least, is what we have to show for it?

    Perhaps the answer is that some young people spun off into further advocacy, or into classes on social movements taught by more structurally attuned folks. So perhaps IC doesn’t offer the Big Mac, instead expecting more established groups (Amnesty Int’l, Sociology Depts) to pick up the category of committed folks who want to know more.

  5. Dan Myers

    I read the link Will provided, and while I don’t want to be too derogatory, I find that some of the lines of thinking therein to be pretty bankrupt. Some underlying messages in the posts are: (1) that if you aren’t engaged in big, world-changing action, then your action is worthless. (2) If your action doesn’t agree with some particular person’s agenda/interpretation, then it is worthless. (3) People who have lower levels of knowledge about events have no business being political actors. Unless we’re going to shut down democracy, that’s not a viable stance. We all have lower level of knowledge than SOMEONE else. Furthermore, raising awareness IS essential to action, isn’t it?

    To Matt, I would just say that I agree with your analysis, but just like everything else in life, it seems, activism is a numbers game. Sure, many (probably most) people are going to watch half the video, never do anything else, and move on with their lives. Others might simply realize a little bit more about how the world is interconnected. Some other are going to get more involved, or educate themselves more, or use it as an inspirational model to support other causes, If not worthwhile, those minority outcomes are at least interesting to understand in terms of mobilization processes in the new media era.

  6. Pingback: How Organizations (Might) Change Climate Policy | Mobilizing Ideas

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