Each Wednesday in What Memes Mean, Kirk Bozeman questions the significance, humor, and subtexts of viral videos, memes, and other Internet fads.

A few years ago, a ragtag documentary titled Invisible Children made the rounds among college ministries and churches, and I attended a viewing at the time. This was right on the cusp of Africa-awareness, just before the general public began to learn about the serious social issues occurring on the continent. The film struck a chord, spawning an impassioned grassroots movement of the same name (as often happens) centering around the video’s central issue: the abduction of children into child armies on the African continent. I, for one, was affected and have thus always had an affinity for the organization (full disclosure).

Recently, the organization posted a video to the ‘net that has gone viral to the extreme. There’s hardly need to mention it: In the past few weeks, most of us have taken 30 minutes out of a day (the length of an entire episode of 30 Rock or The Big Bang Theory) to voluntarily watch and re-post a video about an issue of social justice (which is pretty amazing in itself). Created by filmmaker and organization founder Jason Russell, the video relates the story of Joseph Kony, a man who has kidnapped and enslaved upwards of 30,000 children in the past 20 years or more under the banner of the “Lord’s Resistance Army,” and attempts to call us to action through a number of (mostly viral) means.

And, of course, there has been much, much backlash. I personally take the stance that the video was done to create awareness, not provide final resolution, and should be dealt with as such — so I think we should see this video as a very good thing. Russell has already been able to do something most folks of his ilk are never able to do — he got everybody seriously talking about social justice.

Sometimes this talking has become a discussion of the purpose of nonprofits and their budgetary practices, or a discussion of the public’s ignorance and avoidance of already-existing social justice issues, or maybe how social justice can even be meaningfully pursued by (so-called) rich, comfortable, entitled Westerners. And at its most serious, it has raised the question of whether (or how) government and military can (or should) get involved. This talking is taking different forms, but it’s seriously occurring. Russell is making us face issues most of us would prefer to remain ignorant of.

And at the end of the day, the harrowing injustice that this video presents to the world trumps all critics and contrarians to some extent; everyone will admit to that. Even the most hardened pragmatic ethicist feels ire over this: For heaven’s sake, there is a person in the world kidnapping children and making them into killers and sex slaves. Solving the problem (atrocity) absolutely requires much, much further discussion (leading to action), but we certainly weren’t discussing any of this a month ago. And we will certainly find it hard to forget — this time the world of meme has imprinted on us a bit deeper than usual.

What really interests me: I wonder if in a decade or so some brilliant leader of another new, meaningful, effective nonprofit organization, deeply concerned with taking down some other form of social injustice, states in an interview, “I didn’t care about any this stuff until my friends and I watched that Kony video in college, you know?” Social justice has to start somewhere, maybe even with a video intentionally crafted to hijack the vehicle of meme for grander ends. I, for one, at least think it’s worth a shot.


1 Comment

  1. Kirk,

    I can appreciate your affinity for Invisible Children and groups who try to fix the ills of this world for they keep my flickering hope in humanity alive for just a while longer.

    However, I have to ask how the idea of “hijack[ing] the vehicle of meme” to advance social justice is not just stigma-free rephrasing of the word propaganda?

    (Please note that my question is not asked in an inflammatory tone, but rather in the most conversational of tones in an attempt to spark an engaging dialogue about a very contentious topic.)

    – Michael

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