The Value of a Slow Conversation: Moving Forward from #Kony2012

The attention of the social media world is like the eye of Mordor. (I’m an English nerd–bear with me.) For a few days, the world was watching with all of the fiery intensity of the giant orange eye in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie and talking about how we as Christians portray poverty. The twitter feed has been rapid. The blog posts have been enraged. The Facebook feed has been dizzying. We have talked about, around, over and through this whole issue and everyone has said their piece in time to be relevant. We have collectively turned our gaze on this conversation.

Source: Wikipedia.org, “Sauron”

But soon we will move on. With the insatiable energy of our newsspin cycle, we will seek out the next controversy or story to digest and discuss. We will burn our way through another issue without having really said very much.

The story will remain. Invisible Children was around before the Kony 2012 video–it was the last in a string of videos about the LRA and Uganda that have helped educate a generation of Christian college students and young adults on an issue that has  been going on for two decades. And hopefully they will still be around after this video. Who knows why this video and not their first, “Invisible Children,” or their others caught on with all of the burning intensity it did this week. Social media, like the eye of Sauron, is intense. It’s hard not to be consumed by that gaze.

We as Christians have been talking about poverty for years. The criticisms brought up this week about Kony 2012, while new to many, are certainly not new. Invisible Children often made videos that were as much about themselves as the people they were portraying. It was part of their voice and a way to connect with their audience. “Look at us, we’re just like you, cool hipster kids who want a make a difference in the world,” they argued effectively. It was being able to connect with them that made young Christian college students so engaged with their videos. It was their use of video of themselves as much as Ugandans, among other things, that raised concerns from development groups and other people on the ground about whether or not they were portraying the situation responsibly and ethically.

There are legitimate and real issues that need to be addressed about the way that Christians represent and view the poor. These have not been adequately discussed in the many, many posts and status updates and tweets with the hashtag #kony2012. These discussions take time to think through. So while social media burns on to its next topic, this seems like a great opportunity to launch a real and lasting discussion about this one.

I’m not sure what format I think this should take–I’m pretty late to the social media party. I’ve been really frustrated with the way that we talk about these issues in the past. I’ve been thinking through poverty and issues of representation for years, reading books and having in-depth conversations about postcolonialism and the West. It is one of the issues I’m writing a dissertation on. But I just started a blog a couple of months ago and I just this last weekend activated my Twitter account. After this Kony 2012 debate, I’m really glad because for the last several years, I’ve thought to myself, “You know what I would say…” and invented blog posts in my mind. This week, after this debate, I’m going to say some of the things I want to say about poverty and Christianity and responsible representation.

So if you came around looking for an adoption update or a post about Hill Tribers, stay put: I think the way we talk about the poor, orphans and widows, and (in one of our stock Christian phrases) “the least of these,” goes across a variety of conversations. Whether talking about adoption or fair trade or sex trafficking or mission trips, there are questions we should be asking and parameters we should be setting up. This conversation may take a while. It should. It is complexed, nuanced and crucial.

The worst thing that could come from #Kony2012 would be for this issue to burn up our desire to think through how we represent and discuss the poor. It’s important to change our viewpoint of what we mean when we say “the poor.” It’s critical to push past the argument, “Well, at least they did something” towards questions that address the issue of what happens when “helping” is instead harmful and degrading.  The goal of these kinds of debates is not to NOT help the poor, it’s to help the poor responsibly.

For the next few days, I’ll talk about how we can prepare ourselves to do that.

I know I’m not the only one–if you see a blog post that you think furthers this conversation in helpful ways, please leave a link in the comments section. I’m going to be asking some of my amazing and articulate friends to weigh in on this as well in the next several weeks, whether #kony2012 is still the most popular hasthag or not. Maybe this will turn into a real conversation, whether online or over coffee. That’s the best way to move forward after the gaze of the world has burned on. Before the next crisis in Christianity about poverty, let’s take this opportunity to talk and learn and listen. Slowly.

Edited to add: After I scheduled this blog post for this morning, I saw this great post by Brett McCracken that kind of says everything I wanted to say: http://stillsearching.wordpress.com/2012/03/17/in-praise-of-being-out-of-the-loop/. What else do you see online that furthers this conversation in helpful ways?