Each Wednesday in What Memes Mean, Kirk Bozeman questions the significance, humor, and subtexts of viral videos, memes, and other Internet fads.
The recent news of Jason Russell’s detainment by San Diego police caused some to respond with sorrow and others with delight. The cofounder of Invisible Children and creator of the massively viral #KONY2012 video was found causing public disturbance and detained for questioning, then taken to a medical center for treatment and care. The diagnosis of Russell’s strange behavior is “reactive psychosis,” a brief state of severely abnormal behavior brought on by major stress.
Whether gleefully or with heavy heart, one can’t help but conclude this incident is one of the continued results of the deep, biting backlash many have had to Invisible Children’s well-intentioned #KONY2012 campaign. Russell is obviously a highly sensitive and deeply empathetic person (founders of such organizations are and must be), and one can imagine the physical stress and psychological pain visited on a person of such temperament by the vitriol his efforts have received.
In my previous column, I discussed the healthy social justice awareness that the #KONY2012 vid has caused. But there is one more thing: Why do so many people hate #KONY2012, Jason Russell, and Invisible Children so much? And why so many gleeful responses to and snap judgments for a sad event such as Russell’s breakdown?
Here are a few personal thoughts, highly generalized (and perhaps a tad preachy):
While I’m not at all aligning myself with the whiny, self-conceived martyrdoms evangelicals like to set up for themselves (atheists do it too, by the way), I do believe that certain folks dislike Invisible Children in part because of their connections to and affiliations with evangelicalism. (That’s as far as I’ll go with that.)Others dislike #KONY2012 because they prefer to undermine the challenge of charity rather than accept it. Disregarding an organization or cause on the basis of cursory references to high-horse academic discussions of “advocacy vs. badvocacy” can easily release our mental pressure, relieving us of the cognitive dissonance of realizing just how little we care.
Still others are simply “jealous” of the fame and success of Invisible Children, and the #KONY2012 video campaign has been highly successful as memes go. One publication referred to it as “the most viral video of all time.” Many take to mocking famous persons and organizations (a common theme of many memes, actually) because doing so offers a sense of personal validation — the attention received simply by playing the contrarian. Thus a kind of “contrarian’s fame” is sought through attempting to trample or discount others who are actually successful.
Finally, a lot of folks dislike #KONY2012, Russell, and Invisible Children simply because we live in a deeply cynical era that prefers passivity, mockery, and self-aggrandizement to sincerity, agreement, and fruitful discussion. This deep immaturity in regard to loving our fellow man is fully evident on any message board or YouTube comment thread, and so it’s not surprising that people would respond this negatively to something like #KONY2012.
In closing, I have no problem conceding that there are likely legitimate reasons a person might disagree with Invisible Children’s mission and methods. And I have no desire to hamper or hinder helpful discussions of how compassion ought to be worked out and accomplished, so please, please, let these conversations continue — if they are fair, healthy, and beneficial. But if our culture as a whole is one whose “conversations” foster nervous breakdowns in influential social justice workers, I believe we have much more sin to root out in our own hearts than in any nonprofit organization’s budget statement.