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Kony 2012 and Saying What You Mean

Kony 2012 has become the highest profile issue of international justice on social media by far. For those without a Facebook account, Kony 2012 is a slick 30-minute YouTube film about Joseph Kony, leader of the Lords Resistance Army. The video explicitly seeks to mobilise support for efforts to arrest Kony, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, particularly against children. As I type, the video, released Monday, is approaching 70 million views. The video has also attracted a fair share of criticism, much of which I’m not sure is honest.

Let me explain what I mean here by honest. If you were against something and wanted to convince others, what kind of arguments would you use? Some arguments will reflect the reasons why you really feel that way, others won’t. Some will persuade others to take your side on that issue, others won’t. The problem comes when the reason you feel a certain way isn’t a reason that would persuade others. Dan Sperber  and his collaborators have suggested that what we take to be ‘reasoning’ is not to arrive at the ‘right’ answer ourselves, but to persuade others. If this is right, as I believe it is, then faced with a choice between an argument that reflects the way you feel or an argument that will persuade others, you will often choose the latter. As such, arguments put forward will not always be what I mean by honest. I’m not suggesting that this should necessarily be a reason to take a different approach when analysing reasons, because the process of discussion may be the way that we test the genuineness of reasons. However, I do suggest that this is what is happening with much of the criticism of Kony 2012.

Some of the criticisms of Kony 2012 seem quite weak. Let me highlight a couple.

Under the headline ‘Solving War Crimes With Wristbands: The Arrogance of Kony 2012’, The Atlantic suggests that campaigns that focus on social media ‘absorb resources that could go toward more effective advocacy, and take up rhetorical space that could be used to develop more effective advocacy’ and also that treating awareness as a goal in an of itself ‘ultimately squanders political momentum that could be used to push for effective solutions.’ Similarly, under the title ‘The Worst Idea Ever’, the blog ‘Wronging Rights’ suggests that organisations like that behind Kony 2012 ‘not only take up resources that could be used to fund more intelligent advocacy, they take up rhetorical space that could be used to develop more intelligent advocacy.’ I’m not very convinced of either the ‘limited bucket’ or the ‘limited rhetorical space’ arguments. It seems to me that by gaining the attention of a massive audience that was not previously engaged with the issue, the video will attract previously untapped resources, and create a huge ‘rhetorical space’ that did not exist previously.

Foreign Policy heavily criticises the film for oversimplifying complicated issues, a criticism that seems misplaced given the avowed aim of the makers, set out at the outset of the film, to use social media to raise the issue. Of course a more nuanced explanation would have been possible, but it undoubtedly would have lessened the impact of the film.

In addition to what I see as the weakness of some of the arguments, there is also an interesting pattern. This is where somebody posts a long and diverse list of arguments that are all negative (or all positive). The previous Foreign Policy blog is a good example. Such a pattern suggests to me that the reasons that the criticisms put forward are not all honest reflections of the reasons their authors think the way they do (otherwise one would expect either a shorter, or a more balanced list of reasons).

I ought finally to suggest what I suspect to be the ‘honest’ reason behind much of the criticism. It may be this: much of the criticism comes from those working in international justice or related areas. While it’s easy to presume that the ends of the individuals reflect those of international justice, the reality is often somewhat different. Without denigrating the dedication of large numbers of people working in these areas, many, being human, have other more basic ends. Some, such as the desire for status, can lead to defensiveness when others seem to be surpassing their own efforts or taking over their turf. While this is somewhat speculative on my part, I suggest my suggestion is bolstered by the lack of alternatives that some critics put forward. Often, a blistering critique is followed by a somewhat lame claim that the situation is really ‘complicated’.

If, as suggested by Sperber and others, this public discussion process is the way that we arrive at better judgements, then the discussion that is taking place through social media should start to weed out some of the apparently plausible arguments currently in circulation.

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9 Comment on this post

  1. So "I know it's true because I saw it on the Internet" is a good argument after all, and the experts among us who spend lifetimes thinking about complex problems (East African development in this case) are just rent-seekers protecting their patch. This kind of argument is beatifully lawyerly – it makes an unfalsifiable claim about the motivations of "expert" communities ("desire for status"… turf-protection) and thus hints that development experts are not to be trusted on issues like this. We should instead, prefer to believe twenty year olds with plastic bangles who've become experts by clicking a link on facebook.

    It's hard to know where to begin with this sort of argument because it's the sort of unfalsifiable claim that Popper warned us about, but let me try to make three points: (1) It's revealing that we only take this approach with things we don't (empirically) care about, such as development policy and climate change, and that we come to our senses when things matter, such as surgery and commercial aviation. There we regard "expert" motivation as benign (or, at worst, disinterested). (2) We've had this for over a decade in climate change from climate skeptics, who explain away expert views by claiming we're all rent-seeking. We also have the 20 year olds in plastic bangles thing, though from a different angle than the (usually elderly) skeptics. Fortunately, the governments making deals treat both as theatre groups, and disregard their views. (3) Complex issues tend to be, well, complex, and "blistering critiques" are necessarily simple. It may be rhetorically ineffective ("lame") to point out that "the situation is complicated" but that does not mean it is untrue or irrelevant. Bad policy often arises from simple ideas that are inappropriate in a complex world – eg "tax the rich" and "slash benefits" are slogans, not welfare-enhancing policies. So I guess I think you're confusing effective public rhetoric with sensible policy responses.

  2. I think it's a good article too. I see defensiveness around me all the time, so Paul's speculative explanation seems eminently plausible to me.

    It was not always the case that "expert" surgeons could be trusted. Years of public scrutiny and regulation have ensured that by now they can, by and large. Ditto for commercial aviation (where the "experts" involved are frequently computers). For issues that don't benefit from the same degree of public scrutiny, there is ample reason to distrust experts, especially when they are jealously criticism attention-grabbing new approaches. I've seen this happen a lot.

    It can be galling, of course, because so often the non-expert criticism of experts takes extreme and ignorance-based forms, with special interest groups deploying communications resources to swing the debate in their favour. But a brief reflection on the origins of the financial crisis is enough to remind us of the extent to which so-called "experts" can be nothing more than adherents to raved formulas and theories that have not been properly reality-checked, or which don't take account of black swans or new developments.

    In this case, after the initial criticism the experts will doubtless adapt their ways (and claim it was their idea all along).

  3. Peter: I'm not arguing for uncritical acceptance of expert views, and of course there are often a diversity of these (especially in international development). And I do see rent-seeking and self-justification in climate policy (esp in Europe, where I've spent most of my career). But that doesn't mean that all views are of equal plausibility. And the fact that experts are sometimes wrong doesn't mean that criticism from people who've clicked a link on facebook is informed, or has a high chance of being true. Even if criticisms are justified, it's one thing to criticse; another to solve problems. Everyone is wise after the event about the fiscal crisis, but that doesn't mean that popular rhetoric surrounding, eg the Occupy movement** is likely to lead to constructive regulation of the financial sector. It may bring sustained pressure to address some concerns, but that's not the same as the construction of informed, (economically, politically, socially, etc) sustainable policy. We can all deplore warlords, climate change, ponzi schemes, etc. It's another thing to know how to design effective, sustainable policies that address the drivers of these pathologies.

    **Especially in view of the lack of intellectual coherence of this movement.

    I kind of worry about this current in current public debate – anti-elitism is everywhere. There are forms of anti-elitism I relate to and endorse. The whole born-to-rule thing about Oxford left me cold. [But it doesn't exist in the form everyone pretends – it's changed its stripes. These days the middle-class, privately educated people who seem to travel faster than the rest of us just sing a new tune, among the elements of which is a repudiation of the advantages that brought them their influence.*** But note they never repudiate that influence – they just contort themselves into strange shapes to preserve their "right" to tell you what to do, while excoriating the institutions that imbued that confidence in them.] But the other form of anti-elitism I see – the one that troubles me – is actually seems like taking a dubious position in the permanent tension between democratic preference and expert opinion. This is the strand of belief that happily dismisses any expert criticism of one's position as being the product of small-mindedness, or rent-seeking, or some other failing. Now that relativism is commonplace, and an acceptable strategy in many places, it is deployed everywhere, as though it were universally applicable. Which it isn't.

    ***See, for instance, David Cameron's disingenuous comments on Oxford University, or the same sort of thing from George Monbiot. In both cases they blame the institutions in which they were participated for the privilege from which they benefitted. They don't repudiate the privilege – which might involve shutting up and perhaps playing a humbler role – they repudiate the institutions which shaped them instead. "It wasn't me, bruv, it was my school. Blame it on the Man, not me – I hate Him too." A student I know recently made two facebook posts back-to-back, competely unselfconsciously: one was celebrating a letter by a young woman being rude about Oxford elitism; the next was asking his friends who he should hang out with in Davos. You get the idea.

    1. Dave, yes I can sympathise and agree with a lot of that. But Paul's article seemed to be making a different point, not incompatible with your reflections. Until yesterday evening over dinner with friends I was blissfully unaware of this latest phenomenon, but from Paul's article it appears it's the experts that are doing the criticising, while the film is trying to mobilise support. One of the debates – again I'm basing this purely on Paul's article – appears to be whether such initiatives deflect resources from more promising avenues or rather help to mobilise greater public support and resources, which the experts themselves can then use and channel, but often don't out of excessive attachment to processes and procedures that they've developed over the years.

      I think there's also an important distinction to be made between movements such as Occupy and Indignados on the one hand, and the distrust of "expert" opinion generally. Yes the Occupiers lack intellectual coherence, but they share an anger and non-acceptance of the status quo that, again, could be channelled in a very positive direction. At least it is youth getting politically engaged, and on the whole in a relatively sane way: one has the sense that (unlike the Tea Partiers) they are angry at more or less the right things. I guess I see Kony2012 in a similar light. As for expert opinion, perhaps the conclusion is that experts need to become far better at effective communication, instead of whining when someone else does a good job at it?

  4. Dear Dave and Peter, it's nice to see such interesting comments over breakfast on a Sunday morning! Dave, let me try to respond to your points by putting my argument in another way:

    Kony 2012 has galvanised a huge amount of public interest and support that did not previously exist. Of course, this is amongst the general public. Others already working on issues of international justice will have expertise which could be of great benefit both to the public and other experts alike in deciding how bring Joseph Kony to justice. An issue arises when participants in the debate have other agendas. All of us have a wide range of agendas, whether we admit to them or not, and sometimes they can conflict. It can be difficult for the public to assess the claims of experts on their merits because the public will always not have the expertise to do so. So how might this problem be overcome? Though you suggest that my arguments are unfalsifiable, I suggest that the real issue is whether or not it is possible to show that the arguments put forward by experts are falsifiable, or, as I put it, whether they are honest in that they are the genuine reasons that motivate the expert to hold that opinion. I suggest that we can, at least in principle. You, I, and Peter are a small contribution to that process currently taking place.

    While none of the following reasons are knock-down arguments on their own, I suggest that they do contribute towards identifying the honest motivations: (1) arguments that seem very weak, or wrong, such as the 'limited bucket' or the 'limited rhetorical space' arguments; (2) misrepresenting Kony 2012, such as claiming that it is an oversimplification or is publicity for its own sake; (3) throwing the kitchen sink of negative arguments, as the Atlantic seems to have done; (4) predictable defensiveness when somebody else seems to be contributing towards a goal far more successfully; and (5) a lack of an alternative approach, or alternatively an explanation of why nothing should be done, even in a summary form.

    I am certainly not suggesting that all experts are not honest in the way that I have defined it (many, in fact, are broadly supportive), but I do think my argument accounts for a proportion of the criticism.

    I take your point about anti-elitism, but think this also fits into a similar pattern, namely that it is equally not honest to denigrate an expert simply on the basis that you disagree with the action that that expert recommends, rather then when you have well founded doubts about that expert's expertise or honesty. Along these lines, I saw a great headline in The Daily Mail in response to expert comments about the risks of ecstasy being exaggerated. It went something along the lines of 'Just Who Do These "EXPERTS" Think They Are?!'

    1. Indeed, and while The Daily Mail doubtless made that comment because it disagreed with what the experts were claiming (or rather, even more dishonestly, saw an opportunity to increase sales and consolidate the papers editorial positioning by pretending to disagree), there are also those who denigrate experts simply because they dislike or are jealous of them. This is an even purer, and arguably more pernicious, form of anti-elitism (or rather "anti-expertism", since of course experts are only one kind of elite, and some – such as Noam Chomsky for example – are often the scourge of elites).

    2. Hi Paul,

      Thanks for the reply. I think part of the issue is how constructive a flood of new interest can be (esp when informed from only one perspective). I agree when something unquestionably bad has happened – massacre at Srebrenica, etc – this flood of interest is important, even vital in galvanising political will to do the right thing. And attempts to deflect attention/explain away those sorts of events by "experts" are often, perhaps usually, dubious.

      But lots of issues are actually quite delicate and sensitive, and don't obviously benefit from a glare of publicity. Would (eg) Northern Ireland's peace process have been helped by a viral American video excoriating one side or the other? Climate change is an issue where negotiators would almost certainly benefit from more peace and quiet rather than from even more partisan hype from facebook clickers and 20 year-old bangle wearers. Trade negotiations, too, are almost certainly not helped by lots of people who don't understand economics shouting loudly about, well, economics. etc. It's just not obvious to me that people "getting involved" without first becoming literate about an issue is not obviously of wide social benefit.

      Paul wrote: "An issue arises when participants in the debate have other agendas. All of us have a wide range of agendas, whether we admit to them or not, and sometimes they can conflict. It can be difficult for the public to assess the claims of experts on their merits because the public will always not have the expertise to do so. So how might this problem be overcome?"

      This reminds me a lot of the book _The Honest Broker_ by Roger Pielke Jr, which basically makes a 2×2 matrix for the categorisation of scientists as they mix with policy. His approach is to ask questions about the nature of the issue at hand, rather than to spotlight the expert. The question is: "is this issue characterised by both low values consensus and high uncertainty? If the answer is "yes" then he focuses on whether the expert is reducing the number of options before the decision makers – if so then he calls that expert an "issue advocate" if they are not but rather they are helping the decision maker understand the choices in front of them then they are an "honest broker". It's a nice, simple scheme. It's not perfect, obviously, but it is interesting and does help navigate (at least some parts of) the space you're sketching out. Definitely worth a read.

      Peter wrote: "At least it is youth getting politically engaged**, and on the whole in a relatively sane way: one has the sense that (unlike the Tea Partiers) they are angry at more or less the right things." I find this fascinating, because to me they're quite similar movements, at least in respect of their attitudes to elites. The TP and Occupy people are both very angry with "elites", often the same ones, about the same things: in both cases they (protestors) feel disempowered and shut out of important political processes, that these processes favour essentially hereditary elites. In the space we're talking about here, they're quite similar – both groups are hostile to expert/privileged arrogation of political and economic processes. And both are very broad – unhelpfully broad – warehouses for a whole range of grievances, and lack even the organisational structures around which a coherent set of views could accrete. Their party affiliations and cultural beliefs may be different, but vis a vis "elites" they sound pretty similar to me. They're both basically grievance movements who lament, inter alia, the loss of social mobility. They're angry and they want you to know it. But they don't actually have a plan. Identifying a core "they" is elusive, too, in view of the nebulous nature of the movements. So I'd say aside from completely hating each other, they're not so different.

      **I don't see why we should be ageist about this. I can't see an argument for why having one more young person politically involved would be of greater that one more old or middle-aged person involved, ceteris paribus. Surely the conditions for evaluating their contributions are pretty independent of age?

      1. D'oh! Should read "It’s just not obvious to me that people "getting involved" without first becoming literate about an issue is of wide social benefit."

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