On Complexity, Awareness, and Social Action
March 8, 2012 6 Comments
I’m an ethicist. I make a living exploring moral ambiguity and the complexity of social issues. I try and teach my students to live in a gray rather than a black and white world. My vocation includes pushing against too easy analyses of social problems that oversimplify complex issues and, thus, misdiagnosis both the causes and solutions of such issues.
I’m also an activist. I want to make change happen. I desire a more just and peaceful world and know that creating that kind of world requires that I and others do something. Change requires action. However, we all know that well-intentioned action can be ill-informed and create changes for the worse rather than better.
Finally, I’m married to a nonprofit marketing professional. She has taught me much about how people think. And one hard and fast rule of nonprofit marketing is that people support causes, by donating time or money, on a greater basis when they can connect with the story of one person rather than with statistics and policy papers. Look, people are, generally speaking, more motivated by emotion than by reason. Simple analyses and simple solutions mobilize masses of people quicker than complexity and moral ambiguity. This is how we are wired. Most people simply can’t live in the gray.
I’ve recently had multiple conversations on these issues. One theme consistently raised by my students this semester is that social analysis can become so complex, and never-ending, that it can become paralyzing. One can quickly feel the desire to “throw one’s hands up” and do nothing because determining the right thing to do can be so difficult. However, the more they’ve used the tools of social analysis they’ve also become convinced that simple analyses don’t usually lead to long-term change for the better.
Two days ago I had a twitter conversation with an NGO worker who said,
Yesterday I had multiple conversations lamenting the complexity of the new campaign, “Kony2012,” by Invisible Children. And there were other vehement responses to the multiple criticisms of the campaign that were more vehemently angry at people raising questions. They accused people of being jealous of Invisible Children’s success, being haters, and encouraged them to “just do good and shut up.”
See, if Invisible Children is good at anything they are good at simplifying a complex social situation in such a way as to mobilize people, especially young adults. Their most recent campaign is a case study in telling a compelling story that encourages people to become a part of the story rather than spouting facts and figures that only experts have the time to digest. This is not a criticism – they are quite skilled in mobilizing people. It is still to be seen if they will mobilize people to do more than share links to a video on twitter and facebook, but I don’t see why they won’t have masses of people papering the streets with photos of Joseph Kony on April 20.
However, raising awareness and mobilizing people for awareness raising isn’t an intrinsic good. It is a means to an end. More awareness of an issue isn’t a good thing if it’s “bad” awareness. It’s not enough to “do good and shut up” because, as has been documented multiple times, helping often hurts. And when the end an organization is espousing includes international military intervention in a protracted war a deep analysis of the means and ends is warranted.
Now, I know good people who are committed to the people of northern Uganda, as well as the DRC, who have spent years devoted to these issues who fall on both sides of the fence. Some think the route espoused by Invisible Children is the only option left on the table. Others think it’s a misguided effort. Some find it misguided because they don’t think such an action will help. Others find it misguided because they believe Invisible Children has simplified and misrepresented information to a point that goes beyond simple mobilization to being in itself harmful.
I tend to lean toward thinking that it’s likely such action won’t actually help anything, but I’m not advocating for any of the three positions. What I am advocating for is that before you take action you dig deeply into the issue before pushing people with political power to use international force in a nation and continent not your own. That is not a flippant decision to make. And to do so based on emotion or slick marketing is socially irresponsible. You may decide, as other thoughtful people have, that doing so is what is necessary, but please do so realizing that it should be a last resort.
It is one thing to “just do something” when the issue is cleaning up the park down the street. It’s another thing when it involves a global effort to to spend millions, if not billions, of dollars to hunt down a single person, especially when its likely that effort will harm many other persons. On that level telling people to “do good and shut up” is morally irresponsible.
I’m an academic and an activist. I see virtues in both complexifying and simplifying social issues to inform social change. But I will continue to insist that any action is not inherently good action. There is bad action, and it is a lapse of moral judgment to do bad things for good reasons when the resources to make better decisions about which actions to take are available. Look – Invisible Children wants folks to mobilize on April 20. That gives you plenty of time to do background research, many resources are listed here, before deciding whether to join them or not.
I hear the cries of those who want academics to help them “simplify better.” Unfortunately, I don’t know how to do so in this situation. This situation calls for, insists upon, complexity and more complexity. If that is paralyzing for some, or many, I am sorry, but I don’t know any other way to be morally responsible in a situation like this. Sometimes complexity is the enemy of the good and sometimes simplicity is. In this situation I think what we need is not academics who “simplify better” but activists who “complexify better.”
*Update: Another post addressing similar issues, but advocates the “Golden Rule” of advocacy: Simplify, but don’t distort.