Kony 2012 and the Golden Rule: How Do 'We' Tell 'Their' Story?
Whether as individuals or multi-million dollar Christian development organizations, we need to be accountable for how we speak about each other—particularly about those who have less power than we do.
Articulating principles of a Golden Rule for communication can help align our speaking well with our doing good, align our speaking justly with doing justice.
Principle 1: People need a clear, compelling next step
Leaving the strategy/policy debate aside, Kony 2012 did this very well. Providing a clear, simple, emotionally compelling next step that builds into a larger strategy is harder than it sounds. Child sponsorship remains popular because of how it shows the next step: Help this one child.
My colleagues and I sometimes get too muddled in program details. Speaking at a university, sometimes I've finished telling moving stories, but then failed to help students know what small step to take next. The next step is, after all, the most important one. (After reading some of the Invisible Children critiques, I wanted to ask: So as an American, is there anything I should do to help, or nothing—and if so, what?)
The standard for truth doesn't get lessened, but clear next steps are important.
Principle 2: The audience is who you're talking to—and who you're talking about
If you don't serve your audience, they won't serve others. What angle interests them? How will they relate? What questions will be in the back of their minds? How can you move their hearts and minds? Not asking these questions fails both the audience and the people you're trying to help.
But I think the audience must also be who you're speaking about, whether they're present or not, whether speaking about a homeless person who lives around the block or someone who speaks another language in an electricity-less village thousands of miles away.
Why? First, work for justice directly engages the issue of power and powerlessness. In our very telling of their stories, we must demonstrate justice. Storytelling is a power; we should acknowledge this. Justice, in part, means being accountable to people to whom we don't have to be accountable. After all, the stories are theirs.
Second, this approach works better long-term. How we tell stories influences how we decide strategy and what kinds of results are prioritized (if the story is about "our" goals and not "theirs," unhealthy pressure builds). With communication technology, there is also an increasing chance people are going to see how we're talking about them. Care in communication builds positively into relationships and work for justice. Overarching narratives influence real-world decisions.
Henri Nouwen wrote about the wisdom of taking one of the developmentally disabled people he worked with on speaking engagements. Because of distance and cost, it might not always be possible. Yet we should always consider the people we're trying to serve as also being in our audience.
Principle 3: Be virally prepared
Communication should always be done as though 100+ million people will watch or read it—and experts will dissect it. This shouldn't paralyze, just sensitize. Your story should not shatter into a million little pieces under scrutiny. A recent example was one of NPR's more popular episodes of This American Life, a critique of Apple Inc.'s labor in China, which had to be retracted after closer attention.