Lou Gehrig’s Disease is horrible; on this everyone agrees. And anything that might hasten the development of treatments or even a cure is inarguably worth supporting. But.
That damned ice bucket challenge. Celebrities, athletes, business executives, that annoying self-promotional person in your Facebook network —they’ve all embraced the charity campaign, becoming particularly inescapable in the last month. And it’s worked, with the ALS Association reporting a more-than-tenfold increase in donations since the campaign took off, yielding over $30 million in proceeds. [Update: Felix Salmon makes a credible case for donations reaching $100 million.]
It’s extraordinarily rare to see many people publicly criticizing a charity campaign, given the risks of being seen as heartless or obnoxious. That’s especially true given the record-breaking success of the ice bucket challenge. Yet many reasonable, caring people have voiced some skepticism or concern about the particulars of this charity effort. Something about the way the ice bucket challenge has taken off rubbed many of us the wrong way, even as we’ve been pleased by its success.
In the interest of understanding how even an undeniably meritorious effort could grate on the sensibilities of good people, I solicited specific reasons that the ice bucket challenge was annoying. Dozens of people replied, offering complaints that fit neatly into a few different (presumably not ice-filled) buckets. They are presented here, sorted from least legitimate to most legitimate.
It’s getting out of giving
At least in its most common incarnations, the premise of the ice bucket challenge was that the participants were dumping ice on their heads to avoid donating to the cause. Now, the majority of extremely wealthy people who have done the challenge have chosen both to dump ice on their heads and to donate to the cause. But the setup being anti-charity stuck in many people’s minds as a fairly offensive premise. This objection seems a bit more dubious, given that nobody is actually using the challenge as an excuse not to give to the cause, but it certainly helped color the conversation for those who were already skeptical.
Charity Ought Not Be Public
That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.
That exhortation to give in private was courtesy of Aaron Williamson, epitomizing this class of objections.
Annoyance at the Participants
The rich are, of course, constant and often worthy targets of our scorn. And when they do anything to advertise themselves as being paragons of virtue, that’s a quick road to opprobrium. Even worse is when we combine that with egotistical celebrities nakedly expressing self-regard, thanking themselves for their own generosity. Rising naturally from the earlier objections to any public charity are even more strident objections to hyper-public charity.
Objecting to the Manipulation
When a friend or colleague publicly asks one to participate in a charity effort, it’s of course a deeply coercive action. There’s no suitable response other than yes, unless one is willing to look insensitive or cruel in public.
The Insensitivity of Mirth
Because ALS is a brutal, exhausting disease that ravages both those who are afflicted as well as their families and loved ones, the lighthearted tone of many videos from the challenge seemed tone-deaf. This becomes doubly true when so many on social media this week have been focused on profoundly troubling events around the world, from Missouri to Syria.
No real focus on ALS
One of the most pervasive threads of criticism is that the participants seemed largely disconnected from harsh reality of ALS, saying almost nothing about the disease, the Association dedicated to helping those with the disease, or even where people watching the video could choose to donate themselves.
Fundamental Funding Problems Are More Important
The most compelling, inarguable justification for objecting to the ice bucket challenge is that it shouldn’t be necessary in the first place. As many have pointed out, many elected officials who were willing to perform the stunt in ostensible solidarity with people who have ALS were also willing to cut funding to fight the disease.
Surprisingly, this wasn’t one of the most popularly-articulated reasons for objecting to this viral campaign. But it is clearly the one which bears the most mention, and it’s well worth reckoning with the serious issue of how our society will fund basic research on enormously devastating diseases.
How to address ALS
This final focus on the funding and research about the disease is the point most often overlooked in extremely viral online campaigns — because it leads to the sort of complexity that isn’t very much fun to share on Facebook.
But many charities that have been fortunate enough to experience a surge of online donations have also struggled with the after-effects. Like the lottery winners who, unaccustomed to managing wealth, find themselves broke a few years later, very few small non-profits have the skill to manage an onrush of funding that is both unexpected and unrepeatable. In the best case, they might be able to create an endowment that will yield a modest but significant annual return in the future. Those aren’t the kind of results that will get celebrities posting on YouTube, meaningful though they may be.
And for those of us not directly impacted by ALS, participating in these sorts of campaigns, rather than voting for broader medical research or supporting more substantive funding, can lead to an even more serious issue. Online campaigns are very effective in encouraging moral licensing, that phenomenon where we feel we’ve “scratched our itch” in regard to charity, and then give ourselves permission to be less charitable overall.
The most fundamental issue raised by the success of the ice bucket challenge is that ALS is an incredibly difficult disease to live with, and one that has seen few significant advances in its treatment. There is no cure. These realities are not going to change without an ongoing, extended, significant engagement by professionals who are dedicated to making progress through research.
We should never give in to cynicism, and we shouldn’t be afraid to participate in campaigns that are for a good cause. But it’s just as important we listen to the skeptics and the critics over the long run. Because ALS will be with us for a long time, but the gimmick in these videos is never going to work again.
Photo credit: Doc Searls