As anyone on social networks knows, the Internet is full of videos of people dumping buckets of ice water on their heads to support the ALS Association, an organization that advocate for issues related to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease). As part of the Challenge, the participants nominate the next water dumpers who then get to nominate the ones after that. The question I want to ask is whether or not someone is morally obligated to accept the Challenge, or whether they can reject it and still be considered a good person.
The Ice Bucket campaign has been curious to watch because it started as a choice: people were challenged to either donate money or dump water on their heads. Getting doused was supposed to be a punishment for being selfish. But now, presumably, people are doing both and drenching themselves to show that they donated. Being frozen has become a reward for doing something charitable.
It would be interesting to know how many people post videos without actually donating. I don’t see anyone following the original instructions, accepting the ice bath and then taunting the ALS Association with the money they didn’t send. But the skeptic in me doesn’t believe that everyone is following through. So, there is an inherent tension in the Challenge. People are being publicly shamed for not claiming to send money, while not verifying that they did. In this case, the easiest way to get community acceptance is to lie.
There are, I think, several ways to think about the Ice Bucket Challenge. First, we can assume it is about awareness. The attention this has brought the organization has got to be overwhelming and gratifying. However, like the myriad of people who avoid gluten without having any idea what gluten is or does, most of the people who freeze themselves will continue to be ignorant of the nature and effects of ALS. They won’t know anything more about the disease itself, no matter how much they donate. So, as a tool of awareness, the campaign fails, unless it’s singular goal is to raise money. If that’s the case, it has been a tremendous success, albeit it a shallow one.
The problem for me is that the campaign relies on a particularly public form of peer pressure; it publicly guilts everyone into donating, independent of whether someone can or should. (How many people are going to be mad at me for just questioning the challenge on this blog?) The nomination process suggests that anyone who doesn’t donate is selfish, but there are many good reasons not to. Some people can’t afford it. Others support different charities. And frankly, many people who will choose to donate will do so quietly, following the Gospel’s assertion that calling attention to your good deed makes you both a hypocrite and denies you access into heaven (Matthew 6:1-2). But under the current exhibitionist nature of the Ice Bucket Challenge, these donations don’t count.
Peer pressure is a funny thing. We hate it when it supports something we don’t like—slut-shaming is Facebook’s favorite example—but love it when it supports something we do, like discouraging people from saying racist things. In other words, it appears morally neutral, but it’s not, because it substitutes shame and popularity for reason and critical thinking. In the end, supporting the ALS Association may be a good thing to do if you understand and support it’s goals, and if you can and want to donate, but doing so just because others dare you to do so, seems like bad motivation. Even a triple dog dare.
I don’t mean to suggest that people shouldn’t donate to the ALS Association if they want to; it’s for a good cause and the Ice Bucket Challenge is clearly intended to be in good fun. But a marketing campaign can’t make something obligatory; it can only make it desirable.
But for those who think I’m wrong, for those who think that when you are nominated you have to donate, I’d like to offer my own challenge: either send me a video of you dancing naked or donate money to Why? Radio. I suspect virtually everyone would rather send the money, but I have no objection to you doing both. Send the video to email@example.com., but donate the money here. Why? Radio can certainly use it. Like the ALS Association, we are tax deductible and entirely self-supporting