Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Are we morally obligated to accept the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge?


(Video has NSFW language.)


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 ask@pqed.org, but donate the money here. Why? Radio can certainly use it. Like the ALS Association, we are tax deductible and entirely self-supporting

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8 comments:

  1. Via Request, I'll post my comment here as well:
    That was fascinating. No, we aren't, and those are great points, both the point about peer pressure working both ways and versus critical thinking and reasoning, and about whether it works for *actual* awareness and understanding of conditions. I can't donate nor can I do the ice bucket dealio, so I feel no obligation, though I haven't been challenged and doubt anyone would. Many of the young adults I know are similarly poor/struggling and quite a number have no interest in being on the internet in a video, and so no reason to do the challenge. Frankly I don't want to be in a video either, all nerve-temperature-pain issues aside.

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  2. I have actually been challenged and have no desire to either take the challenge or donate. Not that I do not want to help ALS patients or be a compassionate person, but because I find most professional charities ineffective. I would much rather give 4 people $25.00 each to help with their finances who have ALS than to donate to a fund that spends a more than half of their "revenue" on administration, fundraising, and "public education." This type of spending is typical of big charities but most people are not aware of it. Charity really begins at home but, unfortunately, you can't get popular on Facebook by helping your elderly parents clean their home or weed their garden.

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  3. None of us are obligated to do anything regarding our own bodies, other than maintain their upkeep as we see fit. If I don't want to pour a bucket of ice over my head, that is my right.

    I don't respond well to pressure to conform, I tell you what...

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  4. I was "nominated" today by a cousin on FB, and it made me uneasy. I give to many charities and would be happy to do so for this one but I don't want to play a stupid game and I don't like being called out. It bothers me that public shaming is the mechanism - what about those who get nominated who simply can't afford to donate? I also wonder how many people just miss the point of this and think it's just about an ice bucket prank. I'm also bothered that of all the posts I see about this on Facebook, not one had a link to the donation site, or to the ALS website where the challenge is described. So, I decided to accept the challenge and donate, but politely decline the ice bucket. And I did not tag anyone on Facebook, but instead offered the link to the ALS site and encouraged those of my friends who were interested and able to consider donating.

    And to Anonymous above, I checked the charity navigator site on the ALS Association before I donated, and I question your assertion that over half of their revenue goes to OH. They have 11% administrative, 16.5% fundraising expenses (assume this is before all of the "free" fundraising being done on their behalf with the ice buckets), and they have a 90.73/100 overall score (4 stars). Pretty damned respectable.

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  5. Just got a call from my son. He is a poor (scholarship) kid at a school where $100 is not much of a problem for most. He just got called out very publicly at his college. Both his father and I are disabled He works hard for every dime he has because we can not give him any money. He should not have to apologize for being poor. Incidentally, one of the scholarships he received was for his leadership roll in a group that works with people with disabilities.

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  6. Donate in secret. Dont be a hypocrite.

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