Wednesday, 3 September 2014

ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge: Charity and Hypocrisy

Take this as a renounciation of my title of Ferocious Resistor of Daft Trends. I kept my head down and made concerned noises about the Neknominations last year, snurfled wryly to myself throughout the No Make-Up Selfies of this spring, and while I indulged my self-congratulatory nodes on donating blood that year, generally made it my mission to avoid all the trends demanding some expository mention on social media for the sake of a cause.

. . . Until last week. When my brother tipped a bucket of icy-cold water over my head, breaking me off from the punchline of my monologue and leaving me a wheezing, squeaking mess.

As I wrote on YouTube upon upload: bandwagon hooooooooo!

The ALS ice-bucket challenge has come under a lot of fire of late; over people swapping out the charity in question for others, for the 'waste of water', and more recently for the exorbitant salaries that some of the donations have been paying all along. These could all be a blog post in their own right, but I'm going to tackle the biggest and most frequent of them.

"You shouldn't jump on a bandwagon for charity. Just give and get on with your life, you egotistical waste of space!"

Perhaps I overdramatise a bit, but I've been seeing that message in a variety of forms across every platform ever since the challenge started attracting the likes of Bill Gates and Angelina Jolie to the ranks of participants.

To those people: get your heads out of the sand, and realise you're flogging a dead horse.

Empty stunts for charity, some say, are but another symptom of the world's self-paralyzing selfishness, that do nothing but undermine the cause and intent of charity by making it an opportunity to show what a wonderful person you are. If you want to be charitable, they say, just give to charity and don't go parading yourself all over social media like you're Mother Teresa come again.

. . . And then these same people pledge their support to charity runs, skydives, cross-country hikes and bikes and marches, applauding the participants as selfless, wonderful human beings who deserve all the accolades in the world.

Now, there is a big difference between cycling from Land's End to John O'Groats with nothing but a rucksack full of granola bars and enduring the momentary nastiness of being covered in cold water. However, the hypocrisy of the line being drawn between the two is something that, I think, should not and cannot go unaddressed.

The ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge is not supposed to be a grand gesture of your will to do good in the world. It's something small, easy, and worthwhile for the ordinary Jack and Jill to do, to get our attention and give us a little bit of instigation to put money toward something. Charity is not something that is always the top priority of your ordinary human who's balancing bills and family and education and a personal life. Most people don't have the time, fitness, or touch of altruistic madness that inspires great acts by one person to raise thousands on their own shoulders.

The ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge is not just there to gain money. It's also there to raise awareness. It's there to be eye-catching, accessible, and just silly enough that you think "you know what, I'll give that a go". As a bonus, we know that we're doing something silly and fun that makes us part of a bigger collective of people who have all put a little bit towards doing something good for other people.

After all, fundamentally we give to charity because it makes us feel good. We like to know we are putting something toward the good of the world, particularly if it is something close to our hearts. Even if you only go and pop in a cheque for £10 with the local animal shelter every week, you go home with a sense of quiet achievement that you have done something extra for something good.

The difference between that and the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is that, suddenly, everyone is doing it. There's no longer that sense of "yes, I did something good because I chose to" that makes you feel especially good about yourself over other people. Suddenly, you are but one of millions, and the gesture seems to have lost its resonance. It doesn't mean anything if it's just something everyone's doing, does it?

Wrong. It means just the same to the people on the receiving end of that treatment, however many people are providing for it. The only difference is that you do not get that quiet feeling of doing something more than anyone else, and don't get the buzz of individual charity because of it.

I'm not saying this to attack anyone who doesn't like the Ice-Bucket Challenge, or the trend behind it. There are issues with a campaign like this, as there are with everything, and they are most certainly worth pointing out and tackling.

But if you're going to write another angry letter to the Telegraph, or another snarky Facebook status, or a ranty un-tagged post on your Tumblr, please don't waste your time blaming the Ice-Bucket Challenge for being everything that's wrong with the world.

~ Charley R

P.S. - All you unsuspecting folk who clicked on that video . . . gotcha!


  1. I'll just pretend I didn't watch the video. ;))

    I think the ice bucket challenge has been spectacularly useful to get people to know what ALS is. I didn't know. Well I did know what Motor Neuron's disease was, but I didn't know ALS is the same thing. So therefore I googled and educated myself. THAT'S GOOD! The ice bucket challenge is definitely raising awareness, I reckon.

    1. That it has! And I know a lot of figures have come through showing the charity was doing just fine before, but y'know what? Who cares. Money's money. Let's cure stuff. Just for once let's do something good for humanity.

  2. I'll admit, I don't have more than a vague impression of the controversy of this challenge; however, I think that people who criticize these campaigns on the grounds that you shouldn't make a big deal about charity seem to be forgetting a key point. You're right--it's not just about raising funds, although that's certainly a main focus; it's also about raising awareness. And the fact is, an organization looking to raise money and/or awareness is much more likely to garner donations and attention if they're engaging the public in a fun, sort of silly but also meaningful campaign. There are certainly bound to be flaws in any kind of public movement, but generally I don't think that raising awareness for a charitable cause is one of them.

    (PS Hi, I'm back in the blogging world!! :D I've got a new blog (self-hosted on Wordpress) called Paper Daydreams if you want to check it out. Also, I totally haven't forgotten your last email and will reply soon!)