Challenge Accepted

The ice bucket will not kick the bucket.

It first took social media by storm sometime in mid-July, and now here in the final week of August, it is still going strong.  It has been called the “Harlem Shake” of 2014, although even that meme did not boast quite as much staying power as this one.

What’s the secret?  That’s an easy one.  It’s the way that it seamlessly combines two of Americans’ favorite pastimes in the Internet age:  Doing good deeds, and patting ourselves on the back for doing them.

I speak, of course, of the “Ice Bucket Challenge.”  At this point, I dare say I needn’t explain what the challenge is about, since anyone with access to this blog presumably has access to the rest of the Internet as well and therefore knows perfectly well what the challenge is about.

Then again, perhaps not.  One critique that has popped up is how, for all the celebrities who have lent their fame and dignity to the act of filming themselves being doused with ice-cold water, hardly anyone has bothered to mention the real point of the exercise, which is to raise money for the ALS Association (or, in theory, any other charitable organization).  The world has gotten a kick out of the increasingly ingenious ways people have found to transfer a pool of liquid from a bucket to their own face, but one could be forgiven for arriving to the party late and assuming it’s all being done just for the fun of it.

Probably the best rebuttal to this criticism is the fact that the ALS Association has received nearly $90 million in donations over the past four weeks, which is more than 30 times what it raised during the same period in 2013.  If people are not aware of the connection between the Ice Bucket Challenge and ALS awareness—or, more to the point, if they are not more aware of ALS itself—the numbers seem to suggest otherwise.

Is it possible that even more money would have been raised—and still could be raised—if participants in the challenge made their objective clearer?  It’s certainly conceivable, but it would be awfully hard to prove either way.

In my view, the far more salient point is as follows:  Less than two months ago, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis was a mysterious, deadly and horrifying disease known to most Americans as having taken the life of Lou Gehrig, but was otherwise rarely on the mind of anyone not faced with it directly.

Today, ALS is a mysterious, deadly and horrifying disease that people are looking up on Wikipedia and giving money to fight at unprecedented rates, thereby generating the funds and publicity required to make it a higher priority within the medical community than it might otherwise have been.

This happened for precisely one reason:  Because a whole bunch of people stood in front of a camera and dumped a bucket of ice water onto their heads.  It made no particular sense that one thing would lead to the other, but there you have it.

In other words, if we insist on clinging to hypotheticals, then the most pertinent one is the alternate universe in which the Ice Bucket Challenge did not exist.  That is, the scenario in which there hadn’t been some fun, goofy gimmick to force people—if only fleetingly—to think about a terrible disease that demands our attention, and to give lots of money to help get rid of it.

Ice Bucket critics implore people to donate to ALS research straight-up, without all the bells and whistles.  (“Do not film yourself or post anything on social media,” writes Will Oremus of Slate, “Just donate the damn money.”)  But this ignores the fact that these same critics wouldn’t have even thought to make this suggestion if not for the viral and self-serving nature of the campaign they supposedly detest.

As they say, don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.  Not everything requires your curmudgeonly, self-righteous disapproval.  Sometimes a good cause is just a good cause.  The Ice Bucket Challenge, for all its silliness, is a good cause.

What is more, the magnitude of its goodness owes almost entirely to the magnitude of its silliness.  It would be nice if people could be made to regularly donate to charity en masse for its own sake, but in reality, coaxing people to part ways with their hard-earned cash is a bit like getting a toddler to eat his vegetables:  It has to be turned into a game.

This fact, insomuch as it is a fact, leads us to a far more interesting question:  Should we consider it a vice or a virtue that so many Americans—particularly Millennials—are willing to give to charity, but only in the most narcissistic possible manner?  That nothing motivates us to do good as much as the opportunity to advertise what wonderful, caring people we are?

Nobody seems to argue that ego-stroking is honorable, but if it can be harnessed to effect honorable ends, what cause have we to complain?  If giving money to a worthy cause is inherently moral, does the motivation behind it really matter?  I dare say the charitable organizations that receive this money are not terribly picky on this point.  (Not that they have much of a choice.)

It is a singular irony that the most respectable form of charity—giving anonymously—is also the one that, by definition, cannot be recognized.  Indeed, that is what makes it so commendable in the first place.

But modesty and anonymity don’t quite work on social networks, which generally encourage users to be as loud and obnoxious as possible, and a central lesson of the Ice Bucket Challenge is that if you really want to get something done, social networks are the place to do it.

In any case, the key to amassing a sizable hill of funds has always been to get the word out.  To send e-mails and letters.  To be annoyingly persistent.  To not keep quiet and assume everyone will give out of the goodness of their hearts, unprompted.

You can afford to shun publicity if you happen to be a billionaire whose donation could single-handedly fund the treatment of a dozen ALS sufferers or more.  But for us mere mortals, silence is deadly.  It’s not enough for you to give—you have to make everyone else give, too.

And so I say:  May the ice buckets never stop.

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