The Ice Bucket Challenge and Its Discontents

By Benedict Varnum 9-04-2014
A child dumps ice water over his head. Image courtesy Suzanne Tucker/shutterstoc
A child dumps ice water over his head. Image courtesy Suzanne Tucker/

The Ice Bucket Challenge, or "IBC," needs little introduction. Over the past month or two, it's been the internet phenomenon of challenging friends, family and co-workers to participate in some combination of donating to the ALS Association, becoming educated about the disease, or dumping a bucket of ice-cold water over their head and video-taping it. The rules are somewhat (pardon the term) fluid—but basically, invitees are given 24 hours to respond and challenge up to three persons. I don't have precise numbers—they're still increasing—but ALSA has reported over 3 million donors and over 100 million dollars raised in the past few month. Not to mention the payoff of seeing your dear ones get soaked and squeal, shudder, or grin and bear it.

But I think it's also raised a second topic into public debate: the ethics of action and motivation. And even beyond the philanthropy going on, I think that's worth talking about, and I suspect it will be the Challenge's more enduring legacy.

The Challenge's notoriety and the reactions to it definitely remind us of the power of social media to quickly organize around a thought. Such a thought needs some solid fundamentals, which the IBC has: it's easy to understand; it's easy to participate; it's easy to share. It also creates a product with social significance (partly because everyone understands it!) as a by-product of the activity of donating. This is what is both wonderful and terrifying about social media—it allows principle to become lived action quickly. This has been true at least since the printing press helped Martin Luther accidentally kick off the Reformation of Western Christianity, but it's still exciting to experience it in our time.

The Ice Bucket Challenge has pulled plenty of reactions. There are enthusiasts who work to push it farther—a better video, more donations, and things like that. Most people are happy participants: the bulk of the 3 million donors and the countless online videos. Others are resigned participants (Sir Patrick Stewart's challenge strikes me as this sort of thing), or silent participants, who quietly donate but don't create a video or challenge others, thus serving as cul-de-sacs in the social expansion of the event.

But over the past month or two, I bet you've also encountered people who "participate" in the negative—and I do think it's a kind of participating. These critiquing participants don't want to donate, or are offended to be challenged to do something with their budget, or wonder why ALS has been singled out, or whether it's offensive or callous to raise money for an illness that can lock up your body by filming a moment of being hit by cold. They range from the frustrated to the thoughtful, and from the silent to the emphatically-outspoken.

Now, I don't think critique is a bad thing. It's bigger than just "criticism," because it is self-aware about why it disagrees with something, and it often suggests a way to repair it. Some of the critiques may sound weak to us; others are thoughtful, and sobering. But what I've valued about the critique of the IBC is that even the critiques that seem weak to me (for instance, "Why single out ALS?") raise questions that help us think through the ethics of participating in causes bigger than ourselves: when, why, and how we do it (for example: "Singling out ALS is better than equal non-participation in all causes.").

What I feel has been going unsaid is that these critiques don't hurt the enduring cultural value of the Ice Bucket Challenge—in fact, I suspect they're at the core of it.

Critique happens when something comes up against our deeper values, and impacts them strongly enough that we're made uncomfortable. And that very discomfort is where our possibility to change comes about. A bulk of those who have donated to ALS research and aid in the past few months may never contribute to ALS research again, though some surely will (anyone know off-the-cuff what 1 percent of $100 million is?).

But those who did donate had to do something first. No, not dump ice water on their head (after all, for many, donating was the way out of responding to the challenge to spread the word via an icy video). What they had to do, even before dumping the water or donating, was consider whether they would. Which means 3 million people thought about whether they should donate to ALS research and aid, and answered "Yes." And who knows how many more from those with critiques—the Ice Bucket Challenge Discontents—thought it through, and answered, "No."

Yet in the face of all that social pressure, the discontents often took on an additional task, and one that may have given them an unexpected gift: they took on the task of saying, "No, because . . ." And that means they thought deeply about how, when and why they contribute to causes beyond their budget. This gives us more tools for talking about tackling big issues together. And when they told their friends, "I decline because," those friends received an invitation, explicit or implied, to think through what their own because looks like.

The Ice Bucket Challenge isn't the end of ALS, and it hasn't catalyzed a new era of charitable giving. But a generation has now lived through a very public moment where a huge task was broken down into simple personal tasks by the power of social media, and brought to bear in a material way on an issue that affects thousands of lives. And who knows what will come of the thousands (millions?) of conversations that people have had about where, why, and how much they give beyond their own budgeted needs? If we have been sleepwalking our way through the ethics of living together in a world full of needs, dare we wonder whether the Ice Bucket Challenge is enough of a splash of cold water to wake us up a bit more?

The Rev. Benedict Varnum is an Episcopal priest serving in the diocese of Kansas.

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