I am a participant in the ALS Ice Bucket challenge, but I am also well aware of some of the critiques that have been articulated against the challenge. Some have argued that the challenge wastes water. Others have pointed out that if as many American citizens were active in political advocacy for ALS as have taken the challenge, our government would be able to act on a magnitude that would dwarf the donations from the challenge. Others have suggested that the challenge is a part of an unhealthy culture of begging in American philanthropy in general. Finally, yet others have complained that ALS research involves the destruction of stem cells, to which they object.
I take each of these objections seriously, and to some extent I agree with most of them. In an ideal world, we would not need a gimmick to get us to donate to charities, we would all be politically informed and active, and we would all agree to a system that would adequately fund research into all diseases, and we would not need an ice bucket challenge.
Further, I appreciate all of those who point out our shortcomings even when we try to convince ourselves that we are doing something selfless and charitable. We need to be reminded, when we give ourselves warm fuzzies for donating $10 that we are not doing enough, that we are doing it for deeply ambiguous motives, and that even those actions which we take have some negative repercussions. Cesar Augustus, according to tradition, had a servant whose job was to whisper to him “memento mori”, or, “Remember, you are mortal.” So it is when we live in a democracy that we need to be reminded that nothing done by humans is perfect.
That said, we do not live in a perfect world. We, in Western society, waste a great deal of water. The amount that we put in temporary pools in our back yards, only to last until they turn green, upon which occasion we empty and refill them, is far more than has been wasted on the ALS challenge. Further, it would cost far more than $10 for an individual to deliver water from a local source to a parched area. We have no realistic hope, in our current political system of producing an adequate system of public funding for disease research. And a campaign to get people to call their congresspeople would never have the success of the ALS challenge.
So, the question is not whether the ALS challenge is ideal. The question is whether it is, on the whole, doing good. Here is my take.
The ALS challenge is actually an evolution of an existing social media ritual, which gives it additional social significance. The cold water challenge was popular with my students last year. Students would challenge each other to jump into a cold lake (or pond in our case in mid-Missouri). The whole ritual was almost exactly the same as the ALS challenge, but without the requirement to do anything other than video yourself jumping into the water. There were social goods at stake in the ritual: strengthening and testing friendships, calling out that special boy or girl upon which the college student had a crush. At worst, basically students would call out someone else who they wanted to see in a bathing suit.
What the ALS challenge did was took this and added a philanthropic spin. You had to donate money to a socially respectable institution. Is it an ideal philanthropic activity? No. Is it a good model for public service? No. There is no enduring motive for long term action. There is no actual education about the disease or how to react to it. There is no relationship built in the process, and those participating too often feel that they are fulfilling the whole of their social obligation through this activity. At its best, the challenge might spark extraordinary people to become interested in the issue and the people involved, but it is not a mechanism for the transformation of society.
But, we should not understate what is helpful here: it is good evolutionary theory. Find a successful meme and add something that makes it more socially useful. Corporations have been much better at this than charities in the past (associate your product with a beautiful model and bazinga … people want it). So, is it good motivation? no. But it is motivation for a good. And, in a world of people who would not otherwise be doing anything for charitable contributions, I will take it! And I was proud to have a cooler full of ice water dumped on my head for the relative good achieved!