Doing Silly Things for Charity

If you’re at all active on social media, you’ve no doubt encountered the Ice Bucket Challenge at some point during the past month. This viral stunt phenomenon in which people videotape themselves pouring buckets of icewater over their heads and then call out their friends to do the same was intended to bring attention — and more importantly, donations for research — to a dread ailment called ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. And it seems to have worked; here in the U.S., the ALS Association reports that as of September 8, it has received over $111 million in donations specifically attributed to the Challenge. That would seem to be an unalloyed social good, wouldn’t it? And yet, as with all things in our prickly, contentious 21st-century America, the Challenge has not been free of controversy. A number of critics have attacked the IBC as everything from lazy “slacktivism” to a waste of water in drought-stricken California. An article in Slate appears to have been especially provocative, prompting a number of bloggers in my online circle to fire back testy responses. The ALS Association was later forced to issue a statement denying accusations of fraud, and one of the religious nuts at WorldNetDaily has reportedly even denounced the Challenge as “satanic.”

Personally, I’ve viewed the whole thing with a somewhat sour perspective, if not as outright cynical as some. I have a history with ALS, you see, and I freely admit that I have no sense of humor when it comes to anything associated with this shit. Some of my friends — notably my blogging colleague Jaquandor — feel that charitable causes need to have some kind of “fun factor” to get people interested, that too solemn an approach tends to put them off. It’s possible that he’s right. Maybe even likely. Hell, I’m the first one to change the channel when those animal-cruelty PSAs with the Sarah McLachlan soundtrack come on. But in the case of this cause, which cuts very close to the bone for me personally, I tend to resent the introduction of frivolity. I’ve cringed at many of the videos I’ve seen because they’ve had a little too much frat-boy attitude, a little too much of the “Woohoo! All right, Bro!” tone. I have found myself wondering how many of the people who’ve dumped water on themselves to prove to their friends what good sports they are have followed through and actually donated to the cause. Truthfully? I’ll concede that a lot of them probably, if not most of them, have made their donations. I know I often tend to suspect the worst of people. But I can’t help it, considering how closely related this thing seems to be to dumb competitive horseshit like that cinnamon challenge that went around a few years ago.

What’s that? You don’t remember that one? Well, that’s something else that troubles me about this IBC thing: These viral sensations are just another kind of fad, aren’t they? Novelties that come out of nowhere, soak up lots of attention for a brief time, and then flame out and disappear without a trace. Sure, the ALS Association has been making a ton of money right now, but what about a month from now when a new shiny bauble has come along to distract everybody? Will anybody give any mind to ALS or think to make another donation six months from now? Wouldn’t it be better to do something to increase the steady annual flow of money to ALS research, even if only incrementally, then to generate this one-time Bell curve of donations? I don’t know… maybe I’m missing the point. Maybe every dollar collected is for the best, regardless of whether future donations drop back to regular levels. Maybe this subject is just too touchy for me to think rationally about it.

In any event, given my less-than-enthusiastic embrace of the IBC, you can imagine I wasn’t overly happy when a friend of mine tagged me to do it. I debated for a while over whether or not to just ignore his challenge. But after another friend offered to increase his donation if I went through with it, I decided to go ahead… and to try and make a point while doing so. I don’t know if my speech made any difference, if I managed to get through to anyone who mistakenly believes this whole thing to be nothing more than a childish game, or even if such people exist or if I’m just being a misanthrope. But I did it, and I did it my way, as the song says. Here’s the video:

The Ice Bucket Challenge seems to be yesterday’s news already, just as I knew it would become — I did this two weeks ago, and I haven’t heard much about it at all in several days — but maybe by reposting my video here and now, I can reach somebody who hasn’t already seen it and encourage them to write a check. I’d really like to see a cure for this shit in my lifetime, so no other 16-year-old boys have to learn compassion the way I did… and no one else has to die the miserable, undignified way my uncle did.


3 comments on “Doing Silly Things for Charity

  1. Jaquandor

    I’d just like to note that I don’t necessarily think it’s GOOD that charities almost always have to couple their big fundraising drives with fun stuff — or rather, I don’t think it reflects terribly well on us as a society that we need fun to prompt us to give money. But that’s just the way we’ve developed as a society, for one reason or other. I’m reminded of a friend who, every time he sees a poster on some community bulletin board for a benefit event for some person suffering from some disease or medical crisis, he tweets, “Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a country where the Chinese Auction was not a primary way of funding health care?” It is very odd. Again, it would be nice if it wasn’t the case…but it is. (We all have our things we’re not so funny about, though. No way I’d do an ice bucket challenge for cerebral palsy research, if you take my meaning.)

  2. jason

    I hear you, man… and I agree…

  3. Brian Greenberg

    I think one only has to look to Jerry Lewis and the MDA, which raised hundreds of millions of dollars for muscular dystrophy over the years, or LiveAid, or USA for Africa, or any of a host of other “events” like them to see how powerful entertainment can be in raising awareness and funding for a cause.

    Even the people who dumped ice on their heads and didn’t donate helped to make the IBC huge for a while, and the result was a chunk of change for an important cause. Just like the folks who watched the telethon and didn’t donate money. They donated their *attention*, and that helped too.

    I’d imagine that back in the 1940’s, most people knew about ALS because Lou Gehrig had just died from it. Over the last couple of months, we’ve conditioned an entire generation to remember ALS as the “disease with the ice bucket challenge.” I suspect that *every* ALS fundraiser for the next 20-30 years will do better than it would have now that we’ve been through this “meme.”

    I’m truly sorry for the loss of your uncle, and I mean no disrespect at all. I just fail to see a downside here (or at least a downside that isn’t mitigated by a huge upside).