Ice ice maybe: Throwing cold water on viral challenge

by Daniel Blomquist / Assistant Opinion Editor • September 3, 2014

Ice Bucket Challenge
Ice Bucket Challenge

The Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Association, or ALS, Ice Bucket Challenge is difficult to disagree with. It’s raised nearly $90 million dollars for charity, after all. Sure, there was that one guy who died from it, according to the New Zealand Herald, but hey, sacrifice one for 350,000, the number of people currently afflicted with the disease in the world.

One could argue that a challenge with this much success would be more useful if directed at a more common disease like cancer. More than 13 million people in the US alone are afflicted with some form of that malady. The money could have also gone to a charity more likely to get results. Researching a disease doesn’t necessarily mean that a cure will be found; money put towards things like education and water purification have immediate and tangible results.

Regardless, these arguments only suggest ways that the challenge could have gone better. That doesn’t mean that the Ice Bucket Challenge isn’t fantastic— it simply could have been more fantastic. After all, the ALS Association, the beneficiary of this ice water stunt, raised $88 million dollars in one month; in the same time period last year, the charity received under $3 million. 

Proving that the Ice Bucket Challenge is problematic requires considering some ugly aspects of our generation. Millennials have unique issues that seem to have plagued every popular social movement since our generation became old enough to create change. Simply put, the Ice Bucket Challenge is a symptom of two much larger diseases: moral licensing and narcissism.

Social advocacy stunts like Kony 2012 or the Ice Bucket Challenge have notoriously short lifespans, and many of the participants spend the rest of the year not doing anything for charity. Psychologists refer to this as moral licensing, the idea that doing good things “lasts a while” and that we don’t need to donate consistently in order to have a positive impact. In fact, we often feel licensed to do things we would normally consider immoral because it “balances out.” When this trend dies and the funds stop flowing in as rapidly, which may be as soon as mid-September, we may very well have found no other tools to help us fight ALS.

Moral licensing is only half of the problem, for the would-be social reformers of our generation are also prone to a fundamental misunderstanding of how charity works, coupled with a childish need for attention.

A popular criticism of the ALS Association fundraising tactic is that participants are using a self-centered video as a way to avoid donating to charity. The Daily Mirror, a British tabloid, ran some numbers on Aug. 27 and found that based on the number of known Ice Bucket Challenge videos, approximately $122 million dollars would have been raised if everyone that posted the videos also donated. This number is likely an underestimate because it only accounts for a limited number of videos posted online, and many of the celebrities who’ve done the challenge generally donated five to six figure sums, which would create a final total that should far exceed the mere $88 million the ALS Association has reported in donations. All things considered, it’s safe to assume that the majority of those taking the challenge are doing it for the likes or the upvotes or whatever meaningless reward system is used by the site on which they’re posting.

What really saddens me about this narcissistic water splashing is that it’s almost a good idea. If the challenge were merely to donate to charity, there would be absolutely nothing wrong with it. However, Ice Bucket Challenge advocates can’t seem to stomach the concept of fighting disease simply because it’s a good idea and instead trick themselves into doing it through a self-congratulatory game that revolves around who can make themselves look the dumbest while cold and wet.

The money donated to the ALS Association as a result of the challenge is a good thing, but is indicative of a culture of ignorance and simplicity. Listening to people who suddenly consider themselves experts on ALS because they threw ice water on themselves makes me think that even if we find a cure for ALS, a host of other cultural ailments have been brought to the forefront.

At the very least, if you’re going through the trouble to shower your head with ice water so we’ll pay attention to you, at least learn something about ALS. I still haven’t met a single Ice Bucket Challenger that has.