A few days ago, someone posted a link to an article about the shameful stupidity of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge on my newsfeed with the noncommittal description “food for thought.” I’ve been thinking about it on and off ever since, so I guess that was an accurate summary. Instead of considering the issues raised by the article, however, mostly I’ve just thought about how reductive it was and how angry and disappointed it made me feel.
If you haven’t heard about the Ice Bucket Challenge, you’re probably not reading this because you don’t know how to turn on any of the YouTubes. But basically it’s a viral charity campaign that nebulously involves some combination of recording a video of yourself dumping ice water on your head and donating money for ALS research. Short for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS is a horrific motor neuron disorder that slowly paralyzes you until you’re no longer able to swallow or breathe and you die of respiratory failure. Sounds like a good cause, if promoted in a somewhat dopey and narcissistic way, right?
Of course not. If you have an Internet connection and an entitled sense of outrage, nothing is above your scorn.
“The Ice Bucket Challenge is an EMBARRASSMENT,” fumed the author of the social justice rant that made my newsfeed even more depressing than usual. In a professionally published editorial that reads like a Tumblr post, she expressed her outrage, her befuddlement, and, most (tellingly) of all, her disappointment that so many Americans had decided to jump on this bandwagon and help people with a horrible debilitating illness. “We’re the laughingstock of the global community,” she wrote, facepalming lugubriously.
The main sticking point for her seems to be that ALS primarily affects old white men (yeah, 55 is real fucking old, kid), and who cares about them? They’re the one group causing most of the world’s problems in the first place! Everyone knows that old white men aren’t even really people anyway; they’re not even worth the price of the ice cubes you’re dumping on your head. Of course, the author couldn’t just come right out and admit this widely acknowledged truth. It shows, however, in the fact that she felt justified in writing off ALS as an “old white man’s disease” in her screed.
This is actually something that people believe. If you contribute to the Ice Bucket Challenge and donate money for the medical research needed to help sufferers of this illness, you’re seen as an immature, privileged fool embarrassing our country in the eyes of the world because ALS is a rare disease that affects middle-aged white men more frequently than the other demographics that it also affects. Basically, if a disease only harms an oppressor, we shouldn’t bother curing it. Remember what Gandhi said: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. But seriously, though, fuck the British. Given the choice I’d let them all die.”
To be fair and balanced, this isn’t the crux of the argument. The Anti-Ice Bucket Brigade spends much more time parroting another common and frustratingly obtuse point, one that people have used to obstruct and obfuscate everything from civil rights to women’s suffrage: the idea that various other tragedies are more important than this tragedy. So let’s focus on those first; we’ll get to this one if we have the time.
According to this argument, the seriousness of ALS isn’t a legitimate concern because of who is statistically more likely to be afflicted by it. But why does that make any difference? What if there was a disease that affected only Holocaust deniers or men’s rights activists? Don’t we all deserve the same human dignity, assholes and idiots and Social Justice Warriors alike?
This idea that ALS is a less urgent issue than XYZ and therefore you should ignore it entirely is completely baffling to me, but it seems to be the central thesis of the obstructionists’ argument. “Have you heard of Michael Brown and Ferguson?” they ask. “Israel and Palestine? Mental illness and depression? The border crisis? The Ebola outbreak? Police militarization? Women dying in childbirth? This stupid meme?”
People are incapable of caring about more than one issue at a time, you see. We’re not expected to worry about institutionalized racism and social upheaval if we’ve already poured water on our heads. Because everyone doing the ALS Challenge just to show off online would otherwise have used that time to become a champion of social justice, am I right?
Do you know how difficult it is to shake people out of their apathy, even for the five minutes it takes to fill a bucket with water, record yourself dumping it on your head, and upload it to the Internet? Do you understand what an achievement that is? So what if it’s gimmicky and slightly self-serving? It allows people to feel good about doing good, to feel like they belong to something greater than themselves, a higher force for change. And what’s wrong with that? It’s not like they’re paying to have their egos jerked off without actually helping anyone. We can’t all quit our day jobs to build schools in some war-torn, plague-stricken developing country half a world away. Or write condescending Internet editorials and reblog sarcastic image macros, as the case may be.
Here’s the thing about the people doing the Ice Bucket Challenge: contrary to what the news media might lead you to believe, most of them are not celebrities. They are the ordinary, unexceptional, oftentimes annoying people on your Facebook feed who won’t stop using hashtags or sharing Taylor Swift’s new music video. The majority of them will most likely never find themselves in a position to evoke any great social change. Their daily struggles and achievements are as important as anyone’s but will never be recognized on the global stage.
By that same token, ALS is as devastating as any mainstream disease, but its sufferers (like those of an infinite number of other unpopular afflictions) have always been marginalized or forgotten in the shadow of behemoths like cancer, AIDS, or autism. The Ice Bucket Challenge isn’t about making yourself feel good; it’s about raising awareness for people whose pain is just as real and matters just as much as that of anyone we’re used to seeing in the headlines. ALS and those afflicted by it deserve our attention even if they aren’t underprivileged, even if their struggle isn’t the result of some Upworthy crisis in Sub-Saharan Africa
Who can I throw money at to cure police oppression? How many stupid videos of myself doing something completely unrelated do I have to make before white privilege no longer exists? How much suffering do I have to trivialize to convince you that my pet causes are more important than yours?
The editorial that started my whole thought process here signaled its conclusion with a single imperious directive: “Grow up,” the author urged us. “Get over this non-factor that kills thousands of people each year and focus on the issues that really matter.” But maybe she and others like her are the ones who need to grow up, if only a little bit, to realize that this accusatory, judgmental brand of social activism is just another form of entitlement.
Who is she to say what act of kindness and compassion others should spend their money on? Who is anyone to make that determination for anyone else? How does taking people to task for trying to help strangers who are suffering contribute anything to the conversations she cares about? Pain is pain, and we will never end all the misery in the world, no matter how many Jezebel articles we retweet. What does this do to alleviate any of it?
Instead of pitting two goods against each other (and let’s be honest, racial politicking aside there’s no reason anyone should object to raising money for victims of a degenerative neurological disease), why not take advantage of the publicity the Ice Bucket Challenge has gained to promote the causes that you believe in? Why not invent your own viral campaign to promote awareness for all those other objectively terrible things you think are so much worse than this objectively terrible thing? Chances are you won’t raise $94 million in a month, but at least you’d be making a constructive contribution instead of fueling all the hate and hurt with more bitterness, more disrespect, more negativity. Surely that would be a better use of your time than preaching to the social justice choir?
This is what’s real: every day, ugly, fucked-up things happen to people who deserve better, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed in the face of so much terrible shit that we can do so little about. But to take out that frustration on people doing something to remove a little bit of that pain, to draw attention to an overlooked suffering, is unworthy of us and of the causes we champion. Causes that, by the way, typically involve calling attention to overlooked suffering. By all means cite your statistics and your studies, shout your uncomfortable truths from the rooftops of the world, help the apathetic and the privileged open their eyes to the injustice around them and see the change that is possible if they lend their voices to the dissenting chorus. Just don’t be a dick about it.