Friday, 29 August 2014

Some thoughts on the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Benedict Cumberbatch doing the #IceBucketChallenge. Now that I have your attention...
Unless you've been living under a rock, or do not use any form of social media at all (in which case I'm wondering how you've found your way onto this page), you'll probably have heard of the latest internet craze sweeping the inter-nation. (Is that a word? Inter-nation? Meant to imply international rather than just national. Probably also works given it's internet-related. Might use that in future :P )

Yes, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) is a neurodegenerative disease. Without getting too science-y and technical about it, essentially what happens is you gradually become trapped within your own body. Your muscles tighten up - stiffening and weakening, and everyday tasks or bodily functions such as speaking, swallowing and breathing become incredibly difficult. It is therefore unsurprising that it is responsible for 2 deaths per 100,000 people per year, and the median survival time from onset to death is 39 months. Only 4% survive longer than 10 years - most die from respiratory failure (resulting from the breathing problems.)

The challenge dares nominated participants to be filmed having a bucket of ice water poured on their heads, and then nominating others to do the same. The idea behind it is that it raises awareness of the disease and encourages donations into research for finding a cure - for example, in America these donations tend to go to the ALS association, while in the UK they tend to go to the MND Association (ALS being a form of Motor Neurone Disease).

Now, as I'm sure you'll be aware if you're reading this, the campaign has gone viral - people all over the world are taking part. Not just ordinary people, but celebrities, politicians, you name it.

Unsurprisingly for a campaign with so much media and online attention, it has come in for its fair share of criticism. Some of it fair, some of it....not so much.

I have been discussing these criticisms with people as of late, and have been meaning to write this post for some time. I've found it increasingly frustrating to read some of these criticisms, so here it is: my analysis of some of the main ones, and how fair (or not) they are on the Ice Bucket Challenge and the campaign itself.

It's just dumping a bucket of ice water on your head. How does that raise awareness? The message has been lost:

Well, I consider this criticism wholly unfair. Prior to this challenge, I had no idea what ALS/MND even was, and nor did many of my peers. It's through this challenge becoming a worldwide sensation that I have learned what the condition is and decided it's a worthy cause.
As for the dumping the ice on your head as a method of raising that awareness, it's not pointless - dumping freezing cold water over yourself (if it's cold enough) sends your body into shock - you go into a state of paralysis for a split second, and it gives you just the tiniest taste of what an ALS sufferer has to go through. It's not just being pouring ice on your head and causing discomfort for the sake of it, it is related.

Also, I don't know about anyone else, but for me at least, I feel like for every 10 videos I see simply of people pouring ice water on their heads, I see another one or two that includes the celebrity or member of the public concerned explaining more about the condition, offering a personal story or even an information video or image explaining about the condition being shared on facebook. Therefore, I hardly think the message has been lost - and those that fear it has often end up rectifying this, because they will post more links that explain the message.

It's a waste of ice/water! California/places in Africa have water shortages/droughts, the Ice Bucket Challenge is irresponsible!

Okay, I'll admit, if you live in one of the places where there is a heavy drought or water shortage, then yes, it is irresponsible to be
wasting that water by dumping it on your head rather than sharing it out for drinking or washing purposes.

However, a lot of the people I'm seeing that criticism come from are people in the UK, or parts of the world where we are not in drought. For these places, the argument holds about as much weight as:
'There are starving children in Africa, finish your dinner'.
Or even, 'There are children who'd give anything for the education you have, sit up and pay attention'.
These sorts of arguments can be used to make you feel guilty about anything. If there are children in Africa who'd want my food that I'm too full to eat, why not bring them more food rather than trying to persuade me to eat 'til I'm sick?
With regard to education, you go and tell a kid happily playing football without a care in the world that you're going to build him a school, and see if the expression on his face is really one of glee...

Obviously, thirst is an entirely different thing, but I don't think it's good enough reason to condemn a campaign like this - for the places that are not in short supply of water, we're not going to lose any. If you want to help countries in drought, donate or help a charity like Water Aid -  help a campaign or charity to provide clean water to those places, but don't rain on everyone else's parade (no pun intended).

Also, for the countries that are in drought or have a shortage of water, they've found alternatives - Neil Gaiman's Ice Bucket Challenge, for example, uses sea water, because of California's drought. In Gaza, they have created the 'Rubble Bucket Challenge' for their own purposes because of the lack of water, much less ice, available to them.

People aren't actually donating - they're just tipping the ice buckets on their head to increase their social media standing/popularity:

Really? Because most of the charities relating to ALS have reported a soar in public awareness and donations since the campaign began a few months ago. The New York Times reported that the ALS Association had received $41.8 million in donations from July 29 until August 21, and more than 739,000 new donors have given money to the association. That's more than double the $19.4 million in total contributions they received during the year that ended 31st January, 2013.

If people aren't actually donating as well as doing the videos, where's all this money coming from?

Pretty much every Ice Bucket Challenge I see on my Facebook news feed, or Twitter timeline, or on YouTube, encourages people to donate, often with a list of ways you can do so, either in the video itself, the video description, or both.

Now, I don't personally believe that people are doing it to increase their own social media standing - let's face it, you'd have to be pretty desperate for that to be your main reason, especially as you have to dump a bucket of freezing cold water on your head just for this to potentially help your social status.

But even if we do assume that's what people are doing it what? Celebrities do it practically every year on Children in Need, Comic Relief or Sport Relief as forms of self-promotion, and I don't see nearly as many complaints about that!
Let's face it, at the end of the day, money is money - charities know that. Yes, it would be lovely if everyone was doing it for the right reasons; out of the compassion of their hearts rather than it also involving some selfish desire, but, as a wise supermarket chain once said, 'Every little helps.'
Unless we're going to have a deeper moral debate about virtue, (and I was an A Level Religious Studies student - believe me, I'm capable) why people are donating shouldn't matter - the great thing is people are donating, and it's for a worthy cause.
Same goes for people complaining that the focus is too much on fun and not enough on genuine charitable activity; people are giving, what's the harm in having fun while doing it?

There are other worthy charities too:

Yes, there are, and you are right to support them. Many people have taken to doing the challenge in the name of charities of their choice, which is great, and should be encouraged. The Ice Bucket Challenge happens to have captured people's imaginations and brought about a lot of helpful donations, and more should be done for these other equally worthy charities - let's hope that this starts a trend of similar viral campaigns in future!

Half the money donated goes to the CEO of the ALS Association - $355,000 - and his staff.

Or so I hear. Sorry, but that's the way charities work - it costs money to raise money. Find me a charitable campaign where people who work for or with he charity don't get a cut. Maybe it's an unfair amount for them to get, but I suspect probably not if they're suitably trained or experienced, and in this case I should think many people in the company either have been diagnosed with ALS or know people or are close to people who have. Particularly when you think about the above point - the $355,000 figure, that is presumably being divided up between him and the people that work for the charity (or other ALS charities). 

You're being a sheep/just following the crowd to take part:

Maybe you are, maybe your aren't - but again, it's charity. Charities make their money by people following suit in donations.

You can still donate without tipping a bucket of water on your head:

Absolutely, and I feel this is actually one of the most legitimate arguments for not taking part in the Ice Bucket Challenge. Part of the point of it is that if you choose not to tip a bucket of ice water on your head, you can just do the donation - you might not be getting that experience of the shock and paralysis as mentioned earlier, but you're still giving money - there should be no shame in that.

But if I don't do the challenge, it makes me seem churlish: 

I've been thinking a lot about this one in the past few days, and again, it's one of the most legitimate points raised. You are perfectly free to not accept the nomination, but there is arguably, intentionally or not, an awful lot of pressure put on nominees to be 'good sports' and to take part, even if they don't want to.
They shouldn't be made to feel guilty for breaking the chain, nor for not wanting to pour a bucket of freezing cold water on their heads. They shouldn't feel obliged to put it on camera if they're camera-shy, or donate to a charity they wouldn't otherwise be supporting - if they don't want to.

I admit, some people (myself included) have engaged in some light-hearted prodding: 'Oh, go on, it's just a bit of fun', we say. Except what if it isn't? What if people feel really uncomfortable about any of the above aspects of the challenge? Is it really that fair to force them?

Don't get me wrong -  I think it's important that people sometimes do things they're not so comfortable with in the name of charity - it can be enriching for you as a person as much as doing something for a good cause, and will often entertain others, or at the very least, they'll be proud of or impressed with you for leaving your comfort zone.

But if you're so averse to it that the thought of it makes you really uncomfortable, for any of those reasons, I think it's probably right that you don't, and you shouldn't be judged, or made to feel guilty for that.


There we are. That's my analysis or take on some of the more prevalent critiques of the Ice Bucket Challenge.

Fundamentally, this campaign is raising money for a good cause while having fun - we watch our friends or favourite (or least favourite) celebrities get ice tipped on their heads, have a laugh, donate and/or spread the word. The only particularly bad thing about it the way I see it is the aforementioned pressure, which is an issue regardless of where the challenges take place.

However, at the end of the day, no campaign's perfect, and this one seems to be doing a better job of raising awareness than others I've previously mentioned. While it may get a bit boring for some people to repeatedly see on their news feeds, it's still raising a hell of a lot of money for a worthy cause.

If I were to recommend some changes going forward, I would say that perhaps people should be a bit more conscious of who they nominate, or leave nominations open (so saying, 'anyone who wants to take part, do'!). If people want to donate to a different charity instead, let them. If people desperately don't want to film it, we shouldn't condemn that. If people would rather donate more quietly than pour a bucket of ice water on their head, we should support that.

I have taken part in the Ice Bucket Challenge, and donated, and am proud to say I did so. I have enjoyed (and am still enjoying) my friends, family, and favourite and least favourite celebrities, do the same. The way I see it, it's taken the modern-day viral internet craze of viral videos of things that are so popular these days, and given it a purpose - turned it into something good.

Not only is it raising a lot of awareness and money for a good cause, it is, I believe, an essentially harmless bit of fun, that the world over is taking part in.

And that, in my view, is pretty great :)

If you'd like to donate to the ALS or MND Associations, click the links below:

ALS Association (USA)

MND Association (UK) 
Or text  'ICED55 £5' (or other amount) to 70070 (UK only)

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