Criticising the Criticism of the Ice Bucket Challenge

By Chris Crockford (Editor)

Like it or loath it, the ice bucket challenge was a massive success for Motor Neuron Disease (MND) associations. As of September, the challenge had raised over £6million for the UK MND Association (1) and a cool $100million for the American ALS Association (2). The challenge is this: chuck a bucket of ice water over your head, nominate some friends to do the same, and then you (should) donate some money to a local MND association.

The ice bucket challenge isn’t the first time an internet campaign has gone viral. This year also gave rise to ‘neknominations,’ in which people were nominated to down/chug/neck some alcohol (3), and ‘no-makeup selfies’ for cancer awareness, in which women posted photos of themselves, online, without wearing makeup (4). There are a number of similarities between the ice bucket challenge, the no-makeup selfies and the neknominations; people post apparently unpleasant activities online and pay it forward by nominating their friends. Another way in which they are similar is that they have garnered a great deal of criticism. The criticisms of neknominations are understandable i.e., glorification of binge-drinking for no real purpose; as are some of the criticisms levelled at the no-makeup selfie (for an example, see our very own Kirsty Bailey’s article (5)). However, I find the criticisms of the ice bucket challenge ridiculous.


 ‘It’s a waste of water’

This may sound the most legitimate criticism of the challenge; after all, water is an important and potentially dwindling resource. Some maths that was being thrown around originated from Jason Ruiz, who supposedly calculated how much water was wasted (6). Ruiz estimated that 27.2 million litres of water were wasted in America. You might think, ‘wow that’s a lot!’, but actually, the figure is probably nonsense. Jason casually assumed that each bucket used in each challenge could contain 23 litres; however, if one were to go to the online store of B&Q and average out the volume of all their round buckets, one would get a mean of 12.25 litres.  This adjusts results in a total of 14.7 million litres (almost half of what Jason suggests). Furthermore, on average, an American uses a staggering 400 litres of water a day (7). Given that each person will likely only complete the ice bucket challenge once in their lifetime, we can multiply 400 by 79 (the average American lifespan (8)) and get a lifetime use of 31,600 litres. We can subsequently surmise that the ice bucket challenge only represents 0.0004% of a person’s lifetime use. In other words, the argument is crap.


‘It’s self-congratulatory’  

Let’s all slow clap for this one. So the premise here is that charity should not be self-congratulatory and egotistical (9). I can’t help but feel this falls into the same category of nonsense as Christianity’s ‘deadly sin’ of pride – ‘oh no, you’re pleased with yourself? Well, you’re the WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD.’ Each and every one of us is guilty of being proud and self-congratulatory. It’s completely normal human behaviour and, frankly, what the hell is wrong with feeling good?

This criticism also assumes that humans do things for others altruistically. Altruism is a nice idea, but it probably doesn’t exist – I know, I know, that’s a miserable outlook. But if you consider any possible example of altruism (giving to charity, helping an elderly person cross the road, etc.) there is always, however small, some element of self-gain. That's not to say that people are inherently selfish: we all need to look out for ourselves. It may be that the receiver benefits the most, but the giver will always benefit in some way. I challenge anyone to give an example of altruism where self-gain can’t be shown.

In the case of the ice bucket challenge, what would the critics prefer? That people donate and tell nobody about it? That’s really going to benefit charities. Human beings are social creatures and learn behaviours through modelling (this is why advertising works). So, by donating in secret, we would be sending the wrong message to our peers about charitable giving. Even for the most egotistical ice bucketer, their narcissism only helps to promote the cause.


‘It’s basically just slactivism’

This is another good example of nonsense. Some critics have suggested (9) that the ice bucket challenge is an example of slactivism. In other words, a form of activism that requires minimal effort, and really only benefits the slactivist by making them feel good. I’ve just addressed the feel-good aspects of the ice bucket challenge, so let’s look at the minimal effort proposition. Again, this criticism makes a very large and unfounded assumption: that people would become more involved in the MND cause if it weren’t for the ice bucket challenge. The more realistic alternative expectation would be that people wouldn’t do anything at all.

I believe that people are inherently good. I believe that people do good things all the time (this still isn’t altruism by the way) but I also think people are a bit lazy (myself included). People who are going to engage more fully in charity will do so; they will volunteer for organisations, they will actively fundraise, and they will run awareness events. Others won’t, or can’t, engage as fully. Campaigns such as the ice bucket challenge engages the unengaged. It provides people a platform to give and it allows fun to be had in the process.


‘It reduced the money being donated to other charities’


This is a strange criticism. The basic premise is that because people have donated to MND associations, they are less likely to donate to other charities (10). Assuming this is true, so what? What makes one charity more deserving than another? MND might not be as common as cancer, but does that mean it’s less deserving? Cancer receives a great deal of attention and funding annually, and has made great strides in treatment in the last few years. Many forms of cancer are now treatable and even curable. MND has no cure, has no real treatment and is always a death sentence. Arguing about which charity is more deserving is just bad taste.


‘Nobody even knows what MND is’

A final criticism worth noting is that many people don’t actually know what MND is, even after taking part in the challenge. I actually agree with this criticism (this is easy for me to say though, as my PhD research involves patients with MND). To end this article, I want to give you some quick facts about MND.

  • MND describes a group of disorders, with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis being the most common form (much like dementia describes a group of diseases, with Alzheimer’s being the most common) (11)
  • MND is fatal, usually within 3 months of onset (about 2 years from diagnosis) (12)
  • MND affects the upper limbs, lower limbs, the torso and the head region. Muscles weaken, become rigid and stop working. Difficulties swallowing and speaking are common (11)
  • In addition to the horrific motor symptoms, up to 50% of people with MND will also experience a decline in cognition (e.g., language, memory, etc.) (13)
  • MND shares a common gene with dementia, meaning that some people not only get MND, but a form of dementia at the same time (14).
  • There is no cure for MND (15)
  • There is only one drug for MND, Riluzole, and it only increases life-expectancy by 2-4 months after 18 months of treatment (15)
  • People with MND will almost always die because they can no longer breathe (16)

I don’t think anyone could argue that MND isn't a horrific disease. It catches people off guard, progresses rapidly, and kills. We can’t stop it and we can barely slow it down. The ice bucket challenge has given MND associations money to facilitate research which will help us to better understand the disease and explore treatments. It allows associations to provided support and care for individuals with MND and their families. It has raised the profile of MND so that perhaps, in the future, people will continue to donate. A critique of any campaign, any person, or any act that supports these outcomes is simply bollocks.

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