Ice Bucket Activism: Reflections on Why People Obey the Facebook and Dump Ice Water on their Heads
So if Facebook told you to dump a bucket of HOT water over your head, would you do it?
Probably not. And yet, over the month of August 2014, thousands upon thousands of people dumped buckets of ice water over their head to participate in a Facebook challenge.
This is the result of an extremely clever marketing campaign by the ALS Association, which has gone viral to an astounding degree. My Facebook feed, and everybody else’s, is filled with people dumping buckets of water over their head to raise money for ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that most people know little about.
Now, in a futile attempt to keep my Comments section devoid of hateful comments, let me assure you all that of course, I support raising money to fight horrible diseases. If you are one of the many people who dumped water over your head to raise money for ALS, you indeed did some good in the world.
Any yet, there’s something about Ice Bucket Activism that, well, brings me a chill.
It seems that people are really attached to the Ice Bucket Challenge. And we’re not just talking about people with a connection to ALS. Ice Bucket Activism is really resonating with a large portion of the population. So why is that?
Well, take a look at everything else that’s been going on in the summer of 2014. This has probably been the worst summer of news that I can remember in my lifetime, and it almost reads like a Greatest Hits of Awful Things. A passenger jet got shot down over war-torn Ukraine. A journalist was beheaded. ISIS is committing genocide against religious minorities in Iraq. Israel and Hamas are at war again. The most serious racial crisis we’ve seen in years is underway in Ferguson, Missouri. And don’t forget about ebola. Yes, even ebola is back!
And on top of all this, the most beloved comedian in the world was so depressed that he killed himself. RIP Robin Williams. Life sucks.
It seems like no coincidence to me that this is the month when the Ice Bucket Challenge caught on. People feel helpless. I mean, how can you not?
So, to mitigate the feelings of helplessness, we engage in collective action. We dump buckets of ice water over our heads. We collectively raise millions of dollars to fight a terrible disease. We might not be able to do anything about the poor suffering Yazidis in Iraq. But at least we can raise money for ALS.
So as a culture, we’ve engaged in collective action. We’ve done this before. During the Vietnam War, millions of young people responded to the feelings of helplessness by creating a massive anti-war movement. During the 1950s and 1960s, millions responded to the systematic discrimination of African Americans with boycotts, sit-ins, marches, and organized actions that in some cases cost people their lives. And during August 2014, collective action happened again!
We rose up and dumped water over our heads.
Part of what’s fascinating to me about Ice Bucket Activism is how angry people get at people like me who challenge it. Just look at this Slate article imploring people to “stop dumping ice on your head and just give money.” Some of the anger directed at the author in the Comments section is outright vitriolic. It’s the kind of anger that seems more appropriate for someone who advocates, I don’t know, dumping buckets of ice water over kittens?
So why are people so angry at Ice Bucket Activism Dissenters? I think this goes back to the Greatest Hits of Awful Things we’ve been treated to in the summer of 2014. So many of these Awful Things are extremely polarizing. Israel-Hamas conflict? Polarizing! The shooting of Michael Brown? Even more polarizing! Try having a conversation in mixed company of one of these two issues and someone is bound to get very angry very quickly.
And that’s part of what’s so appealing about Ice Bucket Activism. There’s no Two Sides of the Issue when it comes to ALS. Horrible diseases are universally hated by all, regardless of their race or religion or political leanings. If you post your opinion about Michael Brown on your Facebook page, you will inevitably piss some people off. But go right ahead and post a video of yourself dumping water over your head. The “likes” will mount up immediately!
Like I said, Ice Bucket Activism isn’t wrong. It’s raised millions of dollars to fight a terrible disease. It’s also a reasonable response to feeling hopeless in light of recent world and national events. People want to do something, and Ice Bucket Activism is something.
But the thing about Ice Bucket Activism is that it’s easy. It diverts people away from the kind of activism that has the capacity to make a real difference. And the powers that be are more than happy to have people channel their energy into Ice Bucket Activism than demanding other kinds of change. If there was a viral campaign to end the vast socioeconomic and racial disparities that exist in the United States, then the powerful people would get nervous.
But Ice Bucket Activism? The powers that be are happy to see our need for change placated.