Friday, August 22, 2014

Ice Bucket Apologies

I knew this was coming. I knew eventually I was going to get an ALS Ice Bucket challenge. And I knew that I was going to turn it down.

I don't take joy in that. I have nothing but sympathy for those who suffer with ALS—perhaps more sympathy than many people who have taken the plunge have (more on that in a bit). Heck, because Lou Gehrig and I share a birthday, he has been my favorite player since I was six, and I loved him even more once I saw The Pride of the Yankees.  And I want to make clear that in my saying "no" to this, there is no condemnation of those who have done it. 

I have a lot of reasons to hesitate on taking up the challenge, some deep, some more shallow. On the deeper side, I find myself agreeing with those who point out that it seems to fly in the face of Matthew 6:1-4. But I will admit that things like charity auctions may be said to do that too. There are also reasonable critiques of "hashtag activism", though people who do the Ice Bucket challenge are doing something real, as opposed to just holding up a #BringBackOurGirls sign or tweeting #Kony2012.  Finally, as one who opposes embryonic stem cell research (ESCR), I would be hesitant to encourage people to give to ALS funds, knowing that no matter how clearly I made my support for only non-ESCR-backing groups, I can't control what others after me do or assume. 

On a less deep level, I have a certain natural push-back against whatever is the cool thing on social media. I'm no hipster, I just don't want to look back years later and think "You know what? I didn't care more; I wasn't more aware; I just did it because everyone else did." The critic in me also thinks this would be more impressive in February than in August. Oh, and the "skeptical Third World child" meme on this is pretty hilarious (even if a caricature). 

But the major thing that keeps me from joining in is that I don't like the idea that Person A cares about Charity A and then publicly challenges Person B to give money to Charity A and/or do the stunt. A lot of people have causes that they care about intensely and they give to them. They race for a cure; they pledge to a telethon; they donate to a local charity which has zero PR. When Person A tells Person B they need to act for A's charity there is something improperly expectant there. The gift is lost if Person B is told when, how, and to whom he must give his gift. 

My mom was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis while she was pregnant with me, some thirty-five years ago. The wasting away of her nervous system has been the most dominant feature of our family's life for the duration of my time on earth. I have a friend from college who lost her dad to ALS and I am certain we would both say that there is no comparing diseases. MS is slow; ALS is relatively fast; both are heartrending. Other people have never had a disease strike so close to home but some factor compels generosity. There is something very personal about what we support and why we support it. So it seems I would be in the wrong to say to someone, "You might give your time, money, and tears to your charity, but why don't you make a public demonstration of your concern for multiple sclerosis research and make a donation too." I know people don't think of it like this when they ice-bucket-challenge each other, but they have inadvertently changed charity from something private, quiet, and personal into something public, competitive, and collective. Even for the best intentions I would not want to lay bare the paths of charity.

Finally, I see the outline of a threat on the horizon. Will the viral success of the Ice Bucket campaign change how we do philanthropy? I hope not, but I fear that charitable groups will start asking themselves, "What viral idea can we get going in order to be the next Ice Bucket?" Such pop philanthropy runs the risk of not only failing to really educate people about problems (insulting the intellect) but also of motivating people by guilt or fad (selling short the will). I don't think any non-profit awareness group would call that success.