Here’s what’s wrong with the Ice Bucket Challenge

By | August 20, 2014

Raising money for a worthy charity is a good thing. Raising awareness about a (currently) incurable disease that afflicts 30,000 people in the U.S. and many more worldwide, is a good thing. Encouraging people to think about the needs of others is a good thing.

Doing all this using social blackmail that is guaranteed to cause embarrassment to some people is most decidedly not a good thing.

Let’s say that you have fibromyalgia or some other disability that would be greatly aggravated by dumping a bucket of ice water over your head. Let’s say, further, that you’re unemployed and on disability, and $100 is about, oh, $100 more than you can afford to donate to charity. How are you going to feel when one of your friends nominates you for the ice bucket challenge? Maybe you have a strong, independent-minded personality and it’ll just be ice water off a duck’s back. But it’s equally likely, perhaps more so, that you’ll be ashamed and embarrassed about your disease and the fact that you can’t afford to donate to charity being made public.

Even if you say nothing, even if you completely ignore the challenge and few if any people notice your lack of response, you’ll still have those feelings of shame and embarrassment, because those emotions are not dependent on outside observers. If you’ve ever felt your face flush and go hot about something boneheaded you did, even though nobody else noticed, then you know what I mean; if not, then you’ve led a charmed life.

Embarrassing people is wrong. Shaming people — who’ve done nothing to deserve it — is wrong. Doing these things for a good cause doesn’t make them any less wrong.

“But people won’t nominate their friends for the challenge if they know it’ll cause them shame or embarrassment!” Yeah, right, pull the other one. People don’t know other people as well as they thing they do. People don’t know other people’s personal circumstances. And some people just don’t care about shaming or embarrassing others “for a good cause.” A campaign like this is guaranteed to cause shame and embarrassment to at least some fraction of the people “nominated” to participate in it.

You know that theoretical fibromyalgia sufferer on disability? In fact, she’s not theoretical; she’s a real person who reacted with horror on a Facebook thread after having the Ice Bucket Challenge explained to her.

So, if you think the Ice Bucket Challenge is a good idea, then tell me something… are you too lacking in empathy to understand the shame and embarrassment that it will cause to some people, or do you think it’s OK to cause some shame and embarrassment for a good cause?

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8 thoughts on “Here’s what’s wrong with the Ice Bucket Challenge

  1. Patricia

    I agree strongly with what David says. The fact that it’s public makes it no different. From what I’ve seen, the challenges are being passed carefully to people who are in a position to accept. I find it more offensive when someone does not accept me as an adult who is capable of saying no, than when someone asks me something that I choose to say no to.

    1. jik Post author

      From what I’ve seen, the challenges are being passed carefully to people who are in a position to accept.

      This argument is flawed for three logical reasons and one empirical one.

      1. As I understand it, current estimates are that the Ice Bucket Challenge campaign has raised at least $10 million and wasted at least 5 million gallons of water. Any one person isn’t in the position to see the reaction of more than a tiny fraction of the people participating in the challenge. In other words, your sample is not representative.

      2. Birds of a feather flock together. The people you see participating in the Challenge are people who orbit in the same circles as you and are likely to share attitudes with you. Your sample is not representative.

      3. The nature of social/peer pressure is that the most comment reaction to it by people who are shamed or embarrassed by it is to give in to it and to hide their same and embarrassment. You have no idea how the people you’ve seen participate in the Challenge actually felt about being nominated.

      4. In contrast to your anecdotal experience, I offer this comment of one of my friends who posted my blog posting onto her Facebook wall: “I have gotten private feedback supporting this post–which just strengthens Jon’s point… What I personally object to is the way I see some people pressuring others into doing it.” In short, what you’ve “seen” is not representative of the entirety of people’s experiences.

      I find it more offensive when someone does not accept me as an adult who is capable of saying no…

      Not everything is about you. Are you saying that because you, personally, would not be shamed or embarrassed by being put into a particular situation, anyone else who might be is not worthy of your consideration? Because that seems to be the only way to read your point, and if that’s what you’re saying, it’s indicative of a disturbing lack of empathy and consideration for people different from you.

    1. jik Post author

      There are all kinds of people in the world. The halachic prohibition against embarrassing others (which I believe to be a moral precept which should be observed by everyone, not just by Jews who are commanded to observe it) doesn’t say anything about exempting people who are “weak-willed” [sic]. Rather, someone who causes embarrassment is considered to be at fault even if they had no intention to do so and even if (they believe) they could not have anticipated doing so.

      Certainly, the halacha draws a distinction between intentional and unintentional transgression, the latter being less serious than the former. Certainly such a distinction is also reasonable when considering this from a moral rather than a halachic point of view. But embarrassing someone unintentionally doesn’t make it right, it just makes it less wrong.

  2. David

    This hit my FBsphere so I read it.

    I like to think of myself as a sensitive soul, but if someone nominated me for this, and I didn’t want to do it, I would simply ignore it, or tell my nominator that it’s not for me.

    Yes, many good intentions end up being badly implemented but I don’t see how this is one.

    People can always as me for help, money, etc. and if I think the item is not something I want to do, I have to know how to say no. I don’t see how this is different from any other request that hits my inbox.

      1. David

        I can be nominated publicly but no-one knows if I iced myself or donated.
        I understand you feel strongly about this issue, and I’m here to say that while acknowledging that some people will have been embarrassed or made to feel uncomfortable, I don’t know why this is different from any other social interaction.
        I can interact with someone and find that what I said was completely the wrong thing because they were on their way to a funeral, shiva, hospital, or whatever. But as long as I am reasonably polite and tactful in my everyday interactions I can’t go round assuming that everyone I meet is under stress.
        That would also be a disaster.

        1. jik Post author

          Nominating someone on your Facebook wall to take the ice bucket challenge is not “any other social interaction,” nor is it merely “interact[ing] with someone” who may be “under stress.” Again, IT’S DIFFERENT BECAUSE IT’S PUBLIC. Calling out someone by name on your Facebook wall and “nominating” them to do something they may or may not want to or be able to do is not the same as other social interactions. It’s different.


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