As the frenzy of folks dumping ice water on their heads in the name of ALS research has now begun to fade, with them have gone the voices who were questioning the whole process. Those of you following most forms of social media know that the controversy surrounding the icy act was multifaceted, indeed.
There was debate on whether those who successfully completed the ritual were obligated to give money to the ALS foundation at all (for, at certain points, the challenge was portrayed by some as the “other” option to a monetary donation). There was also concern over whether such a flagrant waste of water actually created its own problem in the midst of one of the worst droughts that certain parts of the US (and indeed, the world) have ever seen. Countless others also asked what it means about the state of humanity when the way that a worthwhile organization manages to succeed in raising funds is by challenging people to do something so comparatively senseless. The following meme sums up many of these concerns:
Of course, it’s entirely possible to have a multiplicity of answers to the questions above, and there’s no doubt that the ALS foundation’s awareness campaign has raised millions of dollars (more specifically, over a hundred million) in the name of fighting a dreadful disease. But the fact that the ALS ice bucket challenge campaign worked still does not answer the question of why reasonable people would engage in an otherwise unreasonable act. As with most everything social, though, I would argue that the matter is an issue of identity.
As I see it, the ALS challenge is really no different from any other sort of identity-making moment. First, it was visible; the public aspect of it is important, since our identities are always crafted in response to (and determined by) others. Who we are, put simply, depends fundamentally on how others see us. Second, the real impetus for most participants was that others were doing it. We all know that the vast number of people who participated would likely not have bothered to pour ice water on their heads and/or provide a donation to the ALS foundation if they weren’t otherwise called out by name and given a time limit (in the case of this challenge, 24 hours). A third (and related) reason is that those who participated were granted an aura of social respectability once they completed the challenge. Whether or not such an act is actually at all connected to any measurable outcome of the sort that the act purports to achieve is immaterial. In other words, pouring ice on your head does not directly help cure ALS, but it does identify one as a good person (“good” because engaging in the act itself – even apart from a donation – was contextualized as an instance of awareness-raising humanitarianism.)
So when we see the ALS challenge as an instance of people simply doing what people do as social creatures – that is, status-building mimicry — we can see why it was such an effective fundraising tool. When there is pressure to be seen as acceptable, even when the boundary line for “acceptable” has shifted into new and unknown territory, people are often quite eager to follow. One could argue that most of our identities involve putting on a sufficient show to prove ourselves close enough to a certain standard to gain inclusion underneath its label. If you’ve read any Judith Butler at all, you’ll know that this is actually one central facet of her definition of gender: it is an ongoing performance in which we are compelled to engage not because it is our biological destiny, but because of the social boundaries that force us to do so if we wish to be seen as acceptable.
One might immediately think of parallel examples wherein people don clothing or engage in acts that don’t stop a disease but otherwise draw attention to it (and here I think of the numerous pro-football teams that have, at one point or another, worn pink jerseys, an act described as a show of solidarity for those suffering with and surviving breast cancer). But if we can set aside for a moment the highly emotional realm of disease prevention, I suspect that we might find the very same dynamics going on in quite normal, if not downright mundane, social events.
Take, for instance, an elaborate wedding. Weddings are, to me, one of the best examples of such a phenomenon. Although weddings are described as rituals of love, I think it’s also fair to say that more often than not they are occasions where people are voluntarily driven into debt by buying completely perishable and temporary items (such as cakes, flowers, and rent-a-tents) and are simultaneously praised for wearing extremely uncomfortable and restrictive clothing. None of these things, of course, has any actual impact on the nature of the relationship between the pair getting married. If it did, then most marital spats could be solved with a chocolate fountain and a DJ. So in the case of this much loved – and ubiquitous—event, we have yet another instance of a series of social acts that almost illogically cause discomfort or inconvenience and that are also largely disconnected from the thing that they purport to be about.
So at the end of the day, if you asked “what kind of world are we living in?!” when you saw the ALS challenge going on, remember that it’s the same old world that it’s always been, one wherein the endless repetitions of socially-normalized acts create status for certain individuals, regardless of the logic behind the process.