Dumping water on my head is easy. Collecting Facebook likes is easy. But my activism is based on more than participating in a popularity contest.
It’s been seven days since I did not dump a bucket of ice water on my head. Also seven days since I was called a “party pooper.”
Let’s get a few things straight:
1. The Ice Bucket Challenge is crazily effective. It would be ludicrous to suggest that raising more than $88 million for the ALS Association, which provides multidisciplinary therapy to ALS patients, isn’t an astounding feat of fundraising. It is.
2. I don’t think “raising awareness” is a bad thing. Awareness can be an empty gesture by people unwilling to take action, but it can also be acknowledgment of something previously under-acknowledged. If raising awareness makes sufferers of ALS feel seen, heard, and valued, then I would never suggest that this awareness is empty.
I am not immune to ALS horror stories—40 years ago, my grandmother fainted and woke up unable to speak. She died within a year. ALS research and patient care is a good cause—a great cause—and I hope that the money raised betters the lives of ALS patients and their families, and funds the research that one day cures the disease.
What would happen if we dumped buckets of ice water on our heads every time a cop shot an unarmed black man? Every time an unnecessary transvaginal ultrasound was performed on a woman seeking an abortion? Every time a public school was closed leaving neighborhood kids no choice but to walk an unsafe route to get an education?
What about every time a congressional squabble resulted in slashing the funding for the National Institute of Health, which includes the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke? What would happen if we exerted the kind of pressure the Ice Bucket Challenge exerts on lawmakers and leaders to make better laws and lead well?
I didn’t dump ice water on my head because I only have so much bandwidth—emotional, social, and financial—and I choose to put it elsewhere. There is already fear among the non-profit circles of funding cannibalism, that people will feel they “already did their part.”
Could I still have played the game and contributed to the virality of the campaign? Sure, but that’d be another Facebook post you saw about ALS and not about murder in Ferguson. Not about the potential closing of the last abortion clinic in Louisiana. Not about the stay on marriage equality in Virginia. Not about the threat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Is any one person responsible for monitoring all of the world’s suffering, from ALS patients to the family of murdered journalist James Foley to the grief of Michael Brown Sr. and Lesley McSpadden? No, of course not. But given that we can’t absorb it all, we have to choose with what we engage.
Going with the charity flow lest my friends call me a party pooper is not engaged citizenship. It’s not informed or intentional. Would I donate to ALS research if it weren’t the cool thing to do? Would I call my representative and insist that he or she vote for more money toward neurological research? Do I know who my representative is? Or where he or she stands on stem cell research? Is this really where I want to spend my bandwidth?
Dumping water on my head is easy. Collecting Facebook likes is easy. Would I love to see the world rid of ALS? You bet, but my activism would be backed by nothing but the desire for the group glow, and that’s not how I like to make my decisions.
ALS research is an incredible cause, but there are a lot of incredible causes. I don’t know how you should make the choices you make about where you donate your money, volunteer your time, or offer up your social media megaphone. I don’t even know exactly how I should make those choices, but I’m sure that a peer-pressured, popularity contest isn’t it.
Role Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.