Blackmailed – How Solidarity Drowned in a Sea of Ice Buckets

In the last few weeks there was no escape from pictures showing friends and strangers from all wakes of life dumping buckets of ice-cold water on their heads. What on the surface is being marketed as a fun activity for a serious cause says in fact a lot about contemporary humanitarian sensibilities and patterns of solidarity.

It all started innocuously enough: An ex-American baseball player contracted the nerve disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). There is no cure for the disease, its sufferers lose control over muscle activity, become unable to move and eventually die. A brother of the baseball player came up with the Ice Bucket Challenge and encouraged other sport personalities to participate, and in mid-2014 it had become viral on social media.

For those who were on holiday and thus missed the Ice Bucket Challenge hype, the rules are as follows: Somebody within your social networks on the web summons you to dump an ice-water bucket on your head and put a video of this publicity stunt online. Alternatively, you can ‘free’ yourself from the challenge by donating a specified sum, usually 100 pounds or euros or dollars, to the ALS association (or related charities). In addition, you have to summon three other people who within 24 hours need to bite the bucket or make the donation. And so it goes on and on, from eternity to eternity, amen.

Undoubtedly, countless silly schemes can be found on the various social networking platforms, thus why did the Ice Bucket Challenge with its focus on some obscure disease rise to such prominence? Part of the answer is that a number of charity-celebrities jumped on board early on as quasi pioneers. One of them was Bill Gates, a man who is one of the biggest philanthro-capitalists of our time. From a self-designed gallows-like structure the contents of a huge ice-bucket descend like a deluge on him – watched more than 18 million times on YouTube. And in line with the majority of those who ‘accept’ the challenge, he makes a donation regardless of the fact that the ice bucket shower is to buy participants out. Thus what is there to critique about what appears to be a classical win-win situation for a good cause?

Firstly, there is the mob, or the type of peer pressure that almost amounts to blackmail. Once publicly nominated via the net, one risks being named and shamed if refusing to participate. And as any data on the net is not easily ‘forgotten’ or erased, being ‘marked’ in this way may come to haunt high-profile refuseniks. Whether you believe that contemporary diseases and suffering are far too serious for ice-bucket self-indulgence, or in line with faith-based traditions that charitable engagement should be a private act of compassion not a public display, who wants to be branded as a notorious un-charitable giver?

Secondly, those dynamics demonstrate that the challenge is no longer about ALS sufferers or other charitable causes, but about the self-image and success of participants. As such it is in line with what Lilie Chouliaraki calls a post-humanitarian understanding of solidarity as irony, where charitable acts are not directed at those suffering but conducted for one’s own fulfilment, fun and enjoyment.

Thirdly, performing solidarity via social media in this haphazardly fashion points to a core feature in the contemporary system of humanitarian sensibility. Aided by celebrity humanitarians and corporate philanthropy it focuses on causes with a clear moral framework and on a demand for action that poses no challenge to the lifestyle of the charitable giver. In doing so, it perpetuates global inequalities and hierarchies and distorts social and political priorities. Just to remind us, the two months of the Ice Bucket Challenge hype happened to overlap with a serious outbreak of the Ebola virus as well as with a devastating war in Gaza – among other global humanitarian and political crises.

Probably the best verdict on the Ice Bucket Challenge episode comes in the form of satire that picks up on another issue of global humanitarian concern, access to clean water: A small black boy somewhere in Africa known as Michael, the fundraising actor from a satirical video by the Africa for Norway project entitled ‘Let’s save Africa –Gone Wrong’, asks a ‘Western’ visitor: ‘So, let me get this straight: You waste clean water as a challenge, in order to avoid raising money for charity?’

Maybe once we grow tired of laughing at dripping look-alikes, the hype around the Ice Bucket Challenge can make us pause – and remind us of other forms of compassion and solidarity, shown in concrete political action or humanitarian engagement rather than voyeuristic performances. But who would bet on it?

Background sources:

RADI-AID, Africa for Norway:

DONATE YOUR RADIATOR – can satire challenge the international aid business?:


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One Response to Blackmailed – How Solidarity Drowned in a Sea of Ice Buckets

  1. Pingback: ‘All you need is Ecuador’? Some reflections on the ethics of tourism and international volunteering in the wake of Charlie Hebdo | aspiration&revolution

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