False Dichotomies: Ferguson and the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Time, money, and energy are finite resources that each of us must budget. Sometimes it's difficult not to judge or criticize people whose passion seems to be directed toward causes that are inconsistent with our own priorities.
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Two weeks ago, I received a Facebook notification informing me that I'd been tagged in an ALS Ice Bucket Challenge video by my beloved brother-in-law. Later that day, I received a personal message from a more distant, but also beloved, family member, telling me how much my participation in the challenge would mean to her, because her son -- who's about my age -- had recently been diagnosed with ALS. My reluctance to douse myself in freezing-cold water immediately dissolved. A few hours later, with the help of my kids, I filmed and posted my own Ice Bucket video. Then I went to ALSA.org and made a donation.

Over the ensuing days, more and more friends posted Ice Bucket videos. At the same time, others asked how so many people could waste buckets of water given the drought conditions here in California. Several people I know suggested that the ice-bucket meme is an unwelcome distraction from more important issues, such as racial conflict and abuse of power by law enforcement authorities, as exemplified by the recent tragic deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and other innocent black men. Other friends shared an article challenging Americans' generosity to causes like breast cancer, prostate cancer, and (recently) ALS, when other diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, kill so many more people.

I began to feel defensive. How could people I like and respect interpret my simple and spontaneous effort to help draw attention and resources to a debilitating disease as an indicator of selfishness, ignorance, misplaced priorities, or even callousness regarding other important causes? Then I began to question my own decisions: Should I have saved those two gallons of water? Posted my thoughts about Ferguson instead of an ice bucket video? Given my donation to a different cause?

Finally, after turning these questions over and over in my mind, here's where I arrived.

There's so much going on in the world right now that it can be overwhelming. Social media users, especially, are inundated with an unceasing stream of crises. Ebola! ISIS! Ukraine! Gaza! Ferguson! Not to mention pleas to contribute to an abundance of truly worthy causes: In my Facebook feed this week alone, these include breast, prostate, and ovarian cancer, childhood cancer research, heart disease, lung disease, the United Negro College Fund, homeless shelters, local schools, community farms, and more. It's hard not to experience compassion fatigue when our heartstrings are pulled in so many directions.

No individual can solve all the world's problems. But we can each contribute to real progress on a few specific issues. Time, money, and energy are finite resources that each of us must budget. Sometimes it's difficult not to judge or criticize people whose passion seems to be directed toward causes that are inconsistent with our own priorities. (It's more complicated when it comes to folks whose efforts directly conflict with our own values and beliefs -- or with actual facts -- but that's not what I'm not talking about here.) Let's not create false dichotomies. It may be tempting to ask, "why give $100 to the ALS Association when you could have given it to [my favorite charity]?" but for many people, that $100 donation would've stayed in their wallets rather than going to another charity. Furthermore, beyond raising millions for ALS, the Ice Bucket Challenge actually stimulated creative and effective efforts to bring desperately-needed attention and resources to many other causes. When we expand the overall amount of awareness, compassion, and philanthropic giving, society as a whole benefits.

To me, the most wonderful side effect of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge meme is that it stimulated so much thought and discussion -- and action -- about not just one disease, but also many other important issues. When my friends and colleagues post poignant and powerful reminders about racial injustice in the criminal justice system, I remember why this issue is so important to them, and to me, and to our broader society. I've thought more about other diseases that need increased research funding. I've reflected more about good and bad uses of California's scarce water supply. And I've developed greater respect for many friends who've chosen to publicly douse themselves, as well as many friends who declined the ice bucket shower and challenged us to focus our attention on other concerns about which they are passionate.

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