The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge: Is there any value in celebrity slacktivism?

ALS Ice Bucket Challenge the charity that has celebrities and social media throwing buckets of ice cold water over themselves, in the name of charity.
ALS Ice Bucket Challenge the charity that has celebrities and social media throwing buckets of ice cold water over themselves, in the name of charity.

I’m not a big fan of any of the portmanteau words that have emerged from the internet age but the term slacktivism is surprisingly effective. Slacktivism is when people do something to raise awareness for a charity/cause/issue but nothing else.

Like re-tweeting a post on Twitter or liking a cause on Facebook –  slacktivism brings attention to the fact that you care about a cause. It doesn’t actively do anything to help a  said cause unless you have the kind of social efficacy that someone like Mark Wahlberg or John Green has – which most of us don’t! For us, slacktivism has very little practical effect and takes very little effort on our part.

Celebrities can kind of get away with slacktivism because although they aren’t necessarily directly helping a charity by showing their support, they are able to act persuasively to convince others to donate.

Philanthropy is better but slacktivism has a certain value. Charities can benefit greatly from the wealth, exposure and social power that their celebrity supporters bring. Being associated with a loved and trusted celebrity can boost the profile of a charity at the same time as lending it a sense of legitimacy and increasing the public’s trust in its work.

For example, you might see an advert for UNICEF and think, “If Ewan McGregor trusts them and says they do good work, then I guess they must do.” And then hopefully you donate.

There are two big problems with celebrity slacktivism. Firstly, it disenfranchises the very people it aims to help. Whilst it is certainly important to publicise human suffering and the ways we can help to end it, it is also important to give a voice to those who are directly involved.

Otherwise, we risk being oppressive and dismissive of those who are actually experiencing suffering or derailing marginalised groups by not allowing them to speak for themselves. We risk reinforcing incorrect and damaging stereotypes that should have been abandoned a long time ago.

Secondly, those who are actually experiencing suffering and oppression, understand it in a way that others simply cannot. It is impossible for someone who has not lived through a certain experience to ever fully understand it.

By allowing privileged people to represent less privileged people, we are suggesting that they are not able to speak for themselves, that we do not want them to speak for themselves or that we do not believe that their opinion has value. None of which are or should be true.

One of the most frequently voiced criticisms of the ‘ALS Ice Bucket Challenge’ has been that it is a form of celebrity slacktivism. Many have questioned the morality of throwing water over yourself in order to avoid having to donate to a charity, even if it does raise awareness of said charity. With a drought in California and thousands of children across the world living without access to clean water or even, in some cases, any water at all, it does seem like a needless waste of a precious commodity.

If you complete the challenge, you’re only required to donate $10 or £5. If you don’t do it, you’re supposed to donate $100. I suspect there are quite a few people who have refused or just ignored a nomination without donating at all.

It’s not as if anyone’s going to come after them for not donating. And how many of us have actually watched our favourite celebrities completing the challenge, laughed and then moved on without donating anything to the ALS Association? Is the Ice Bucket Challenge anything more than a narcissistic waste of water? Well, yes, actually.

Firstly, raising awareness of a cause is not a bad thing. It’s perhaps not the most helpful thing you can do but it is still needed. Secondly, the Ice Bucket Challenge has raised a lot of money for the ALS Association. According to the ALS Association, as of Tuesday 26th August, they have received $88.5 million in donation.

Last year, in the same time period, they raised a comparable $2.6 million. Furthermore, a large number of these donations came from 1.9 million new donors as well as existing donors. The ALS Association reckons that they are receiving an average of $9 million a day.

It’s worth considering that complaining about slacktivism is a pointless and ultimately futile exercise. It’s unlikely to stop people from engaging in or with it and it’s not going to make us feel any better.

Cynicism is boring and in this particular case, it helps no one. What does help is to see someone else engaging in slacktivism and telling ourselves that we can do better. Find out what you can actually do to help a cause, rather than complaining about people who, whilst they are maybe not directly helping, are at the very least raising awareness.

Now you’re aware, go and do something about it. Whilst we’re here, it’s also worth pointing out that just because your reason for helping someone is to make yourself feel good, it’s still worth doing.

Written by (Naomi Smith PGC Journalism Student at Birkbeck College.) Follow Naomi on Twitter 

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