As one friend recently told me, I often tend to succumb to the all-too-familiar temptation of employing elaborate narratives to conceal spite. For whatever merits the phenomenon of a contemporary hater might hold, one should be open about it. I’ve heard about the Ice Bucket Challenge. I’ve seen my social media news feeds swamped with photos of my people pouring icy water on themselves. I’m aware that it’s for charity and – shocker – I’ve heard Oprah Winfrey has done it. And, yet, its whiff of insincerity sickens me.
Why rain on such a parade of bitesize altruism, you may ask? Isn’t that a bright example of the contageous power of social media to, however briefly, awaken us from our narcissistic daze with a drop of bracing, unpretentious goodness? It is precisely the apparent credibility of this account, the smoothness with which it slips down our willing throats, that makes me lose faith in the sincerity of my fellow mammals.
Honesty itself is the unfortunate prerequisite for one’s assessment of the honesty of his actions. So, let us start with a bit of it: how many participants in the Ice Bucket Challenge are doing it because they truly care about raising awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis? Perhaps less than a couple percent? How many celebrities who partook in the viral pactice did it for reasons other than self-promotion? That share, too, probably amounts to a couple percent. Most people, patritians and plebeans alike, complete the Ice Bucket Challenge because the daring is socially appealing, and the humanization of faces behind retouched selfies wields a flare of sexy.
Yet, none of this is ethically repulsive per se. People do ostentatious things on a daily basis, and one can hardly hold a grudge against the extrovert, flashy zeitgeist so vividly portrayed on social media. The problem with phenomena such as the Ice Bucket Challenge is the misuse and trivialization of their premise – the it’s for a good cause argument. These all-absolving few lines, so far removed from their remotest significance in a snowball of mass vanity, have been reduced to an infantile excuse, if ever they meant something more. The feeble pretense of a cause emerges from oblivion only when it is needed to justify showing off. And in the case of the Ice Bucket Challenge, this happens to be a terrible disease.
The funds raised in the process will certainly help efforts to fight amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. But this end result does nothing more than to illustrate the compatibility of individual incentives. Medical researchers benefit from the Ice Bucket Challenge because they get means for needed work. Patients diagnosed with ALS will hopefully benefit from these researchers’ breakthroughs. Celebrities will get their brownie points with their audiences and the audiences themselves will have their laughs. And everyone else pouring ice water over their heads will get their share of unsanctioned attention-seeking entertainment. This arrangement very much resembles a classic model of free market success, except that every party involved pretends that a higher purpose exists. In a sense, the recent craze of Neknominate, where senseless drinking dares were an end in itself, held more honesty than the Ice Bucket Challenge holds.
This dishonesty is the most irritating aspect of the whole ordeal. The it’s for charity line is not even a lie – it rather falls into the category that the American philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt described as bullshit. As Frankfurt argues, the fundamental difference between a liar and a bullshiter is that the former admits some sort of value to the truth of a proposition by lying, while the later simply doesn’t care about the truth. The bullshiter, not the liar, has no regard for the truth-value of a claim, and makes it solely because he stands to gain from it (e.g. it sounds good). In this regard, participants in the Ice Bucket Challenge are not guilty of lying about its charitable underlining – their references to the good cause are more appropirately called bullshit.
People seem to notice this sort of hypocrisy only when faced with its most overt form. During a recent awareness raising campaign titled “Bring Back Our Girls”, aimed at saving some three hundred unfortunate Nigerian children likely tormented in captivity, Russian model Irina Shayk decided to join in by posting a provocative photo of herself holding the slogan. The attention-seeking thirst was so obvious that the public soon called bullshit on her activist stint. I wonder if today we need another such exposure, with the likes of Ms. Shayk dipping into icy water in an alluring bikini, to reach a similar conclusion. Until then, I reluctantly assume the unpopular task of calling BS on the Ice Bucket Challenge.