Ordeal or No Deal

August 24, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Students in my criminal justice class were often incredulous when I described the trial by ordeal.  The worth of a person’s testimony is determined by his or her ability to successfully undergo some ordeal.

The Ordeal of Cold Water

An ancient method of testing the guilt or innocence of the common sort of people. The accused, being tied under the arms, was thrown into a river. If he sank to the bottom, he was held to be guiltless, and drawn up by the cord; but if he floated, the water rejected him, because of his guilt. [source]

“But what does floating or sinking have to do with whether the person committed a crime or whether what they say is worth believing?” students would ask. Exactly. Some students even suggest that there’s more than a touch of sadism in this irrational inflicting of suffering. For it is irrational, as my students quickly see. The underlying assumption  –  the equation of worthiness and ordeal – is ridiculous. We enlightened folks in 21st century America would never use such logic, right?

You can see where this is going.

(Jimmy Fallon and Lindsay Lohan)

The logic of the ice-bucket challenge is nothing new.  Walkathons and bikeathons rest on the same idea:  the worthiness of a charity – how much money I will donate – must be based on someone else undergoing an ordeal. Walking or biking some distance are the popular default ordeals. The person entering the event makes a deal with me, a potential contributor. The longer the ordeal, the more I must contribute.  Presumably, if the person winds up not walking, then our deal is off, and I need not contribute a penny. The charity is not worthy of my money. 

These and other “thons” are now  so common that they no longer get much attention.  The ice bucket challenge is different mostly in its degree of success, which is considerable. That success owes much to the involvement of actors, sports stars, and the like. Celebrities still endorse products, but somewhat less directly – all those jocks sporting the Nike logo or Britney dancing in a video with lots of Pepsi –  not quite the same as Ronald Reagan telling us straight out to smoke Chesterfields or O.J. Simpson talking up Hertz car rentals. So when celebrities speak in favor of something, especially something that they have no financial stake in, we pay attention.

The underlying logic of endorsements is also not quite in keeping with enlightened rationality.  Are the opinions of high-status people and their willingness to undergo an ordeal valid indicators of a charity’s virtue? Yet we seem to think that if Lindsay Lohan is willing to have Jimmy Fallon dump a bucket of ice water on her, ALS must be a more worthy cause than others I could write a check to.

The other interesting thing about the ice bucket challenge is that it seems not to have been planned. It was not an ad campaign cooked up and widely promoted by some PR firm hired by the ALS foundation.  Instead, it seems to have been a lucky accident, unplanned and unpredicted.  It started small and grew gradually until it eventually went viral.* 

Through it all, a few observers have pointed out the logical fallacy in the ice bucket assumption. I refer of course to the Enlightenment rationalist Charlie Sheen, who dumped a bucket of room-temperature greenbacks on himself, challenging us to admit what the game was really about – money for a charity – and that the ice water was irrelevant.  And then there was Sheen’s fellow philosophe Patrick Stewart who made the same point, though with more style.

* In an earlier post (here), I used Gabriel Rossman’s ideas about exogenous and endogenous influences in the spread of ideas. If we could see a graph of contributions to ALS or even of videos and tweets, we would have a better idea of whether the popularity of the ice bucket was centrally planned or whether it followed the endogenous person-to-person model.

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