Why the Ice Bucket Challenge reminds us of the power of words

Alice Wu says the grace of a government minister and a pastor's passion and courage have renewed her faith in the power of words

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 August, 2014, 2:46am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 August, 2014, 2:46am

In a span of 24 hours last week, I was given one of the biggest lessons in the power of words, and it involved the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge phenomenon that has hit the social media circuit worldwide - including Hong Kong - one government official and an Anglican priest.

The challenge has raised millions of dollars around the world to fight amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The campaign has provided much-needed funding for research into a debilitating disease without a cure. Whether it has promoted water wastage as well is something that can be debated but, for now, let's focus on how a few words can make a world of difference.

Here's how it works: a person who completes the challenge of having a bucket of ice water poured over his or her head may then nominate someone else to do it. So by calling out a name - words - we call others into action. The response has been phenomenal. Even the founders of the charity drive didn't expect the global reach.

When HKTV founder Ricky Wong Wai-kay nominated Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Greg So Kam-leung for the challenge, Wong sarcastically said he did it because he was "indebted" to So, a reference to the government's rejection of HKTV's application for a free-to-air licence. Online users followed up with calls for So to douse himself with sewage and faeces. Perhaps it was all said in the name of fun and games, but it was another example of how ill will can turn good intentions into recriminations.

So could have retaliated. Given the nastiness that has become so prevalent in local politics, it might even have been expected. But, instead, So responded with a call for reconciliation, by citing the saying, "old qualms disappear like melting ice".

Faced with a situation, we can choose how to respond. It is what makes us human. The gift of speech - and, further, of inspiring speech - is one we must not take for granted.

People afflicted with debilitating diseases like ALS know this all too well. For them, motor functions can deteriorate to a point where speaking becomes a painful struggle. To live with that is unfathomable to most.

Last week, I met Reverend Wong Kin-wah, who has been battling another degenerative neurological disorder - multiple-system atrophy - for a few years now. Once a gifted preacher, Wong is now wheelchair-bound and slow in speech. Yet he continues to write, a difficult challenge for someone losing motor control.

Notably, he has penned a collection of essays that bring insight and comfort to his readers. Wong comes across as a person of tremendous strength, courage and wisdom, and he showed me the true power of words.

As we give to charities that provide support and fund research to cure the many degenerative disorders that afflict people, we can all contribute in another way: by choosing our words carefully and with purpose.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA