What Are We Talking About When We Talk About ‘Care’?

By Hannah McGregor

There’s an awful lot of talk about care these days. I’m paying attention to it, because I’m a scholar who has worked quite a bit on care as both a feminist ethical framework and, frankly, a problem

In the broader field of normative ethics, an ethics of care is a feminist intervention that grapples generally speaking with the problem of the other and how we ought to treat them. There are different approaches to producing a normative ethics—an idea of how we ought to be towards one another—such as utilitarianism, which holds that we should make choices that benefit the greatest number of people. The feminist force of an ethics of care lies how it values the kinds of emotional labour and care work that build and sustain networks and that are often responsible for keeping the most vulnerable—those who might be tossed aside in a utilitarian model—alive. 

“Suddenly, everywhere, it seems like care trumps structure. Deadlines, grades, and rubrics have become laughable, their arbitrariness impossible to ignore.”

But care has also been the subject of much critique, particularly by Black and Indigenous scholars who have pointed out how feelings, especially feelings that cluster around the concepts of compassion, empathy, and care, can be used as justification for great violence. Care is often the name in which children are separated from parents, in which state power is extended into the lives and homes of BIPOC and disabled people, in which power decides whose lives matter. The capacity for empathy is the name in which white women extended the guiding hand of colonialism and imperialism that encoded white supremacy in churches and libraries and schools and hospitals. 

This is the context in which I find myself paying particular attention to how we’re talking about care right now. I keep thinking about Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer here in B.C., crying at a press conference in early March. An act that, perhaps, in another time, might have been leveraged against her, a woman in a position of medical authority, was instead praised as a welcome sign of compassion and empathy. These are times, we all seem to agree, when we need a lot more compassion and empathy. These are times when knowledge and expertise, necessary though they may be, come accompanied by feeling. 

That’s as true in the university as it is in public health. In this moment of global and (unequally) shared crisis, the idea that intellectuals and experts need to model disinterestedness or unemotional objectivity is crumbling around us. Academics insisting on a business-as-usual adherence to traditional notions of rigour look more and more out of touch. In the spaces of the university, our classrooms and our conferences and our associations, calls for care are being sounded everywhere. Those of us who teach at universities and colleges are suddenly, unavoidably being reminded of our students’ humanity and our own, in the context of institutions that are invested in us becoming a little less human so we can be a little more efficient. Where a utilitarian approach to the current crisis in post-secondary education might celebrate the efficiencies of digital pedagogy or the “free time” some academics seem to be finding right now, calls for an ethics of care emphasize the networks of connection that make our research and our teaching possible and encourage us all to nurture those networks, even if it’s at the expense of efficiency and utility.  

Suddenly, everywhere, it seems like care trumps structure. Deadlines, grades, and rubrics have become laughable, their arbitrariness impossible to ignore. And these transformations are not unique to the university. As the Canadian government implements wage subsidies that underline the need for a guaranteed basic incometelecommunication companies are suddenly waiving overage fees—all in the name of care. BC is finally opening pathways to a safe supply for drug users, seeming to recognize at last, as so many advocates have been arguing for so long, that drug users are part of our community, and that we cannot let some parts of our community suffer without all of us suffering. In the university, as in the world, we are perhaps realizing that our institutions, our systems, our rigour will not save us. We are being collectively called upon to reimagine these systems in terms of an ethics of care. 

But care as deployed by corporations or by the state in the interests of oppressive systems will not save us. We need to be suspicious when institutions claim to care, and when care is being used to maintain, rather than dismantle, fundamentally dehumanizing systems. As the many inequities and injustices in and beyond the university are being laid bare, care may be leveraged as a way to patch over them. What if we refuse this? What does it look like, as Christina Sharpe puts it, to “think (and rethink and rethink) care laterally, in the register of the intramural, in a different relation than that of the violence of the state”? What forms of care might we enact that are not economized by the state or the university or for-profit ed tech companies? 

Alongside calls for care and empathy, we need to be asking: what does this care look like, and where might it be, to quote Billy-Ray Belcourt, actually in service of the settler colonial state’s “economization of emotion”? We might also ask: who does the burden of care fall on, and how might a depoliticized call for empathy be invisibilizing the very real inequities this crisis lays bare, particularly the urgency of the many forms of underpaid, precarious, and often gendered and racialized front-line work, and care work, that has been declared urgent and essential? Is our care being leveraged to ensure that the university maintains its institutional and imaginative force in the midst of this crisis, rather than being exposed as a site of neoliberal profiteering?

This post was first published in Hook & Eye

Art (used with permission)

Dr. Lucia Lorenzi (B.A. Hons, Simon Fraser University; M.A. Simon Fraser University; PhD, The University of British Columbia) is a scholar, activist, and writer based out of Vancouver, B.C. Her current academic appointment is as SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University, working under the supervision of Dr. Amber Dean. She specializes in trauma theory and Canadian literature and drama, with a broad focus on sexualized and gendered violence in literature and other media. Her dissertation project was a study of the literary and dramatic uses of silence as a subversive technique for representing sexual assault. Her current research focuses on representations of the figure of the perpetrator, with a specific emphasis on perpetrators’ own narratives. Lucia’s research has been published in West Coast LineTOPIA: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, and Canadian Literature. You can find her art on Instagram @empathywarrior

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