US elections and its backdrop: precarity and fear

The recent United States Presidential Election have drastically increased the sense of precarity for many individuals resulting in protest and unrest.
Part I of a series of care ethical comments on the US elections.

Care Ethics in Precarious times

Maurice Hamington
Director of University Studies
Professor of Philosophy
Portland State University

The 2016 film, Two Days, One Night is a fascinating contemporary study of invoking care in a context of perceived scarcity.  In a Belgian industrial town, Sandra (played by Marion Cotillard), a young wife and mother, works in a small solar-panel factory. She suffers a nervous breakdown and takes time off from her job. During her absence, her colleagues cover her shifts by working longer hours.  The company’s management offers a €1,000 bonus to all staff if they agree to eliminate Sandra’s position. Sandra returns to work only to discover that her fate rests with her sixteen co-workers who will vote on whether to retain her or receive the bonus. In an effort to promote care and human connection, Sandra decides to visit each of her co-workers over the course of a weekend to persuade them to reject the monetary bonus. However, the visitations reveal that most of her co-workers need the proposed bonus for their own families and Sandra faces an uphill battle to keep her job before the crucial vote on Monday morning.  The story is one of precarity—both real and perceived.  The movie is troubling in its depiction of how close individuals can be to destitution and yet it is also hopeful in that the precarious circumstances can be resolved with innovation and heart.  Unfortunately, the precarity depicted in Two Days, One Night is an all-too-common experience.

Precarity is defined as an existence, both a physical state and a psychological state, marked by a lack of consistency and predictability sometimes spurred by job and food insecurity.  In contrast, care ethics describes a relational approach to morality that offers the hope of consistency in human presence and responsiveness.  In this sense, caring relationships are the opposite of precarity.  Nel Noddings described care as entailing the fundamental response, “I am here” whereas precarity is characterized by uncertainty as to the future and whether any support is available.  Care is what we hope for in our friends and our family and is an ideal for social support.  The need and deployment of care in an era of precariousness is worthy of our ongoing consideration.

The UK vote to leave the European Union and the recent United States Presidential Election have drastically increased the sense of precarity for many individuals resulting in protest and unrest. In November the majority of American people voted for Hilary Clinton but their efforts were thwarted by an archaic electoral system.  The result is what one pundit referred to as the moral equivalent of the 9/11 attacks.  Many theories abound about what went wrong to create these social earthquakes which seem to fly in the face of modern history’s march toward a more connected and caring society.  I am going to leave the search for political strategies and tactics to those more qualified than I to address them.  Indeed, I am concerned about the path the West has recently chosen and I will support activists who oppose alienation, oppression, scapegoating, and fearmongering but as a care theorist, I want to offer a long-term response rooted in moral education and how we relate to one another rather than a short term strategy for resistance.  In discussing care, I am suggesting that establishing interpersonal knowledge and skills of understanding serve to diminish the possibility of precarity.

One narrative of precarity that emerged on both sides of the Atlantic was attached to immigration and changing cultural demographics with perceived economic harm.  Fear is the watchword.  A kind of two-fold fear that has created alienation on multiple levels.  First there is white male fear of loss and harm of privilege.  This results in sexist and racist political discourse that in turn created fear for people of color, the LGBTQ community, women, and immigrants who fear greater oppression.  The language of stereotyping populations results in demeaning caricatures witnessed in campaign phrases such as “rapists and murderers” or “basket of deplorables.”  This rampant fearmongering has contributed to pervasive precarity.  Worry and distrust abide.  Political organizations seem to revel in promoting fear that motivates support for their side.  In this environment, politics is viewed as an ongoing game for which there are winners and losers, a zero-sum game.  In the context of game playing, conservative and regressive forces have won this round but through better tactics a different result may occur in the next round.  What we have lost in this pervasive precarity is the hope for social cohesion that includes widespread investment in the wellbeing of one another across intersectional identity difference.  I would like to offer an alternative, perhaps idealistic, approach to the current precarity by offering four points about care.  What we need is a means to turn a zero-sum game into a positive-sum game where everyone benefits.

First, care must be seen as a common and worthy human ideal.  Everyone knows the essential place of care but it is sometimes pushed aside by powerful social narratives that foment division and precarity.  Care needs its own populist movement, not as altruism but a belief that we must care for ourselves and those around us without an artificial sense of scarcity.  We have abundant resources—both material and emotional—for care.  Yes, I am a limited being but my ability to care for others can extend well beyond my needs and the needs of my family.  The flourishing of others need not be seen as impinging upon my wellbeing.  Everyone requires authentic care no matter what their political affiliation.  We are all vulnerable at times in our lives and seek support from one another to survive and flourish.  If we cannot agree that humans need care and that we must do our best to extend our care, it makes it challenging to proceed onto any other ground for collaboration. Care is the basis of human morality.

Second, a care ethical approach is much less concerned with adjudication than it is with human sustenance and connection.  In other words, determining who is “right” is less important than figuring out how we can work to meet everyone’s needs moving forward.  Accordingly, care is the antithesis of “othering” or treating someone as if they are something less than human.  “Othering “is a form of establishing personal distance by labeling someone.  Alienating labels can make the person using them feel comfortable but it does not reflect our interconnectedness.  Care involves listening, authentic respect, and a search for understanding of others.  Accordingly, care entails listening to those for whom we disagree.  However, caring for someone should not be interpreted as condoning what their actions.  Understanding the individuals in the Alt-Right, Tea Party, or Euro-Scepticism movement is not the same as justifying divisive activities.

Care as respectful engagement leads to a third point; care work is knowledge work.  It is a form of inquiry that can foment connection.  Active listening means remembering that the other individuals are people like ourselves with family, hopes, dreams, and fears. This means setting aside labels and endeavoring to come to know the context and motivation of others. Also, listening has benefits beyond knowledge creation. If people felt truly and authentically listened to, it communicates respect and contributes to trust.  We live in a highly innovative society and we need to find means for people to feel listened to and meaningfully responded to.  The fourth and final point, is that the skills of caring need to be an important part of everyone’s education.  Our citizenries should be equipped with the skills to empathize with others.  As such, caring is a form of emotional critical thinking.  If our education systems instilled extensive empathy and compassion skills, we cannot be certain that any election will have a particular result but we would know that our decisions are informed by a deeper understanding of others.  Moral education should facilitate empathetic readiness in its citizenry.

Recently, those who work in the field of care ethics have been buoyed by the influx of accomplished political theorists who have explored systemic markers of care in political entities such as rights, policies, and practices of care.  These are extremely productive conversations that have advanced both practical and theoretical understandings of care.  However, the emphasis on legal, resource, and policy solutions should not come at the expense of considering the fundamental human element of social and political life.  The contemporary origins of care ethics were in feminist psychology (Gilligan) and philosophy (Noddings) and their disciplinary trajectories do not have to be viewed as in opposition to political solutions.  We cannot forget that the most basic experience of care is visceral: felt at the individual, person-to-person level.  Diminishing precarity is another way of thinking about national security at the grassroots level.  Rather than protecting borders, if we facilitate inclusion and connection then we can promote a different kind of national security.  There is much to be concerned about in the current climate of precarity and forthright resistance is necessary but for the long term we should redouble our efforts to exercise our fundamental human capacity to care.  We need a populist movement for caring.

 

About the author: Maurice Hamington