Within feminist theory, where care ethics originated, there are many different veins of thought; however, there are some common threads within the theories. Mary Lay listed out some common feminist characteristics in her 1991 article Feminist theory and the redefinition of technical communication. She said the shared characteristics include:
- Celebration of difference
- Theory activating social change
- Acknowledgment of scholars’ backgrounds and values
- Inclusion of women’s experiences
- Study of gaps and silences in traditional scholarship
- New sources of knowledge—perhaps a benefit of the five characteristics above (p. 349–350)
This list of characteristics that traditional feminist scholarship all share is reflected in the care ethics model. For example, the study of gaps in traditional scholarship is precisely what led Carol Gilligan to challenge the justice-based morality measurement system her mentor used. From that, she developed and built up the theory of care ethics. The inclusion of women’s care-based approaches can also be seen as moral maturity in Gilligan’s theory, where moral maturity was previously measured with a more masculine outlook in the justice-based measurement. Some feminists challenge this care-centered approach, saying that it engenders caring to women. They argue that the different ethical approaches of men and women are a result of societal constructs and that assigning “caring” to women further perpetuates the societal expectation on women to be nurturing. However, care-focused feminists assert that caring is not a woman’s approach, but rather a human approach and that applying relational ethics and care ethics to different moral dilemmas produces a more well-rounded ethical approach to situations and people than the objective and detached justice ethics.
In regards to care ethics and feminist theory in technical and professional communications, Erin Frost, a professor at East Carolina University, asks some very important questions in her 2016 article Apparent feminism as a methodology for technical communication and rhetoric. “How might feminist technical communicators persuasively point out the bias inherent in all worldviews, even those that people often perceive as neutral? How might they intervene in unjust situations, particularly in technical contexts in which objectivity is highly valued? And how might they best decide which situations are most deserving of this sort of attention?” (p. 4). By acknowledging that all communications are built on a worldview and ethical model (or lack thereof), different approaches to ethics can be explored and matched with the model that fits, which, in my opinion, if often care ethics.
Listening is a skill that many people think they’ve mastered but, in reality, lack a deeper understanding of this ability. I was in a workshop this summer, and my professor turned us onto this book: Rhetorical Listening (2005) by Krista Ratcliffe. My professor talked about the principles in the book and the common reasons we listen: to use the information for our benefit or to defend against what has been said. These two listening approaches limit us in our understanding of others, but rhetorical listening allows us to listen and understand/empathize, not to take or debate their thoughts. In other words, listening is something that we do naturally, but rhetorical listening is something we must learn and develop.
Taking this concept and adding in care ethics principles, only with rhetorical listening can someone truly understand and care for the other person. The four ways to implement care ethics, as created by Joan Tronto, are as follows: (1) attentiveness, (2) responsibility, (3) competence, and (4) responsiveness. By applying rhetorical listening and looking at it through a care ethics lens, one can see how this would improve understanding across all kinds of barriers and differences; changing why we listen to others and making us more attentive and responsive to their needs.
Now, applying these concepts to a digital realm, it is clear to me how online interactions would benefit greatly from this approach. It is easy for instructors/students/peers/strangers to get into arguments online when someone is just listening to respond or defend, and it is easy for a company to digitally interact with their audience in a way that focuses on what the company wants rather than what consumers want—constantly ready to defend. This often is the natural response in digital spaces because it is easy to see online writings as unattached to any human feelings. As ideas rather than people. But, by approaching these writings and conversations with an empathetic mindset, listening becomes a much more valuable tool to learn about the other’s needs and how to meet them.
Eric Leake wrote an article in 2016 titled Writing Pedagogies of Empathy: As Rhetoric and Disposition. This quote stood out to me as an important way to look at digital writing through an empathetic lens: “Teaching empathy as rhetoric has broad application as a suitable means of more closely examining the personal, social, and rhetorical functions of reason, emotions, and judgments. Empathy can be a means of invention, a heuristic, a way of considering audience and situation, an instrument of revision, and a tool for critical analysis. Teaching empathy as rhetoric attunes us to all of its possible uses and liabilities as a means of persuasion.”
When we look at writing through this lens, it makes it clear that online spaces host the emotions of real, feeling people. Their need to be cared for should influence the approach one takes towards rhetoric in online conversations. The approach to digital writing needs to change from blunt to caring—after all, they are human! Writing in digital forms should look beyond the abstract presence it often presents and consider the audience to see that digital interactions are with people rather than concepts.
For example, when writing in an online classroom, one should take the same level of caring for others that they give in real life. In professional settings, such as with an email campaign, the focus should be on what the audience needs to hear rather than what the company wants to say. By implementing this level of honesty rather than a utilitarian approach, audiences feel cared for, that their needs are met, and that their loyalty to the company is well placed. This, in turn, benefits the reputation of the company and attachment to the brand.
I stumbled across an amazing book written by Milton Mayeroff titled On Caring. While the book was written in 1971, it holds some extremely valuable principles that, when applied to today’s online ethical dilemmas, help support a care ethics approach to digital and professional writing. In this post, I’m going to explore one of his principles on caring for a person (or audience) and how this concept can be applied to modern-day digital rhetoric.
In the first few pages of his book, Mayeroff writes, “And here too, whatever the important differences are between caring for a person and caring for an idea, I would like to show that the is a common pattern of helping the other grow” (p. 2). This quote is preceded by the exploration of the different things people care for and the different ways they do so. Taking this quote and applying it to digital rhetoric, I focus in on the concept of people vs. ideas.
One of the biggest challenges I notice digital writers facing is that they see the rhetoric on the screen or the email list that has been gathered as an idea rather than people. This can lead to a more aggressive or utilitarian approach to writing, making the focus on oneself or the ends rather than the receiver or audience. As Mayeroff writes, central to caring for others is helping them grow; by framing digital spaces with an ethical model such as care ethics, the focus moves away from How does this benefit me? to How does this benefit or care for my audience? This crucial shift in thought makes all the difference in how one approaches writing in digital spaces–whether it is a professional email campaign, online classroom, or Web 2.0 interaction.