A few years ago I read a book by Kit Yarrow called Decoding the New Consumer Mind. This book examined the fascinating phenomenon of digital interactions with brands. Before the exposure of brands on a digital level and the ability for people to spread thoughts quickly to an extremely large audience, companies could act like just that: a company. However, the ability the Internet has created for customers to interact with brands through emails, social media sites, and websites has created a new desire among consumers: that brands must have a soul.
This has been demonstrated through several different brand/customer interactions throughout recent history—both good and bad—and forces companies to re-examine both what they believe in on a moral and ethical level as well as how they can respond to their consumer on a level that feels human.
Choosing an ethical model that promotes caring and empathy is what will make the difference between a company thriving in online spaces and becoming a beloved brand and being completely destroyed by outraged consumers.
It is imperative that brands take ethical approaches to online communications seriously and engage the customer’s feelings if they are going to survive in this digital world.
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.