Revisiting Ethics of Care in Academic Lives

There is a need to move beyond the understanding of sexual harassment as a “codifiable” neat concept which, while needed to navigate the terrain of the legal–judicial in sexual harassment committees, is not enough to encapsulate problematic everyday social relations in deeply gendered academic sites.

Our[1] academic world has been rocked by the question of sexual harassment in higher educational institutions. However, what has occupied many of us, somewhat more than the actual question of sexual harassment, is the modality through which the question has been posed. This refers to the list (containing names of alleged sexual harassers) which was publicised on Facebook, and a corresponding statement in Kafila that expressed deep concern about this particular modality. Following that, arguments over authority, credibility, privilege, and generational divides have been quite polarising, thereby either qualifying or disqualifying claims of how sexual harassment within academic spaces can be documented and made intelligible. While the statement in Kafila seems to have read the list as disregarding and jeopardising the histories of struggle and ongoing efforts to make legal and bureaucratic institutions accountable, I read the statement as a caution against an easy interpellation[2] of “sexual harassers” in academic institutions. Following the statement, many related discussions pointed out how the statement had failed to adequately situate the list within the limitations of institutional channels and practices addressing sexual harassment. In this reflective article, I think through an “ordinary ethics of care” to make some sense of the crisis in understanding that seems to have emerged through these different interpretations and polarisations. 


Ethics of Care

The question of care has a large body of work behind it—emerging primarily in conversation with Kantian and utilitarian ethics and lending an alternative approach in response to the limitations of liberal political theories of justice.[3] Feminist scholarship has furthered the care approach by placing the question of relationality and interdependency squarely with the social. This, however, has posed certain dilemmas for feminist discourse and practice, because care is also problematically used within colonial narratives and neo-liberal state policies, either reinforcing gendered roles and/or legitimising socio-economic hierarchies. Care is therefore a contested concept, and its deployment needs to occur along with an analysis of who is caring for whom, why, and under what circumstances. 


In this article, I am trying to deploy care as a way to attend to the ethical in everyday academic liberal spaces in order to counter gendered power and misogynies. To that end, I appeal for an “ordinary ethics of care.” The concept of ordinary ethics has many elements across philosophical and anthropological discourse; a core question underlying these discourses is “how best to live”?[4] This question may not invoke a transcendental self, but is situated within the mundane and everyday actions, speech, and practices. This can include self-care and regard for others as two constitutive positionalities rather than mutually opposed. Now, self-care and regard, in addition to being philosophical topics of discussion, are also intrinsically woven into the mundane and everyday, and may be called upon during encounters that cannot be captured by formal concepts, but through the gestural, accusations, nervous laughter and so on. An ordinary ethics of care therefore involves sustained engagement with forms of everyday actions, speech and practices that may exceed intelligible and/or formalised vocabularies.  


Interrogating the Limits of Liberal Disciplinary Spaces

In trying to interpret the statement and the list as well as discussions around them, I sensed a limitation and frustration in our liberal disciplinary selves. That liberal academic spaces are not outside hierarchies of gender, caste, sexuality, religious affiliation, and geographical location is nothing new. But this is surely not a matter for theoretical reflection alone, but instead an ethical one as well because it is situated within the everyday practical challenges that students, faculty, and administrative staff encounter in classrooms, corridors, canteens, and offices. Do the specificities of actions, speech, and practices overlap as well as differ across these particular sites within a larger university space? At the same time, are they not simultaneously taken for granted and also contested in the everyday? 


Questions of intentionality, obligations to be precise, psychic violations, and intellectual injuries are only some of the many challenges that populate our ordinary everyday interactions within liberal academic spaces. We either take these challenges for granted and/or fail to counter them due to a lack of linguistic tools and/or a perceived uselessness of our voices. It is impossible to meet these challenges unless there is both individual and collective commitment to ethically listen to and reorient moments of everyday speech and action as part of a practice of care in liberal academic spaces. 


I deploy the term “care” to draw attention to a feminist sensibility of acknowledging the mutually constitutive relation between the self and the other. This includes the interdependence and the vulnerabilities of this relationality, while at the same time, taking note of our limit experiences[5] around the question of gender, caste, sexuality, religious affiliations, and geographical location. The ethical in our liberal academic everyday is not just about challenging and remaking exclusionary institutional norms through invocations of rights and claims for formal justice. It is also not just about demanding courteous behavior based on liberal normative models in professional spaces. The ethical can also mean paying attention to how social hierarchies with varied configurations of power are maintained through elaborate epistemic frames, some of which may also be quite liberal and disciplinary. This implies accountability not only towards the legal–juridical, but also towards ordinary intersubjective contexts. So, this could mean being attentive to, listening to, and writing about the diverse experiences of gendered power within and beyond a predefined understanding of sexual harassment. 


The term sexual harassment, as deployed in the list, may or may not contain only interactions that are non-consensual and imposed. Can we use the moment of interpellation of sexual harassers to take a hard look at interactions in our academic everyday that are beyond the limits of formal intelligibility? What if we use the interpellation as an entry point to note the micro forms of ordinary gendered (intersected with casteist and homophobic) speech, actions, and practices within our liberal academic everyday, some of which may also be lived within consensual teacher–student and colleague–colleague relations? 


Our feminist politics in general and queer feminist politics in particular have taught us that the attempt to acknowledge the “other” in ways that neither subsume the “other” through terms that are produced by the “I,” nor make the “other” abject, is an extremely difficult and challenging exercise. 


Liberal disciplinary training does not make this effort necessarily easy, but is often used by academics to intellectually gloss over problematic speech and action. Hence, linguistic injuries and civil impunities are either dismissed or remain unacknowledged. So, can we use the list to think about the effects of our liberal disciplinary training? To this end, can we interrogate the limits of what we understand as consensual speech and act? This would mean consensual, not only as agreed upon by individuals, but as understood within disciplinary boundaries as well, and hence considered legitimate. I am perhaps treading troubled grounds by asking us to scrutinise even the consensual, but surely many of us know that consensual frames of propriety are not necessarily predetermined, or operationalised by neat checklists, or outside of deeply gendered and sexualised cultures (intersected with caste and class). 


The act of careful listening to what the other says and does needs to be part of an ordinary ethics of care in academic spaces. Language is intrinsic to the maintenance of social hierarchies, and hence, in our everyday speech and action across various academic sites, we need to keep on involving ourselves in the act of listening to what is uttered within our limit-experiences. If transgression makes evident the limits of the normative, certainly the list—as a transgression of our liberal academic sensibilities—has exposed the limits of our liberal argumentative realities.  


I may not be saying anything new in this article; but I do want to reiterate that many people are impacted in ways that are not necessarily contained within common understandings of sexual harassment. The absence of adequate tropes within deeply gendered and infantilising academic sites thus curtail the possibility of critique. Certainties of knowledge about oneself and the other—especially when produced through familiar liberal disciplinary categorisations—create deeper vulnerabilities for those impacted, and disturbingly foreclose avenues to reconfigure gendered power. Can we, therefore, from the vantage of an ordinary ethics of care, situate the figure of the “harassed other” in a much broader context of gendered power within liberal disciplinary spaces? We need, now more than ever, to move beyond a solipsistic and legal–juridical approach, which could mean moving away from both condoning or dismissing the list. Can we at least listen to and then account for an ethical recognition of the “harassed other,” and not dismiss this other by trying to contain her/they/him within familiar liberal disciplinary categorisations? This act of recognition can only be created through a conscious and careful engagement with the figure of the “harassed other.” Clearly, the available institutional and legal–juridical modalities—while needing to be constantly pushed—are also severely limited by and because of everyday gendered power. 


For me, the emergence of the list and the statement creates an opening to look incisively at how best to make academic spaces more livable through terms that are not ontologically certain about the conditions that produce consent and/or the figure of the “harassed other.” To that end, I feel that we need to squarely encounter our modes of knowing and doing in our everyday interactions with colleagues and students. We must also acknowledge that many of us do violate and severely impact our students and fellow colleagues. This implies that in addition to making institutional channels more accountable, we urgently need to put our familiar liberal ethics up for scrutiny. Symbolic orders that constitute academic spaces are more than one, ontologically heterogeneous, and often uncertain. One order cannot unambiguously claim any moral or epistemological authority over another.


Concluding Thoughts 

I am deploying an ordinary ethics of care to make sense of normative boundaries around student–teacher interactions, as well as colleague–colleague interactions in academic spaces. 


I am not advocating an ordinary ethics of care as a standardised, codified, or legal–juridical entity to be called upon whenever violation is hinted at or registered. Rather, this is an appeal to engage with an ordinary ethics of care as a “modality of social action or of being in the world” (Lambek 2010: 10),[6] keeping in mind that such ethics “[are] vulnerable to—but also achieved in the face of—rupture, erosion, and skepticism” (Lambek 2010: 63).[7] An ordinary ethics of care in academic sites can begin by accepting the impossibilities of addressing habitually encountered gendered power (of which sexual harassment is a part), unless we prepare ourselves to acknowledge and be attentive to the limit-experiences and the polyvalences of power. While our academic and activist friends and colleagues keep alive the struggle to make institutions more accountable through rational-legal methods, we, in our academic everyday, need to have conversations, keep scrutinising, and call out familiar, but problematic tropes of gender-appropriate behavior, speech, and action as part of our everyday care practice. 


Indeed, such care practices are quite laborious, and often go unrecognised, or are taken for granted, and are sometimes even brutally dismissed. As I write this, many of my familiar and safe (which does not necessarily mean harmonious and/or homogenous) academic spaces are imploding with aggressive polarities, vitriolic speech, and liberal benevolent appeals, signalling a crisis in the maintenance of academic realities. I hope that both the list and the statement will facilitate questions about our mediated experiences of authority (or lack thereof) in academic life, in particular, expanding the scope of “inadmissible action,” including but not limited to unambiguous instances of sexual harassment.


Let me emphasise that I am not asking for an expansive list of institutional and/or legal codification of interactions that constitute sexual harassment, because that would render problematically perceived interactions as timeless and without context. That can also open itself to being dangerously deployed. What I am asking is to move beyond the understanding of sexual harassment as a codifiable neat concept, which while needed to navigate the terrain of the legal–judicial in sexual harassment committees, is not enough to encapsulate problematic everyday social relations in deeply gendered academic sites. As members of higher academic institutions, we are perhaps much better placed than others to conduct research on and thereby address the fault lines of how we know and what we know about what constitutes sexual harassment. I look forward to taking this endeavour ahead with my colleagues and students as central to an ordinary ethics of care in academic lives.


This article is a part of the Special Feature Power and Relationships in Academia. To read other articles in this feature, click here.

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