Sunday 1 January 2023

The year of radical care

Partridge in Cape Sounion, 2014 (Photo: Maria Vlachou)

A bit more than ten years ago, I remember how deeply angry I felt at an article by Clara Ferreira Alves in the newspaper Expresso, where she criticised young Greek people for getting married when the country was going through a serious economic crisis. She considered this attitude to be irresponsible, revealing lack of notion. I was angry because, in my view, hope and celebration are ways of resisting. The determination to celebrate in the face of adversity is an act of love, love for life, love for self and others.

I thought about this on many more occasions and also last night, when fireworks went up in the sky, outside my window and in many other places around the world. I was never a big fan of fireworks, they always seemed an unnecessary extravagance to me and also distressingly noisy for certain people and animals. More recently, I found out about their polluting effects. But this year, I felt that their “exploding” sound was also an expression of our lack of empathy, as Ukrainians, while they were also celebrating the coming of the new year (an act of love, hope and defiance), were once again under attack and had to run to shelters.

One of the hopes the pandemic raised in me was that we would firmly develop the capacity to empathise, that it would be something that would stay with us. Acts of care and concern, especially for people we didn’t know, had become more common. The word “care” itself was (and is) more and more used, both in personal and professional contexts. Still, one of my observations in the last months was how totally focused we have once again become on ourselves, how we tend to see everything as a competition, where more rights for another person mean less rights for ourselves. This lack of empathy and care, associated to a rather childish attempt not to assume responsibility for anything that is going wrong or less well, is an attitude that is on the rise and has marked our relationships, including in our professional field.

Another observation I´ve made is the rising authoritarianism in the cultural field, both among some of its professionals, as well as among politicians who have a word in the management of the sector. I see the “powerful” naturally expecting to be just flattered and praised, leaving no space for healthy criticism and debate and, on some occasions, questioning its legitimacy and attempting to discredit those who express their critical spirit. I see them making arbitrary decisions, treating people with arrogance, hostility and disrespect, feeling entitled to refuse to answer questions or justify their choices. On the one hand, this is nothing new, it is as old as politics; on the other, it is a worrying development, considering what we have been through and learnt as a collective in the last few years. Thus, we need to be more aware not only of the generalisation of these practices, but of the ways we actually support them ourselves – for instance, by remaining silent or feeling scared and powerless, as if this was something inevitable.

A third observation, related to the two previous ones – and, in some cases, a result of those -, is the state of the mental health of cultural professionals, about which I wrote for the first time last October. The rising competitive spirit, the crazy rhythm with which we produce (simply produce), authoritarianism and abuse of power, lack of empathy and solidarity, have resulted in deep depression, sick leaves, some resignations and a generalised ill-being.

In her book “Caring Democracy”, Joan Tronto questions: “How can people claim to live in a democracy if their fears and insecurities begin to override their abilities to act for the common good?”. Tronto claims that the current “care deficit” and the current “democratic deficit” are related to one another. She wrote this in 2013, so one can only confirm that these two deficits have worsened in the last decade. We did not pay enough attention to them and to their co-relation.

As this new year starts, and although things seem rather bleak, I feel the need to accept once again the challenge of hoping, of dreaming. This year should be the year of radical care. “What makes us free, actually”, writes Tronto, “is our capacity to care and to make commitments to what we care about.” I care about freedom, every person’s right to be whole, to be the best they can. I care about intelligence, critical thinking and intellectual honesty, as well as about their public expressions. I care about my colleagues, what they think, do and feel. I care about the people I know and people I don’t know. I care and I wish to preserve the freedom to do so.

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