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Friday 21 October 2011

The Illusion of Care

We care about our customers. This Government cares about the fishery. The corporate community cares about the environment. The Hospitals cares about patients comfort. All untrue, but not for the reason you might think.

We hear it all the time, the word care. As with many words it has been bastardized to a point where its meaning has been lost in the mix. Makes me think of one of George Carlins stand up bits on language use. He made the point that we have lost respect for what words actually mean and instead we make up new definitions that water down the actual definition. How can you pre-board an airplane. Do you get on before you get on? For that matter to quote Carlin "F**K you I'm getting IN the plane!"

So what does all that have to do with the word "care"? There's a guy named John McKnight who is not an academic but was offered a post at a university in the US based on his work around the idea of Asset Based Community Development or ABCD. This idea is focused on the fact that it is the people within a community that are the real assets and can be better organized and mobilized to make all our communities better, even, or maybe especially, without government intervention. John has been in NL a couple of times and I was lucky enough to take part in one of his seminars and it truly changed the way I look at community development. But the point here is that John wrote a book called "The Careless Society" and in that book he discusses how society has changed to a point where structures no longer work in the best interests of individuals. He makes the simple point that while individuals can care corporate entities cannot. Not because the people in those entities don't, but because to care is a human emotion that corporate entities are not capable of. Simple.

Governments and corporate entities want to use the word care for two reasons. First because the individuals who write the policies and communications, and the individuals who work there, or sit on the board may actually care about people or their well being. Second because it humanizes the corporate entity or government. "We care" make a cold corporation sound like a small group of neighbours. The reality is that corporations, healthcare agencies, and governments all lack the ability to care. They are legal entities that exist in a word of blind policies that do not see individual people, but instead see clients, patients or numbers on a spreadsheet. It doesn't make them evil or bad, but we need to understand how they operate so that we, as a society can operate in cooperation with them and know what to expect from them. In the case of governments it means that we have to build into the system a series of policies that require the human touch as opposed to the corporate claw. And that isn't easy.

So how do we ensure that a non-human entity can maintain a level of humanity? Just like John McKnight's approach to community is based on the individual skills and capacities of people, good government policy should be a mix of decision making processes tempered by an actual person who makes the final call or has input into the system at some point. The Healthcare system is the perfect example of where this kind of approach could really make a difference. We often hear of cases where individuals who work within the system would like to help but the existing policy prevents them from doing so. The policy removes the human element from the equation to protect the system, and as a result the system treats unique individuals as numbers and statistics. As a matter of fact our current healthcare system uses the word "client" as oppose to patient. As I indicated here the larger a system is the more work is involved in protecting the system and those who run it. The system becomes the focus and not the people it was set up to help, but the word "care" is ubiquitous in Government departments and agencies as if it actually meant something.
When you look at a loved one and you tell them how much you care about them you mean it. When a Government, one of it's agencies, a corporation or any other legal collective tells you it "cares" about you it is lying to you. Sometimes it's because it doesn't know the difference, sometimes it's because it does.

From a perspective of good government policy we need to remember that government is in place to serve the people and not feed the system. We need policy that recognizes that all the employees have valuable contributions to make, and that each "client" is a person. If we can actually accomplish that then we may begin to say that as individuals we care enough to make change that helps others. Until then we're all under the illusion of "care."

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