In defence of complaining

Those who lodge legitimate complaints in effect point out how things could be better, yet are often dismissed.

Occupy Wall Street participants carry on
For marginalised or stigmatised groups, complaining is often the first step toward rectifying their grievances [AFP]

In 2006, the Reverend Will Bowen launched a movement called A Complaint Free World. The goal of the movement was to get people to stop expressing “pain, grief, or discontent”.

The best way to stop expressing pain, grief or discontent was to buy purple bracelets from Bowen’s website. The bracelets serve as a sartorial censor for those compelled to discuss their problems. Every time you complain, you must switch the bracelet to the other wrist. If you go 21 consecutive days without complaining or switching the bracelets, you are rewarded with a Certificate of Happiness.

“Our words indicate our thoughts,” the certificate says. “Our thoughts create our world.”

Stop complaining!

In an America built on the reinvention of reality, critical words make people uneasy – and so do those who speak them. In 1996, Alan Greenspan famously chided the financial community for “irrational exuberance”. They ignored him, and America became a bubble economy – housing, credit, technology, higher education. Those who warned of collapse were derided and dismissed: they were only complaining.

When the bubbles popped, and the jobs disappeared, and the debt soared, and the desperation hit, Americans were told to stay positive. Stop complaining – things will not be like this forever. Stop complaining – this is the way things have always been. Complainers suffer the cruel imperatives of optimism: lighten up, suck it up, chin up, buck up. In other words: shut up.

The absence of complaining should be taken as a sign that something is rotting in a society.

The surest way to keep a problem from being solved is to deny that problem exists. Telling people not to complain is a way of keeping social issues from being addressed. It trivialises the grievances of the vulnerable, making the burdened feel like burdens. Telling people not to complain is an act of power, a way of asserting that one’s position is more important than another one’s pain. People who say “stop complaining” always have the right to stop listening. But those who complain have often been denied the right to speak.

The condemnation of complaining is not unique to America. Dictatorships around the world are famous for self-reported statistics of sky-high happiness. In Uzbekistan, a state run on surveillance, corruption, and torture, 95 percent of the country is said to be content. Last August, one of the openly unhappy 5 percent, a 73-year-old man, filed a complaint about police brutality with neighbourhood officials. They arrested him for violating a ban on filing complaints.

The absence of complaining should be taken as a sign that something is rotting in a society. Complaining is beautiful. Complaining should be encouraged. Complaining means you have a chance.

Stop making excuses!

All social movements are dismissed at some point as complaining. Over time, they are recognised as speaking truth to power.

Last month, I attended the Oslo Freedom Forum, an annual conference which gives the people who challenge repressive regimes a platform to speak. This year’s conference featured well-known writers and activists from China, Syria, Bahrain, and other autocratic states. They were there to complain – but it is not thought of as complaining when a prominent advocate speaks about oppression to a crowd. Then it becomes the impartation of knowledge, but no one starts from that. It is a long road from whiner to witness.

Complaint is often perceived as an alternative to action. Those who complain are criticised as “just complaining”, instead of “actually doing something”. But for marginalised and stigmatised groups – racial and religious minorities, women, the poor, people who lack civic rights – complaining is the first step in removing the shame from a lifetime of being told one’s problems are unimportant, non-existent, or even a cause for gratitude. Complaining alerts the world that the problem is a problem.

In May, President Obama told an audience of African American graduates at Morehouse College, a historically black college in Atlanta, that “there’s no longer any room for excuses”. He chided young black men for seeing their race as an obstacle, because “whatever hardships you may experience because of your race… pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured – and overcame”.

He told them this in a month when many black public schools were shut down, a black girl was prosecuted for a science project, rates of black unemployment climbed, and black student loan debt soared. Massive racial inequality was slightly less massive than before, though, so best to ignore structural problems and focus on individual goals.

“No room for excuses” is the cousin of “stop complaining”.

It’s always been like that!

Another common response to complaining is that the respondent has heard it all before. “That problem has been around forever”, they say, as if this itself did not attest to the severity of the problem. Long-term complaining indicates that a problem is serious and structural, not that it is hopeless and should continue to be ignored.

Complaints long discounted often grow louder over time. We see this today in the slowly growing movement against labour exploitation in America, a movement which includes everyone from fast food workers to adjunct professors. As the American economy lurches into permanent contingency, everyone is told it is their own fault.

It could always be worse, they say. They don’t like to say that it could always be better, because that would require redress.

“How can you complain when you didn’t get an education,” they tell the striking McDonalds worker. “You thought all that education would get you a job?” they sneer at the striking adjunct.

Complaining creates common ground. In complaints, people find that their problems are not so far apart. Those who dismiss complaints display their own discomfort, the fear that they could be next. When it happens – and it will happen – seek comfort in complaint.

It could always be worse!

Another common response to complaining is to delegitimise misery by portraying it as a competition. “You’re privileged, you have an education,” they tell the white-collar unemployed. “You’re privileged, you live in America,” they tell the poor. “You’re privileged, you got out,” they tell the exile. “You’re privileged, you have food and shelter,” they tell the subject of the dictator.

It could always be worse, they say. They don’t like to say that it could always be better, because that would require redress.

Ranking complaints is a way to make people feel guilty for their own struggle, instead of empowered to take action through a collective expression of shared concerns. It stratifies suffering into a hierarchy, creating what CZ Nnaemeka called an “unexotic underclass” whose problems go ignored. Categorising the complainers breeds hypocrisy in wealthy nations – where debt-burdened graduates work unpaid internships for NGOs claiming to promote fairness – and the dehumanisation of people in poorer countries, who are treated as charity cases without minds of their own.

People hate complaining because they do not like to listen. When you listen to someone complaining, you are forced to acknowledge them as a human being instead of a category. You are forced to witness how social systems are borne out in personal experience, to recognise that hardship hurts, that solutions are not as simple as they seem.

You are forced to trust, and you are forced to care. In complaint lies a path to compassion.

Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.

Follow her on Twitter: @sarahkendzior