Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Right to Complain

21. The Right to Complain

Everyone has the right to complain. It’s fundamental. For some people complaining is how they make the air move in and out of their lungs. In our culture even rich, beautiful, healthy people complain. It’s almost inhuman to never complain, and yet … in general, we’re not very good at it.
Ideally, a complaint would act to point out a problem or deficiency in such a way as to help correct or improve the situation. For this to happen the complaint would need to: 1) understand the scope and cause of the problem, 2) direct this information towards a person or institution capable of changing the conditions creating the problem, and, 3) offer practical suggestions for implementing such changes. Very few people complain with anything like this level of thoughtfulness. As I said, many just complain because it feels good to complain. It may even be emotionally liberating because it relieves the complainer of any responsibility for inadequate results and makes them seem more praiseworthy for persevering under adverse conditions.
I’ve even known people who complained so much about their jobs that eventually it became clear that one of the fringe benefits of that job was that it gave them so much to complain about. They would actually have been less happy in a ‘better’ job. They needed to earn their money by suffering for it.
Not my psychology, I can tell you, but those people are out there and listening to them moan and groan can be quite a pain. But I’m not complaining.
In the fall of 1999, I taught a Ceramics I class that met at 7:45 a.m., Tuesday through Friday. I didn’t set the schedule, I just followed it. Now, at the time, I was also working full time at a scholarly press from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m., Monday through Thursday. So, very early in the semester I made the following speech to my students.
“This class starts at a quarter to eight in the morning and as the semester wears on some of you are going to want to complain about how difficult it is to get up that early or to be to class on time. Fine, you’re entitled to complain. I just want you to know that just about any time you see me for the rest of the semester I will have been awake (and working twelve hours at another job) since four-thirty the previous afternoon. So, feel free to complain. Just don’t complain to me.”
I suppose that that’s my philosophy about most complaining. If there’s a situation I can help to correct, by all means, tell me. Between us we can find and implement some sort of correction. Otherwise, tell your troubles to someone else. Either I don’t want to be weirded out by the perverse difficulties of your life or mine are worse and you’re just being annoying.
I don’t think less of you for complaining or wanting to complain. I just don’t see much entertainment value in it for me.
Now, some complaints involve very real and pernicious dangers. Issues of physical safety or sexual harassment can be made more difficult when the cause of the problem is a teacher or an employer with power over your life. Most institutions have complaint procedures in place to protect you from retaliation but going through the process can be its own form of punishment. You must still protect yourself somehow. Complain to the offender if you can. Otherwise, tell the most powerful person you can trust, even if it’s an administrator from a different department. And prepare yourself to leave should that prove necessary. Sometimes distance is your best protection.
At this level, remember, you are not just complaining to protect yourself but to protect subsequent people like you. Do not perpetuate the problem through your silence. Assert your right to complain and thus to help solve the problem.

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