Given that complaint is so fundamental to our day to day lives, it’s a wonder that a book about it hasn’t been written before now. Julian Baggini’s fascinating study, ‘Complaint’ is subtitled ‘From minor moans to principled protests’ and I rather liked the spectrum that implied, from the kind of whining and bitching that gets you through twenty-four hours of unreasonable co-workers, recorded messages at the bank that offer you a dazzling array of numbered helplines to choose from, none of which fits your need, and the endless supply of annoyances delivered by a family in full swing, to the kind of complaint that seems a far nobler beast altogether, a stallion of complaint, that charges into action over inequality, injustice and damaging neglect. If complaint were a character, he’d be as much at home in a sit-com as in an epic novel, and this slightly schizophrenic nature means that complaints are things that become hard to value accurately, hard to judge fairly. They are essential to transmit and often difficult to receive, rising in the flames of outrage on the one hand, deadened by the chilly extinguishers of defensiveness and habit on the other. In this short but argument-packed book, Baggini looks complaint squarely in the eye and attempts some useful distinctions between the complaints that make a difference and those that are a cathartic indulgence.
At the heart of Baggini’s book beats a pure, clear moral courage. There’s an act of rescue going on here, in which the author hopes to save the concept of complaining from an insidious form of dismissal. If we complain too much, he suggests, or in misguided and wrong-headed ways, we risk turning complaint into something only the mad letter-writers of the nation do, something trivial and risible and a little sad, the empty huffing and puffing of Suburban Man with too little of proper worth on which to expend his aggressive energy. An excess of this kind of complaint and we forget that the suffragettes, Nelson Mandela, the great historical and political reforms, all began with the recognition that things were not as they ought to be. The story of that kind of complaint is often submerged in the general tide of history, or as Baggini quotes the great Tony Hancock: ‘Does Magna Carter mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?’ Baggini starts with a quick round up of that history which is probably the least convincing part of an otherwise excellent book. Later on, he confesses to being an atheist and the early sections on religion (in particular) did strike me as belonging to the school of what we might term the kebab argument. Isolated chunks of thought are speared on a single prong of argument and roasted lightly over the flame of invective, and the result is less than satisfying. But once he starts to get into all the ways that we do complaint a disservice, Baggini is off and running and taking us on a whistle-stop tour of whiner’s landmarks, all places you might not want to revisit, were the tour guide not so informative and entertaining.
He is very good at choosing examples of misguided complaint that are close to the bone – for instance, as a keen traveler he admits that he is the first person to sigh in annoyance when the idyllic sight of some exotic city is marred by PizzaHut, or when the crowds of visitors at Macchu Pichu get on his nerves, but in both cases the cultural diversity that produces the annoyance is part of the very reason that he is there at all. Travelers have as much right to ask foreign cities to remain unspoiled as the native citizens have to ask those selfsame travelers to please go home and stay there. More seriously, he considers the 1995 case of the Brent Spar oil storage buoy, which had become obsolete and posed a difficult problem of disposal. After undertaking research into the matter, its owners, Shell, decided on deep-sea disposal as the safest option, but Greenpeace’s media campaign, which opposed any form of dumping at sea, was highly effective and the decision was overturned. This meant that Shell then had to perform the environmentally far more risky option of bringing the buoy onshore to dismantle it. Later on, once the operation had been performed (successfully) Greenpeace were obliged to apologise for grossly overestimating the levels of pollutant on the buoy. Baggini draws three fine points out of this incident – the fact that a risky operation came off does not mean that it was okay to undertake it for the sake of a principle; that Greenpeace’s complaint worked as part of a longer-term process of opposition, but only at an increased risk to the environment it was supposed to be saving, and that the general public’s backing of Greenpeace was a chance to make an empty gesture for the environment that many were too happy to take without checking the facts. There was an awful lot of complaint surrounding this event, and with the benefit of hindsight too many people come out looking foolish. On important matters, it is essential that the one thing we really complain about is misinformation.
All of which goes towards showing how delicate and complex is the satisfaction of complaint. We have to be really careful what we complain about, what we ask for, and what the consequences of the alternatives might be. We need to be specific in what we want to change, and we have to keep a sense of proportion, and this discipline in our method of thinking about what’s wrong with the world is no idle pedantic concern. Where this book really took off for me was in the final section in which Baggini compares complaint to the notion of grievance, the legally-backed insistence that we are entitled to some form of public compensation. His general thesis in this section is that the loosening of the moral stays of the civilized world has often had positive effects. People are much less tolerant of abusive behaviour, sexism, ageism, racism, violence against children and exploitation, and much more tolerant of unusual family units, other cultures and ethnicities, a broader range of sexualities, etc. But the very complexity of our moral universe means that it is difficult to judge what’s right and wrong. Out of the morass of grey areas, a new form of morality has arisen which is determined by the legal profession. People become morally concerned only when their behaviour threatens a legal limit, one for which they will then have to take responsibility. And conversely, they will exert themselves when they have the law on their side as its arguments have the appearance of finality about them. ‘The sense in which a grievance culture is one where responsibility is diminished is therefore much more profound than is usually thought, ‘ Baggini writes. ‘We are encouraged to complain more and more but without a moral basis. Moral responsibility is undermined because morality itself is undermined, replaced with a straightforward, unambiguous but ethically shallow legalism.’ The consequences of this are potentially legion with regard to our sense of acceptable risk, our increasing aversion to responsibility, our intolerance of failure and the psychologically damaging notion of entitlement, which works only to undermine our far more attractive and humane sense of gratitude. There is something rotten in the state of our democracy, Baggini suggests, and its origins lie with confusion surrounding the humble complaint and an exaggerated need to be right all the time.
I found this to be a profound book, clever in its approach, tremendously accessible and easy to read, and yet attempting to do something of real moral worth with a concept that is so familiar to us we forget the significant part it plays in our lives. I love this kind of book for the way it asks us not just to think about our prejudices and preconceptions, but to take responsibility for our thought patterns and to make a change in them for the better. My only complaint is that not enough books like this exist out there.