The Art of Complaint

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.


11 thoughts on “The Art of Complaint

  1. This is interesting thinking and thanks for your exposition, clear and adroit as ever. The trouble is that every area of life today is so complex and the same sense of not finding it easy to find your position and have any certainty about it makes legality seem like a rescue from madness. It’s like motherhood in that way. The difficulty of having all the facts and avoiding misinformation is another problem. We very rarely get more than the surface of things in the media unless we really search. I do wonder about that point that we are more tolerant and live in a more diverse world. I suspect that this applies to some parts of our society more than others. It seems Baggini’s concept is one to aspire towards rather than a likely norm and putting things in perspective is a thing the modern world needs constantly reminding about.

  2. Bookboxed – that’s a very astute commentary from you, as ever! Yes, I think Baggini is quite upfront at the end about saying how difficult it is to make a change that directs society away from its culture of grievance. But just pausing to consider what the problem really is whenever we feel compelled to complain is a start. It’s the old Milton Erickson approach that making a 2 percent change can be strangely effective in a knock-on sort of way. If we complained about the misinformation we get fed from the media more, for instance, rather than believing what we read, then we might be getting somewhere! And I can’t help but think that the legality itself is madness – working in education I see it crop up in places where it really does not belong (and I’m sure your experience is not dissimilar!).

  3. Oh, I second your complaint! More books like this! Just the sort of thing I like to read to break up my usual line-up. Perhaps now that Baggini’s rescued the humble complaint, he can move on to wrestling the reasonable response to complaint out of the hands of the ubiquitous and dismissive “whatever” — a closing down of complaint before it’s even aired. Such an enjoyable post! Thank you.

  4. I’m with Jacques in that I think we also need to work on the “response” to complaint. Who do we have to thank for such glib “brush offs” to questions raised / complaints lodged about serious ills? responses that can be summed up by the vernacular “whatever!” Pundits? Politicians? Our own laziness in serious conversational exchange? Also, I think it’s sad to admit we are a culture of grievance. But it does seem to be the case. And I think bookboxed is right. Legality seems part of the problem rather than solution. What can a person do? Besides relinquishing “the exaggerated need to be right all the time” (which I know for some is a very large thing indeed)? Great post. Very thought provoking. Thanks.

  5. Thanks for such an interesting post. One of the things that it brought to mind was the way in which we seem to have lost the ability to match the form and intensity of the complaint to the issue involved. I haven’t caught the full story as yet as it is still coming through on the news as I write, but there was a case yesterday of someone complaining about a man pushing into a supermarket queue and now one of the people involved is in a critical condition with massive head injuries. Whatever the provocation, the response doesn’t match the problem.

  6. TJ – thank you so much for your comment. I hadn’t thought of the ‘whatever’ response in relation to complaint but of course you’re right! People laughed at it to begin with because it was so rude, and now it’s being used as a matter of course. Being open and able to listen to complaint is a very particular and admirable part of the human character, I think. Alas, one does notice it most by its absence! Fiona – thank you for such a thoughtful response! I think the trickiness of bureaucracy makes complaining a tiring and frustrating business, and you have to be very persistent or else very strategic to get heard. I think there is a great deal of power available to people who team up together to get what they want. We forget how effective community is – and then blogging reminds us! Ann – this is a very good point that you make. Where does this disproportionate response come from? I imagine there must be a build-up of frustrations, with no outlet or relief from them, and then one last thing becomes the proverbial straw. That’s no excuse, but it does require us to consider carefully how we are encouraged to manage our frustrations. There’s an interesting part of the book where Baggini has conducted an online survey that reveals significant differences between Americans and the British when it comes to complaining. Basically the British still tend towards the stiff upper lip, but that inherent pessimism, that things can’t be changed and we should put up with them, can lead over time to sudden rage and deplorable outbursts. I’ll listen to the news later and see if I can catch that report.

  7. Very interesting! I do like the kind of book that takes something we are all familiar with and analyzes it in a way we almost never do. It strikes me as important to do what Baggini suggests and think carefully about what we complain about and what we expect to happen because of that complaint — complaining so often seems nothing more than conversation-filler, and yet complaints are full of meaning we would do well to recognize!

  8. What an interesting post. I swear there is a book about everything these days! I agree that you have to be careful about what you complain about–sometimes the result of your/my complaining is worse than the initial problem…

  9. Oooo, I think I know a few people who will get this book as an anonymous gift! But seriously, I’m fascinated here by the connections you and Baggini seem to be making about morality, complaint, and legal grievances. I’m often wondering how and exactly when we moved into this era in which basically what’s “right” and what’s “wrong” is always questioned, without much agreement, it seems, because someone is always coming up with the old, “Your mother is deathly ill, the drugstore is closed, you need the medicine to save her life, do you break the window and steal it?” question for every situation imaginable, which is often besides the point. Yes, there are exceptions to every case if people are wise and just and use common sense, but there ought to be standards. However, it seems now we live by exceptions rather than by standards. And it seems morality is not based on thinking of others and their feelings but on thinking about what “I deserve” (the entitlement you speak of) or about what’s legal and what isn’t and how we might be sued if such and such happens. Very interesting to tie complaint’s role into all of this!

  10. Dorothy – I like the way you describe complaint as a conversation-filler that ought to be taken more seriously – that seems like a very good way indeed of putting it! Danielle – LOL! That reminds me of the old phrase ‘Be careful what you wish for – it may come true.’ Have you ever looked at the list of Profile Books – they seem to have all kinds of intriguing non-fiction titles! Emily – I really love what you say about the way we live as if the exceptions were the rule. This is so true. I see it in my son who argues that way all the time, and it does make me wonder what he picks up from school and the playground, those important conduits of popular culture. Common sense, reason, perspective, measure all seem a bit out of fashion. I blame the media – not for the first or the last time! 🙂

  11. What strikes me most in your wonderful post is your remark regarding “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.” So often the general complaint comes from a place of being entitled to compensation of some kind for a failure on the part of someone else or in a business transaction or something. I think sometimes we also use complaints to deflect blame from ourselves and place it onto someone or something else. It’s not my fault I spilled hot coffee on myself while driving and got third degree burns, it’s the fast food joint’s fault for not telling me the coffee was hot in the first place. Or, it’s not my fault I wasn’t paying attention to my toddler and she choked on a toy, it’s the toy company’s fault for making a toy the toddler could choke on. We do have an increasing aversion to responsibility that never fails to surprise me.

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