Why Complaining Is a Good Thing

For Al Jazeera English, I took on a subject on which I am indisputably an expert: complaining. Naturally, I came down on the side of the complainers:

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 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.

Read the full article, In Defense of Complaining, at Al Jazeera English.

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7 Responses to Why Complaining Is a Good Thing

  1. Erstwhile Anthropologist says:

    Like everything else, one’s ability to complain–as well as one’s ability to have one’s complaining register as legitimate political dissent and critique–is dependent one’s subject position, especially in the ‘white public space’ of anthropology.

    As such, can you please say more about why complaining, especially in anthropology, is written off (especially when it comes from Anthropology’s ‘internal others’), despite constant recitations of an anthropological commitment to ‘speaking truth to power’? Likewise, can you speak to the ways in which legitimate critique of structural inequality and implicit bias is labeled ‘personal attack’–especially within anthropology–instead of a legitimate critique of how structure influences individual actions and motivations such that people’s actual actions often diverge from their espoused motivations?


  2. Erstwhile Anthropologist says:

    Was hoping for a response to the question above, especially given this, which you also co-wrote:
    “Nonetheless, anthropology’s commitment to the science of social justice makes the studied ignorance of its own internal inequities insupportably ironic.”

  3. Sorry about the delayed response; I didn’t see these comments earlier.

    To briefly answer, no one can speak “truth to power” when doing so can cost them their job. In a market dominated by expendable adjuncts, anthropologists tend to fear doing anything that will jeopardize their position. This means that structural inequalities within academia are rarely addressed in public, by anthropologists writing under their real names. It is only within the last year or so that I’ve seen progress being made, and it’s far from enough. The unwillingness to discuss problems – and to acknowledge discrimination and disparities — keeps them from being solved.

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