There’s no point in walking in to fuel the talk… But sometimes people should be welcome to complain

Over on …in the woodshed, there’s a post about seeking encouragement from the story of the Hebrews in the Wilderness.

Naturally, I disagree with the post in the strongest terms.  That’s not the interesting bit.  The interesting part is this:

Yet after a couple of days in the desert, the Israelites started grumbling to Moses: “Would that we had died!” It reminds me of that story about Holocaust survivors, liberated by the Americans one day, and complaining the next day because they got tomato soup instead of chicken soup. The problem was that their hearts were still enslaved to Pharaoh, the principle being that you can get the people out of slavery, but you can’t get the slavery out of the people. At least, not without a long, loving process. Israel failed to see that they were free, but their hearts and minds were still in bondage to the oppressor.  — …in the woodshed.

I hear sentiments like this a lot regarding people who’ve had a rough trot having the audacity to complain about something trivial.  In the analysis given by …in the woodshed, the trivial complaints are caused by a psychological enslavement: they complain because they are still oppressed in their hearts.

The reality is quite different.  We are lucky to live in an age where we have quite a considerable amount of research about all sorts of behaviour: complaining is but one of those.  Research into complaining put on its grown up pants back in 1992 with ‘Complaining Behaviour in Social Interaction‘ by Alicke et al. in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.  The article inspired quite a bit of further research, including a particularly good article which I can’t find online.  I suck.

The general idea is that it’s not always the content of the complaint which is the relevant aspect.  More philosophically, in situations where the content is relevant, the trivialisation of the complaint is a defence mechanism of the empowered protecting their self image as rescuers (they expect to see gratitude for their actions and the complaints are seen as negating the gratitude: by rescuing, there is a social dynamic of the rescuer to the rescuee, even if the ‘rescuer’ in the dynamic is not the person who physically performed the rescue).

Complaining is a means of controlling the environment and rebelling.  By making a complaint and having it acknowledged, the complainer has demonstrated to themselves and others that they have the ability to make complaints: their opinions matter.  It’s why old people write letters of complaint to the newspapers disproportionately more than anybody else: they’ve lost their social power and attempt to regain it through complaining in print.  This also goes for self victimisation: racists, for example, who complain because — despite having all the social power — they feel they have become subject to the authority of other people (‘Political correctness gone mad’).  By complaining, they control the environment by asserting that they are worthy of consideration.  See also references to ‘silent majority’: by complaining, they become a hero of everybody else who secretly believes everything that they do but haven’t got around to telling anybody.

By trivialising the content of the complaint (‘Boohoo, you got tomato soup instead of chicken.  It’s better than Nazis.  Would you prefer Nazis?’), the dominant culture fails to recognise the social elements of complaining.  In that situation, can you imagine how a helpless group of people must be feeling?  After being at the mercy of Nazis who controlled to the maximum degree every aspect of their lives, they’ve been rescued by a group who are telling them to eat what they’re given.  Despite no longer being in danger, they still can’t control their lives.  Thus, they can attempt to control their lives by complaining about ‘trivial’ things.

While trivial to us, it represents more to them.


Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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