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Book Review: The Gripes of Wrath

June 9, 2008

How to complain, feel better ... and get your own wayBy
Paul Dalgarno
Sunday Herald
June 7, 2008 (Scotland, UK)

"Complaint, From Minor Moans To Principled Protests"
by Julian Baggini
Profile Books: 2008

WE ARE born complaining. Wrinkled and restless, we kickour legs and
scream at the world that comes to meet us. Anything lesswouldseem
absurd(andmedically suspect).Whenwe're dying we might complain in
words, if we are able, or with an anxious tug of the catheter if not.
Between starting and ending we carp, bitch, moan, whine, backstab and
protest. We bellyache and argue; we bruise and we bond. We overthrow
governments or smash cups against walls, according to our means and
frustrations. Complaint is with us all the way, but is it good for us or bad?

Julian Baggini, philosopher, thinks the former, but with
reservations. Essentially it depends what our gripe is, how we
complain, and to whom. Get it wrong and no-one will like you. Get it
right and you go from mediocre meathead to noble savage.

"All the great social changes in history have started with a
complaint," says Baggini. "Someone noticing that things are not as
they ought to be and articulating it. Of course, it's important they
then do something about it." Otherwise we risk being swept along
withthequerulouschaffofeveryday life: work sucks; I've just been
credit crunched; my boss is a dribbling baboon. But in his new book,
Complaint, Baggini contends that such minor yaps are not worthless,
that they keep our complaint muscles toned until a real problem comes
up and make us seem more approachable to others.

"There's been very little academic study on the subject, but most of
the time we are not really complaining at all," he says. "In many
situations, what we think of as complaining is actually a social
lubricant, a way of sending out different signals. Complaining is not
a bad thing - it's a really great part of human nature."

Try the opposite, being overly positive, and acquaintances will
scatter to the wind. But whereas whingeing comes naturally,
constructive complaining has rules. Knowing right from wrong, or
thinking you do, is the first step. Identifying the right person to
help you is the second.Approachingthem,withoutpunching them, is the
third. It's a simple enough equation, but the gap between how things
are and how they should be can seem insurmountable.

In some situations, it's doubtless best to walk away (when the person
you are arguing with is armed, for example, or when the bank manager
starts fumbling for the security button beneath his desk). But in
others you feel trapped, like a bee in a jar, with some little brat
closing in on your wings. Travel is one of the main flashpoints,
perhaps because the power to get from A to B is taken from your hands
and placed directly in those of someone unreliable. It could be the
caravan-pulling driver right in front of you, the drunk man in the cycle lane.

But these are amateurs. The pros are drawn to gatekeeper roles, where
they have the ability to stop you and frustrate you just because they
feel like it. They work in tandem with hunchbacked lackeys who lose
baggage, misquote timetables and damage anything that doesn't belong
to them. Train stations and bus depots attract those new to the trade
but the real zealots are drawn to airports. The 100ml liquid
restriction, the consequence of an alleged but unproven terror plot,
is so inane, so lacking in common sense, that we must surely protest.
The sight of some poor old pensioner being robbed of their roll-on
deodorant and tut-tutted by security staff appears more like an act
of terrorism than one designed to prevent it.

But how to effect change? At one airport recently I wanted to
complain, my belt in one hand, falling-down jeans in the other. Had
my package, a shampoo, been genuinely suspect, surely I should have
been taken for questioning and possible arrest. But as it was a
shampoo, as it claimed to be, its confiscation by a stone-faced
automaton was tantamount to theft. This is what I wanted to say. If I
only could have said it. But the anger ...

"There's always a job of persuasion to be done," says Baggini. "One
reason to complain in this instance is that there's no evidence that
the liquid ban stops terrorism. And if there must be rules on
liquids, then the current ones are ridiculously crude and limiting."

But why complain at all? Stoics would argue for indifference. Why not
internalise the pain and, who knows, learn to love it? Because that
would be dumb, says Baggini. "There's a vaguely new-age feeling going
around that any form of inner agitation is bad and that we should all
be heading for inner peace," he says. "I think that's morally
outrageous. There's something deeply self-centred about aspiring to
be the kind of person who's not perturbed by anything."

He singles out Buddhism as "one of those religions which are most
explicit in encouraging us not to complain" and, when he does, his
argument seems convincing. But this is largely because persuasion
plays a a major role in complaining, and Baggini makes his points
persuasively. He calls it "selfish" to bask in unflinching serenity
when suffering and prejudice are so widespread. Homophobia would go
unchallenged; slavery would never have been abolished. But can there
really be a people, or religion, that never complains? And would this
not run contrary to human nature?

"Buddhism is not about being selfish," says Gelongma Tsultrim Zangmo,
a Buddhist nun at the Kagyu Samye Ling monastery in Dumfriesshire.
"It is not about resignation but acceptance." The trick, she says, is
to discuss the problem at hand without doing so from anger or
frustration. But even this, she says, doesn't always work in
practice. Myanmar's marching monks made this clear last year with
their protests against the country's military regime; Tibet's monks
clashed recently with the Chinese authorities in their region. "We
still sometimes make a hoo-hah," says Zangmo, "because we are all
human beings."

Not that complaining is limited to our species. Stand on a sleeping
dog and he'll tell you all about it; borrow a chimpanzee's baby and
she'll make her grievance known. But there is, along with our
capacity to reason, a far greater scope for humans to complain, to
see that things need to change, to push abstract ideas to their
conclusions. Cavemen knew it. People in the middle ages knew it. They
knew it even more than we do be cause, according to complaint
protocol, every thing was better in the past and everything now is
shit. Buses. Music. Work. Films. Ideas. Houses. People. The
degenerates of the 1960s look like fairies to us now, as the bogeymen
of the 1920s must appeared to them. Grumpy-faced girning has been
around since time immemorial, we might conclude, and will outlive
every one of us.

Unless Will Bowen, a Unity Church minister from Missouri, gets his
way. Bowen launched the Movement Towards a Complaint-Free World on
the back of a simple idea: adherents wear a purple "complaint-free"
rubber wristband and change it from wrist to wrist each time they
grumble. When they achieve three consecutive weeks without a
misplaced moan they have made it.

More than five million wristbands have been distributed around the
world, and Bowen hopes to have dispensed more than 60 million by
2010. It sounds like a monumental waste of rubber but Bowen is happy.
Feedback floods his Kansas City headquarters: failing marriages have
been saved, lives transformed and ailments banished. "One man
suffered from chronic migraines and would constantly tell his wife
how awful they were making him feel," he says. "On a scale of one to
10, the pain was always an eight or nine. But he finally stopped
complaining and now gets no headaches at all."

Though seemingly at odds with Baggini's contention that complaining
is a perk of life, Bowen's philosophy is not dissimilar. "It's about
speaking directly and only to the person who can effect real change,"
he explains. "Saying This is my stapler, please don't take it' is not
a complaint. But if I say Stop taking my stapler, you idiot, you're
making me mad and I hate you', that's quite different. It has to do
with the energy behind your comments."

Bowen says he believes in divine order, in things being just as they
should be, but also in people's right to change their lot if they are
unhappy. As long as it doesn't become addictive. "Complaining keeps
your mind on the problem at hand rather than letting you dream of
solutions," he says. "It drags down morale. People tend to cluster
around other people who are like them, and if you've got one
complainer it usually prompts others to start complaining too."

Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen sketch illustrates this tendency -
one man's recollection of scrimping to afford tea in the past leads,
in stages, to another man's memory of 29-hour working days on a meal
of cold poison before being murdered by his father every evening.
(Conversely, the Dead Parrot sketch, in which John Cleese fights
nobly but unfruitfully for his right to a breathing bird, is an
instance of constructive complaining gone wrong.) Though cathartic,
moaning with others can be like grabbing a friend who is being
electrocuted: we get the full force of their negative current and
can't let go of the energy coursing through us.

"There's a camaraderie about certain types of complaining, but also a
danger it will pull you down," says psychologist Cynthia McVey. We
are talking about gripes at the bus stop, for example low-level
grumbles about the weather. Say nothing and you're marked out as a
troublemaker. Orapervert.McVeyoffersasolution: "You could just say
Yeah, it's raining, but look how green it is - we wouldn't have such
green trees without the rain'." But she acknowledges this approach
won't endear you to everyone: "It soundsabit Pollyanna, and people
hate Pollyannas."

McVey rarely makes formal complaints, unless to fight someone
else'scorner or when her sense of justice has been outraged. In such
cases, she suggests any written accusation should be tempered with an
acknowledgement that the person you are writing about may have been
having a particularly bad day, or could be dealing with personal
issues. Rail too much and you may be mistaken for a professional
complainer - that rare breed who, at least anecdotally, spend their
days complaining to companies for tiny cash settlements and freebies.
Anyone who has phoned broadband providers or gas companies will
sympathise with this, the most gruelling of occupations.

"It can be enormously frustrating to have to talk to machines and
press buttons," says McVey. "And then you get through to somebody in
a far and distant land who can't spell Milngavie. In the end you want
to complain about the system they have as much as the original problem."

For the people who work in call centres, dealing with grumblers all
day and never biting back must be sheer, unmetaphorical torture.
"Customers usually lose the rag becausetheycan'tarticulatethemselves
properly when things don't go their way," says Martin Gilhooly, a
complaints management consultant who trains the people we love to
hate. "I always tell the customer representatives to stay calm," he
says, "to not take threats and verbal abuse too personally. It's
important to remain dispassionate while maintaining a professional attitude."

He thinks our soaring demand for someone to explode at can be put
down partly to Watchdog-style programmes on television and the growth
of customer-focused websites.Judaeo-Christianrestrainthas been
replaced with the consumerist clamour of an iPod for an iPod, a
toothbrush for a toothbrush.

But, as with most things, there are drawbacks to demanding our dues.
In her book "Making Babies: Is There A Right To Have Children?, the
BritishphilosopherMary Warnock argues that we increasingly see
parenthood as a right and not a blessing. The upshot? Baggini says we
have fostered a culture of entitlement. "We have gone from a default
position of gratitude for the good things we have to a feeling that
those good things are ours by right and that not having them is clearly wrong."

Hence a grievance culture where complaining has become "a bit of a
game in which people are simply trying to get the most out of each
other". Companies and service providers know that apologies can be
used in legal disputes as evidence of liability and therefore don't
want to apologise for anything. Which explains why you get passed
from pillock to post when you have a genuine grievance. As a
consequence, says Baggini, we are becoming a nation of angry kids,
unwilling to take ownership of the problems we have caused, even when
it's obvious that we should. "Without taking responsibility for what
one does," he says, "we become morally emasculated."

Blaming the Americans for this may not be entirely unjustified. When
79-year-old Stella Liebeck won damages from McDonalds after scalding
herself with a newly-served coffee in 1992, the writing, in terms of
our compensation culture, was on the wall. But perhaps Liebeck had
the right idea. In researching his book, Baggini conducted an
unscientific but revealing survey in which almost 1000 people
evaluated the severity with which they complained about issues such
as corrupt politicians, cruel fate and the cost of living.
Discrepancies between the sexes were dwarfed by the gaping chasm
between American and British moaners.

"In Britain, only half as many people as in the US seem to complain
to anyone with any power to actually change things," says Baggini.
"Maybe Americans believe in the perfectibility of the world and have
a great optimism about what humans can achieve. Britain is a former
empire that has seen better years. We probably don't expect much will
come of our complaints."

But we'll grind it out anyway, I suppose. We'll carry on with our
overpriced romantic dinners, with waiters who drop our pizzas; we'll
curse airport staff, but surrender our rights without a whimper;
we'll say the hot days are too hot and the dark nights a national
scandal. We have to, says Baggini, because "he who is tired of
complaining is tired of life". On balance, he will take a whinger
over a non-whinger every time.

"We have the fable of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," but The "Boy Who
Cried Nothing" would have been eaten along with the sheep," he says.
He could go on, no doubt. As could I. But frankly, this has to end.
"We mustn'teverstopcomplaining,"moans Baggini. "We simply must try to
do so a little more cleverly."

"Complaint, From Minor Moans To Principled Protests" by Julian
Baggini is published on June 12 by Profile Books.
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