Friday, November 1, 2013

In Praise of Whining

Working Class Values, Part Four

Good advice... until you consider the implications
I felt bad when I realized Cindy and I had spent over ten minutes of paid workplace time leaning on our brooms, bitching. If the boss caught us, we could’ve gotten reprimanded for nonproductive time use. Even without official action, my conscience plagued me. My parents raised me to disdain complainers, demanding I take ownership and, when aggrieved, act to remedy the problem. Complaining, I’d learned, is wasteful.

Except, Cindy and I have become good friends, bonding over our shared grievances. Studies show that the people who thrive in laborious blue-collar jobs generally have a “best friend” on the line, and Cindy has become my lifeline. Ordinary people use language as social glue, so why should I feel ashamed that the language we share consists of complaints? Is “No Complaining” a solid value, or learned middle-class uniformity?

Like all ethical values, our evaluation of complaining cuts two ways. Moralists see complaining as conceding defeat. Some people use complaints in lieu of productive action, preferring others’ condolences to actual redress. Such grumbling is self-serving and inherently egotistical: “Look at me,” the complainer cries. “I deserve special consideration because I’m so oppressed!” Actual underlying causes never get addressed, and solutions get postponed for future generations.

Yet this cannot describe all complaints, nor all complainers. Just as not everybody who drinks becomes an alcoholic, not every complainer furiously demands everybody’s pity. People complain for diverse reasons, including reasons downright admirable, even useful. Lumping all complaints together, and trying to expunge them altogether, robs our underclass from its one tool of resistance, and consigns people with genuine grievances to silence.

Commiserate. From the Latin: "to feel pity together"
Most obviously, complaining serves organizational purposes. Cindy and I, by voicing our perceived problems with management, reassure each other we’re not alone in our frustrations. The simple act of sharing unites us; now, rather than each suffering alone, we have a network. By combining our misery, we distribute hope, since neither of us must suffer in silence. We’ve become friends, but equally, we’ve become a people together.

For ordinary complaints, our bosses might even thank us for sharing them. By reassuring ourselves that our problems aren’t our own fault, we unburden our spirits, freeing energy we can dedicate to working better and improving our output. If I feel aggrieved, sharing that grievance with a fellow sufferer helps me stop punishing myself. Sure, shopping griefs to strangers multiplies the problem, but sharing griefs with similarly suffering peers divides it.

But not all complaints are ordinary. Can you imagine the Labor Movement of the 19th Century ever redressing the Dickensian misery of early industrial workplaces if workers had agreed not to complain? Just as regular complaining about small slights organizes friends into a network, sharing serious objections to outright injustice permits masses of people, especially the poor and disfranchised, to organize significant protests and seek constructive reform.

American philosopher Eric Hoffer notes that all mass movements organize themselves, at least initially, on oppositional foundations. That is, we band together not by our shared belief in God, but our shared hatred of the Devil. What groups hate motivates them to strive for a better world. Important social movements today, like the Tea Party and the #OCCUPY movement, developed positive values latterly, but organized initially around opposition to some perceived destructive force infiltrating American society.

Indeed, society itself may be essentially oppositional. Humans feared getting eaten by lions, lost in dark forests, or freezing to death, so we banded together to share responsibilities. I’ll make shoes so you don’t lose toes to frostbite; you split shingles so I don’t sleep in the rain. Despite ur-myths of Rugged Individualism, most people wouldn’t live Jeremiah Johnson style, because choosing between keeping warm, or getting this year’s harvest in, is pretty bleak.

Good advice. But nobody ever started a revolution alone
When citizens are powerless to act individually, whether through poverty or disunion or obscurity, shared complaints provide a sense of unity, permitting, even encouraging, groups to organize. While we may romanticize happy people with few gripes, such people have little motivation to try anything new. Seriously aggrieved people, unified by knowledge that they face some shared enemy, have strong motivation to accomplish something together.

Certainly, we cannot reward people who rehearse old resentments for selfish ends. Such people are mere lampreys, thriving by consuming others’ vitality. But sententiously forbidding everybody to complain, ever, as Sunday School pamphlets and well-meaning parents often do, robs society’s most powerless members of their most effective tool. Only when we voice our complaints, together, do we accrue the power to meaningfully redress them. Together.

Working Class Values
Part One: Sharing, Bellyaching, Sloganeering
Part Two: Reading
Part Three: Religiosity and Egalitarianism

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