Welcome to what should be a fun and enlightening discussion of Kate Norlock‘s “Can’t Complain” (which the Journal of Moral Philosophy has generously provided free access to throughout the weekend). Mariana Alessandri has kindly agreed to contribute a critical précis, which appears immediately below. Please join the discussion!
Précis to Kate Norlock’s “Can’t Complain”: Complain We Must!
By Mariana Alessandri
I applaud Kate Norlock’s essay on complaining, specifically her defense of the least-loved of all complaints: quotidian whinging. Coming from New York, I call it kvetching. But instead of writing about Norlock’s essay, I will assume it’s ok to write directly to Dr. Norlock, my companion in misery.
Dear Kate: my ideal conversation about complaining would be shrouded in humor, if that is possible, dwelling in the tragic-comic realm that Unamuno was so fond of: dark, but funny, dark again, and then more funny. Too often, from underuse, people miss the lighthearted lift that complaining provides, which you and I know well. I’m afraid that’s only more likely in a virtual space. Online discussions scare me, because words can be taken out of context and easily misunderstood or attributed certain tones when they were meant in others. But since we’re here, I’d like to move away from a strictly academic conversation to a less formal but no less philosophical one.
Lest we feel too alone, let’s reach back into the history of philosophy for some company in complaining. You are right that not many philosophers defended complaining, but many employed it! We will find in our history examples of complaints, maybe not of the quotidian whinging variety that you and I seem to love so well, but complaints nonetheless. Beggars can’t be choosers.
Socrates complained about the pain in his legs caused by his prison shackles, even if it was to teach the boys a lesson about the relatedness of pleasure and pain. Epictetus encouraged us to moan outwardly with our grieving friends (though does warn us not to moan inwardly). Montaigne—complainer-extraordinaire—draws on Epicurus to defend his perpetual and comic whining: “everyone knows that wrestlers’ grunts make their blows more effective.” Montaigne adds: “If the body finds relief in lamentations, let it,” just like a pregnant woman giving birth. This idea must have inspired Unamuno’s line almost 350 years later about “starting the grieving chords of others” by publicly shouting about his pains. Young Søren Kierkegaard comically complained about his ailing body after he had fallen off a couch at a party. In response to friends trying to help him up, he said something to the effect of “leave it. The maid will sweep it up in the morning.” We are not alone! The history of philosophy is not only full of the clean-cut forms of complaining like protest or righteous anger, but also of the deformed ones like griping.
You have defended our kind well. I am not so sure that Aristotle is not on our side, at least a little bit, or that he couldn’t be convinced to be if you pitched him your argument. I think you could convince him. When he says that we must imitate the “person who is better,” between the one who enjoys having people lament with them and the one who doesn’t, who’s to say the better one is not the “girlish woman and womanish man”? Of course I think they are the better one (even if problematic from a feminist perspective), so when I read or teach the Ethics, I raise this point. This leads to what I think is the best insight in your essay: complaining, if rightly understood and employed, is a virtue. If we can win this one and convince people that complaining is a virtue, then there would exist, at least theoretically, a phronimos of complaining: the one who knows how and when and in what way to complain. Very few complain virtuously; most fall to the extreme of deficiency or excess.
Skillful complaint in times of uncertainty or even of hopelessness is exactly what we each of us needs to cultivate. If you have ever been in the company of a complaint phronimos, you know how lightly their artfully lodged complaint lands, how soothing, how precisely liberating it can be. No, it doesn’t make the impossible possible, but it was never meant to. After all, we are not talking about the “accomplishing social change” type of complaint that Baggini has already rescued from the complaint junkyard. We are talking about what Baggini calls the “frivolous variants”—delicious!—which have been picked over and left to rot in the sun.
What I can’t figure out is if I think that Baggini is wrong that these frivolous variants don’t bring about a better world, or if I believe that it doesn’t matter either way; that they are good even if they don’t. For Baggini, complaints that don’t make the world better are pointless, at best. But I think that, in a small way—imperceptible to all but the trained ear—they often do make the world better, at least for either the person who said it or the person who smiled because it was said. This puts me in line with Baggini’s argument, except that I am rescuing two kinds of non-protest complaints from your detailed list of the greater trash-heap: social lubricant and affirmation of others. (You describe this, beautifully, as “sympathetic bonding” and Kowalski calls it “relational solidarity”). It seems to me just simply obvious that these complaints deserve justifying, and I like your appeal to the affective duties: this gives complaining a philosophical backbone for those who need such things. (I was surprised to hear that affective duty is not studied more in ethics, but I believe you. Somebody needs to get on this, and to explore interaffectivity in depth.) These complaints, when executed in the right way at the right time, can make our tragic world a little bit comic, a little less lonely, and a little more wrestle-able. Clearly, they are not pointless.
But a greater part of me wants to defend the scrap-metal of complaints: those that don’t make the world a better place. (I guess in this category go complaints that you call “excessive, pointless, and ill-intentioned”?) But even here I want to say I’m not sure they don’t make the world a better place, at least for the complainer! Barbara Held lays out a funny set of guidelines for successful whinging in Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching, which hinges on not becoming too much of a burden to your listener. Her advice to be kind to your audience and not overtax them reminds me of the difference between watching the first SNL execution of “Debbie Downer” and actually becoming a Debbie Downer. No one really wants to be around someone who reminds us of everything bad in the world, but the idea of this person is pretty funny. In the face of these guidelines, however, I experience a similar disappointment to the one I feel at the thought that only virtuous complaining is justifiable. If it’s the best we can do, I will take it! But since, in my opinion, we as a society fall into the deficiency category of complaining, shouldn’t we shoot for excess and see where we end up? How can we leave any complaint in the junkyard? If the complaint is honest (I agree with you here, though I finally learned that my only genuine opening to a class discussion is the skip-the-formalities-kvetch; I try to keep it honest), then it must be doing some important work. If I am complaining, then something must be wrong; maybe not the thing I am complaining about, but something real that needs my attention. Mister Rogers said that everything that’s mentionable is manageable, so I want to leave no things-mentioned behind. I err on the side of validating the rusty complaint, even in a vague way, such as it’s-necessary-for I-don’t-know-what, since it might have been valuable to its owner, rather than scrap it. I tend to think that all complaints contain what you identify as the “possibility of response.” This is what is turning me into a complaint hoarder. To be clear, I do not think all complaints are virtuous, but I am starting to think that even the vicious ones have value.
What do you all think: any defenders of complaints that miss the mark?5