Monday, 15 June 2009

You & Yours - BBC Radio 4

Read an "essay" on complaining on last Wednesday's programme. Listen again here, or read transcript below. Better still, buy the book!

Grumble. Whine. Whinge. Carp. Kvetch. Moan. Bellyache. Grouse. Most of the words we use to describe complaint do not exactly evoke the noblest aspects of the human spirit. Complaint is most commonly associated with petty moans about the minor inconveniences of everyday life, such as late trains, air-head celebrities and the difficulty of finding a tuna sandwich that doesn’t have either sweetcorn or cucumber in it. “He’s always complaining” is never meant as praise.

But complaint isn’t just about whinging and carping. It’s also about protesting, objecting and dissenting. These principled activities have been behind all of the major social advances in human history. I’m sure there were some people who told Emeline Pankhurst to stop moaning and put the kettle on, but it is because she and others like her refused to do so that women got the vote.

Complaining can be this important because at its root is a realisation that there is a gap between the way things are and the way they ought to be. That gap can be between the sunshine we were promised by weather forecasters and the horizontal rain that soaks us on Clevedon pier; or between the luxury lifestyles of millionaire executives and the grinding poverty of people in developing countries producing the goods that made them rich in the first place. Somewhere in between, perhaps, is the gap between the standards expected of our elected politicians and the receipt for moat cleaning services.

To make a complaint is therefore to say something about your values, to tell people how you think the world should be. Hence my complaint is not that we complain too much, but that we do so badly, and generally about the wrong things. The biggest complaints should be reserved for important matters that both can and ought to be different.

The British seem to be particularly handicapped in this regard. I conducted a survey which suggested that half as many Britons as Americans thought that the point of complaining was actually to change things. Lacking the optimism of our transatlantic cousins, we believe the best is already behind us, gone with the Empire. We are left futilely complaining to each other about things that we don’t believe can be changed when we should be protesting to those who can do something about it.

Don’t then believe people when they say that complaint is negative and you should simply be as the lilies of the fields and accept the world as it is. Such fatalism freed no slaves and liberated no peoples.

No, she who is tired of complaining is tired of life. Remember the words of Martin Luther King, always a good person to quote if you want to end on a rousing, moral high note. He said:

So I have not said to my people: “Get rid of your discontent.” Rather, I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channelled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.

Now that’s what I’d call a complaint.