A follow-up to Tuesday’s post about creativity and the place of constructive criticism in communities. I happened to read this piece by the philosopher Julian Baggini about the importance of complaining in a society that wants to be just and fair.
Constructive complaints are not just an effective tool for social improvement, they reflect a distinctive capacity we have as human beings for seeing beyond the present to new possibilities. This is the link between complaining and creativity.
Being able and willing to complain is what makes us rational and moral animals, capable of seeing and articulating the difference between how things are and how they should be.
The kind of constructive complaining that Baggini discusses is not the same as simply having a moan. A good complaint always has a moral aspect.
I think most people associate complaining more with moaning, whinging or relatively trivial consumer matters than they do high principle. That’s partly, of course, because as a matter of fact, many of our complaints are just kvetches. We moan as ice-breakers, to bond, to express frustration, or simply to express our values. But as a practical activity, I think complaining has become too associated with rights of contract. We live in an entitlement culture, in which, if anything goes wrong, we look for someone to blame, someone who is legally responsible. Trip up in the street and the thought soon arises: who can I sue? Your insurance company will tell you never to admit responsibility if you hit another car, even though usually one party is responsible.
Too often, complaint is not about principled objection on moral grounds, but opportunistic objection on grounds of self-interest. To rectify this, we need to work on mastering the art of complaint. Constructive complaint requires only two things: that what you are complaining about should be different, and that it can be different. It sounds simple, but too often our protests fail this test. Most commonly, as anyone who deals with public complaints for a living will tell you, many of our objections just don’t get the facts straight. If I had a penny for every time I had been castigated for writing something I never actually wrote, I’d have £823.87 by now (and I can almost hear the next penny dropping as I write).
Wrong complaint comes in numerous other varieties. To take just one, there is the contradictory complaint, whereby our objections demand incompatible things. For instance: complaining that first-past-the-post hands power to parties with only minority support and then complaining when a coalition partner compromises on major issues. You can, of course, complain that the partner has compromised too much on the wrong issues, but to demand no movement on any issue of substance is incompatible with the complaint that governments in the UK should reflect the electorate’s wishes more proportionately.
This example is a good one because it shows how easy it is to complain sloppily, but also how important it is to get the complaint right. There is a lot to object to in the programme of this government, so it matters that we do not waste our energies making ill-informed, contradictory or otherwise mistaken complaints. So we should not listen to those who tell us we should complain less and be more “positive”. Rather, we should make complaints that are principled and thought through. A good society depends on its best complainers.
Jean-Paul Sartre bases his whole existential philosophy on this insight. He uses the language of ‘negativity’. The miracle of human existence is that we are not trapped in the present, we are always looking beyond – not just to what will be, but to what might be, what could be, what should be. We are always conscious of what is ‘not’, and our understanding of the reality in which we are presently immersed is determined by how we envision a reality that has not yet come to be. This reaching into the future is part of what makes us human, and part of our essential nature is to be dissatisfied. It doesn’t mean we are never happy, just that happiness will always (in this life) be provisional.