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?

28 Replies to “Kate Norlock: “Can’t Complain”. Précis by Mariana Alessandri

  1. Mariana, thank you for the lovely response! You really persuade me to rethink whether I’m disagreeing with Baggini as much as I thought I did when I initially wrote the article. I occasionally move between his arguments for “constructive” complaints and complaints that “make the world a better place” as though they were the same things. But reading your happy affirmation of our frivolous variants, I find myself thinking that making one’s world a better place to be is not necessarily the same thing as being constructive. I’m enough of a hedonist that I think unconstructive pleasures also make the world a better or easier place to be, leavening the bits of it that are unchangeable or unbearable.

    Now I want to add “complaint hoarder” to my article somehow!

  2. First contempt and now complaining?! What’s next? A moral defense of mockery and insults? Just joking! What an interesting and fun article.

    I’ve only read the paper once quickly, because I have to prep for class, but I did not see you discuss the common sense charge against people who just dump their negative emotions on others and I wonder what you think about that! I am thinking that this is a core example of vicious complaining but I am curious what you think and how we might carve out the class (you might have alluded to this in the section on studies of why complaining can be bad?).

    One idea: A dumps his emotional problems on B iff A complains to B about issues XYZ, which have provoked A’s negative emotions, but is not open to discussing/thinking about how to better deal with or overcome the problems.

    This seemed good at first to me but now seems like it catches too much because, as you say, we can fruitfully complain and commiserate about bad or annoying stuff we cannot change.

    Maybe dumping is only a vice of those with immature or inapt emotional reactions (never us, of course!) who lack of willingness to benefit from the conversation/deliberation that complaining opens up?

    Second idea: A dumps his emotional problems on B iff A complains to B about issues XYZ, which have provoked A’s inapt or immature negative emotions, but A is not open to discussing how to better react to or overcome the problems.

    I’m curious what you think about this and the more general idea that complaining is often good because it opens up a conversation about how to better respond.

    When I complain I think I often sort of know/suspect that my emotional reactions are over the top, or that they might be slightly out of wack, and I complain to friends in part to help test/temper/hone those reactions and to fix on a better deliberate response to the situation. Sure *sometimes* I get recognition that my reactions are spot on but I find I more usually and beneficially get feedback that shifts my initial emotional and deliberative reactions so that I achieve a “better perspective”. And when friends complain in that sort of general spirit I would not complain that they are dumping on me.

    More generally, I am thinking complaining can in this way be a way of opening up and being honest while also leaving oneself open to friendly influence and correction. By complaining and responding with our friends we can build a kind of solidarity based on our mutual recognition that we are social emotional beings who are touchy, finicky, and reactive but who can form and act on apt emotions with a little help from our friends. We affirm the possibility that we can be emotional social-moral agents with virtues that are not enjoyed by solitary rational planners. Well that is a hopefully idea that pops into mind. Ok maybe I am just repeating what you said in the article, but in any case thanks for the thought-provoking one!

  3. Hi Kate! I appreciate your putting complaint and pleasure in the same sentence. You are changing the dialogue for the better. I think that is what a lot of people miss: people (especially in the US, I believe, and I’ve noticed more in Texas than in NY) tend to think of complaints “negative” and associate negativity with pain. If we can make conceptual room to accept that some complaints massage our society instead of debilitating it, then we will be in a better position to look at the different categories of complaint to assess their value.

  4. Let me start off by saying that the weather in New Jersey today is terrible and I dislike it very much.

    Anyway, I am absolutely convinced by your argument that complaining “offers important personal and interpersonal benefits, to oneself when one may otherwise feel isolated or wonder if one’s perceptions are correct, and to others when complaining fulfills social expectations to be a certain kind of cooperative and discursive companion” (p. 12). I am also convinced that, in the cases you have in mind, complaining is “a skill proper to the virtues of excellent moral agents, rather than a burdened virtue in itself” (p. 14).

    Given what you wrote on p. 13, I realize this is outside the scope of your paper. But I am wondering what to think about cases of complaining that are (a) cathartic for the complainer and (b) that do not cause harm (or cause comparably trivial harms) to others. I also realize that you touched on this in your response to Mariana Alessandri above. Still, I am wondering if such complaints are permissible, whether they might even be virtuous sometimes, and whether they can be (on balance) good even if they’re excessive. I might excessively complain (sometimes just to myself) about the bad traffic I am in, which can be cathartic. If my complaints were proportionate to my level of inconvenience, I would remain quite agitated. Given that I am disposed to be (irrationally) agitated by bad traffic, might it be best (even virtuous) for me to start complaining excessively provided that I will benefit myself and not harm others?

    Thank you for a great paper Kate and thank you for taking the time to discuss it with us at PEA Soup!

  5. Hey Brad,

    Barbara Held makes a helpful distinction between complaining (kvetching) and criticizing. This may or may not help. I like your word choice “dumping” because that sounds quite un-virtuous. Is there any philosophical, social or personal value in dumping? I tend to think so, though it is hard to defend.

  6. Brad Cokelet, thanks for your thoughts! You catch me out on something that I dodged at the time, my lack of an account as to when complaints are vicious or at least unskilled. This is a great question. Shoot.
    My aim for this paper was originally the smallest of aims. I wanted to argue against Aristotle and Kant that complaints are permissible more than never. Since I predicated my defense of a permissible form on the goods of commiseration and attenuating isolation, perhaps I could better develop an account of unskilled or bad forms on forms of complaining that reduce the abilities of others to connect rather than enhance connection. That might better get to WHY some forms of complaint feel like “dumping” the complaints – because one is uninterested in the reply of a dumpster, seeking only off-loading without regard for the relationship between oneself and one’s recipient.
    I’ll have to think more about this! Thanks for egging me on with respect to the negative sorts. Maybe I’ll have more fully formed possibilities as the day/weekend goes on.

  7. Thanks for a thought-provoking article, Kate. A few thoughts about how your account might be expanded. I am wondering what you think of these connections. 1) Nagging. When women complain to their male spouses, regardless of the legitimacy of their complaints, this is regarded as a serious vice. It seems to me this prohibition on complaining to one’s male spouse, which is often one of only a few ways that wives historically have been able to “have a voice” as it were, is a feature of male-dominance. 2) Playing the victim. I wonder if accusing another of wrong or a harm counts as complaining. I am thinking of Kate Manne’s claim that women who are harmed by men are not permitted to occupy the social position of victim. They are either “playing the victim” or they are “seeing themselves as victims.” Both locutions suggest, of course, that they are not really victims. 3) Other failures of uptake. Both of these cases are failures to give uptake to women’s complaints. I am thinking there may be others, but perhaps I am stretching the notion of complaining too far, or confusing it with things like accusing or protesting. For instance, gaslighting has been described as a form of testimonial injustice where a person refuses to believe someone’s complaint about another’s wrongful or harmful behavior due to a credibility deficit based on her identity. Or another example: in the psychological literature on gaslighting, it is described as a form of manipulation where a person uses a (legtimate) complaint about his behavior as evidence of a vice on the part of the complainer. For instance, when someone complains about a person’s chronic lateness and he responds by telling her that she really needs to work on her “issues about time.” Thoughts?

  8. Travis, I feel so connected to you re: traffic-related complaints! Look at that. You enhanced our relationship, just then.

    I DO think that what you’re doing in your car, when you share all your powerful feels about the traffic aloud, counts as complaining and not just criticizing. In my article, I describe complaining as criticism + subjectively feeling, caring about, the negative valence, because I know many insightful people who can list criticism-worthy things without caring about them. They don’t seem to be complaining. They’re just making observations: That curtain’s the wrong length. His new haircut is too short for his face. One of the pencils on the table is broken. Shrug.

    So, complaining alone and aloud: Harmless? I’ve got hesitations there, as it won’t ALWAYS be harmless. Sometimes it keeps one stoking fires better allowed to die down. If keeping your rage front and center to the audience of yourself means that you drive angrier, it’s not clear that it’s harmless. But surely we sometimes vent in ways that reaffirm our relationships to our own selves, to our sense of who we believe ourselves to be: correct about the traffic, better drivers than others, righteously indignant, victims of jerks!

    I’ll have to ponder this. You caught me punting on catharsis, but it’s fun to consider the possibilities!

  9. Cindy Stark, thanks for these really challenging directions to consider! (Crumb, Rob Tempio, maybe you were right and this is the start of a project rather than the end of one. Hmph.)

    (1) Nagging: This is such an interestingly genderiffic and heteronormatively laden form of complaining, loaded with fascinating historical baggage. Since I’m interested in advancing attention to the relationships between complainers and recipients, the tendency to see nagging as obviously bad begs for some sort of analysis with respect to what relationship it is that we think is expected from women, especially women to men in heterosexually organized relationships. There, the complaint is not just from A to B about some external object of complaining C, but from A to B about, dare we say, B! This includes a dimension of anger and protest that I may not be able to attend to excellently given the short scope of today’s article, from which I excluded discussion of protest. Like you said, food for thought for further directions!

    (2) Playing the victim: I just finished reading Kate Manne’s _Down Girl_ recently myself, and you’re so right that she makes a good point regarding the repackaging of complaint, especially from a feminine source, as one of “playing” the victim! I really see this as related to my analysis of the canonical association, committed by Aristotle and Kant, of vulnerability with softness, feminizing the complainer as girlish because not strong and silent regarding pain.

    (3) Failures of uptake: THIS has been an occupation of mine since I first wrote about forgiveness in 2009, that much of what we take to be unimportant or trivial whinging expresses a plea for recognition and acknowledgement, even when the plaintive person is not protesting, and is simply trying to exert their capacity to express their experiences of pains. Perhaps I should consider the possibility that responses like “you can’t complain,” “first-world problems,” and “complaining doesn’t solve anything” are, themselves, frustrating cousin of gaslighting! I hadn’t considered this previously, but they do seem to problematically shut down the speaker in a way that fails to take seriously the efforts of the speaker to self-express, redirecting the attention of witnesses to how to be a better sort, and away from caring for the relationship between recipient and whinger.

    Thanks for helping me think about these directions for further inquiry, Cindy!

  10. Hi Kate (if I may),

    Thanks and I will be excited to see more are this cool project develops. Reading your response prodded me to re-read Cheshire Calhoun’s “Emotional work” and got me to thinking that vicious complaining at least in the form of dumping might actually connect with problematic gender norms. It would not be surprising if in some circles women are expected to accept male dumping as part of the emotional work they are expected to do. But, of course, even if this is true, men don’t have a monopoly on vicious complaining.
    – Brad

  11. Hi Mariana,
    Thanks for the pointer to Barbara Held’s book! I think the idea of dumping being only conditionally vicious is interesting. This would be a fun topic to discuss in contemporary moral problems — I bet students could help shed light on this.

  12. Brad, no gender has a monopoly on it, agreed. In my department at Trent U, I would say that I complain the most. (But I’ve become so self-conscious about it since I began working on this topic that I’m not sure I’m right about that. You know how research gets into life!)

    I was thinking about your questions over lunch, and found myself telling my spouse that I skipped over catharsis in the article and went right to the commiseration-form of complaining as the one that defeats the Aristotelian/Kantian injunction to never whinge. He asked why, and I told him it seemed to have a stronger moral valence, while catharsis could be dismissed by philosophers as “merely therapeutic” — when I get that objection in my usual subfield of forgiveness, it’s typically coupled with the comment that therapeutic things are psychological and not moral matters. I find that to be an overdone distinction, and I now suspect that my desire to avoid the dismissal of therapeutic benefits as irrelevant to philosophy drove my impulse to skip catharsis and attend to commiseration instead.

    Thanks again for nudging me to think further about such things!

  13. Oh, and I want to add my thanks, Mariana: I too thank you for the pointer to Barbara Held’s book! (That looks like fun, and the end of term is just five weeks off for me, time to read.) I’m also seriously pondering your observation in your commentary, “Somebody needs to get on this, and to explore interaffectivity in depth.” Of course Thomas Fuchs does, beautifully, and as I’m analytically trained, I’d be remiss not to note that more Continental colleagues are eloquent on the deeper study of intersubjectivity, broadly conceived. But I’m glad you picked up on the urgency with which I discuss my need to more pointedly investigate affective duties. I think that what I’ve long thought of as my penchant for “care ethics” may rather more accurately be described as an interest in affective duties, in particular. As soon as I figure out what those are, I am golden!

  14. Good article, Dr. Norlock, and smart commentary, Dr. Alessandri! As a New Yorker living in Louisiana, I have something to say about this!

    In addition to ethical norms (including affective duties), complaints can meet aesthetic norms by being entertaining, perhaps through humor as Dr. Alessandri says, or by over-the-top qualities, or narrative excesses, as well as by understatement, or mixed forms. Imagine nail-biting were a form of sculpture.

    Since we evaluate complaints by aesthetic norms, we end up applying criteria of style. Kant may have been a successful protester of censorship, but disparaging of what he considered less effective styles, perhaps unfairly.

    Style may reflect many factors, including region and race. Here in the deep South of the US, failure of uptake is common. Complaint often does not register as competent communication. (I can understand how it is perceived.)

    If New Yorkers couldn’t complain, they would be unable to talk. But for New Yorkers, complaining is a form of storytelling, and is seen as inviting the listeners to respond with their own stories. This serves moral purposes, as well as aesthetic.

    Incidentally, dumping is therapeutic, and a form of intimacy. But intimacy is often unwanted.

  15. Aaron Lercher, thanks for the observations! I heartily agree that complaining can be discussed relative to aesthetic norms as well as ethical norms and widely (and locally) shared norms of what counts as communication, and that style matters, on several dimensions.

    I remember the penchant, in the southern United States, to gather around those complaints deemed to knit us together: Weather and sports (“Did you see that intercepted pass? Awful!”) were appropriate objects of complaint and social lubricants, but not nearly so much uptake was granted to self-deprecation. In the Upper Midwest, however, complaints that took one’s own flaws as objects could be coupled with humor in a way that granted one access to social circles where self-deprecation is expected! (My partner recalled to me the old Woody Allen joke, “My one regret in life is that I am not someone else.”)

    My new town in Ontario is peopled with a few wintry folks who find complaints about the weather frankly baffling from me. Even when I make them funny! It turns out that the aesthetic dimension cannot always overcome normative expectations. But I determinedly try anyway.

  16. Well, I can honestly say I have no complaints with either the original work or the response. I would like to add though that I think Comedy is worth examining here as well: it fulfills many of the same roles proposed for complaining (Confirmation of perception, Social Lubricant, Sympathetic Bonding and may even serve a role in Protest) yet is gendered as more of a male activity

    I also found the commentary on social media interesting in the original work. I will concede that complaining on social media seems disproportionate compared to what I hear in person but I am interesting in hearing opinions on why that is:

    There is a part of me which thinks that this might be a symptom of an increasingly individualized and digital world, where we consume a great deal of information and media which is relatively personalized. Perhaps the spike in social media complaining stems from an increased need to affirm our perceptions in a world where perception is increasingly tailored both to our wants and for the interest of others.

    Maybe it stems from the politicization of contact online, where protesting injustice is more interwoven with the fabric of dialogue? While it’s not all online complaints, many do have at least some political or social element of protest.

    It may stem from being a means of sympathetic bonding in a media/space where more subtle signals and desires for this are difficult to discern. For those who try to keep and maintain relationships with others online, complaining is the only way to express difficulties as which would otherwise be shared suffering or expressed through subtler cues.

    Alternatively, it could stem from a lack of empathy: complainers online largely find themselves in an echo chamber of sympathetic ears and voices, while those who disagree or otherwise find themselves uncomfortable may simply avoid contact in a way which isn’t always possible in real life. As such, our complaints are far more likely to meet with a chorus of sympathetic wailers and less likely to result in negative consequences (social or otherwise) than complaining to someone in person.

    Maybe some parallels to the phenomenon could be seen in older forms of media which served to facilitate relationships over long distance (Letters, Phonecalls, etc). Perhaps if there is an excess of complaining on social media, it is done to compensate for some other deficiency in the system… I know I’ve veered somewhat out of the scope of conversation with this but I’d be very interested in hearing people’s thoughts on this.

  17. Dear Kate,

    What you wrote in response to Cindy is IT!!! Thanks Cindy for bringing it up! Both of you please analyze and publish article and books on it. Failure of uptake is what nags at me when I consider dismissing a complaint as worthless. I had never connected it to gaslighting. I am copying Kate’s words so they don’t get lost:

    Failures of uptake: THIS has been an occupation of mine since I first wrote about forgiveness in 2009, that much of what we take to be unimportant or trivial whinging expresses a plea for recognition and acknowledgement, even when the plaintive person is not protesting, and is simply trying to exert their capacity to express their experiences of pains. Perhaps I should consider the possibility that responses like “you can’t complain,” “first-world problems,” and “complaining doesn’t solve anything” are, themselves, frustrating cousin of gaslighting! I hadn’t considered this previously, but they do seem to problematically shut down the speaker in a way that fails to take seriously the efforts of the speaker to self-express, redirecting the attention of witnesses to how to be a better sort, and away from caring for the relationship between recipient and whinger.

  18. Robert McGuinness, nice to hear from you! You’re not a straying out of the scope at all, you’re quite right to notice those comments about complaints on social media in my article, and facebook, in particular, is so interesting to me as a place where I complain and respond to others’ complaints often. I have wide and deep criticisms of social media, and the extent to which our corporate overlords make sure that we are on it endlessly, satisfying ludic loops of reward-seeking behavior. But you hit on a key reason that I’m strongly in favor of having a social media outlet, when you say, “this might be a symptom of an increasingly individualized and digital world, where we consume a great deal of information and media which is relatively personalized. Perhaps the spike in social media complaining stems from an increased need to affirm our perceptions…”

    YES. I’m most defensive of complaining when it is done to affirm perceptions so as to reduce one’s own isolation (“Am I alone in thinking…?”) or to reduce another’s isolation (“You’re not alone, that situation was awful!”). The vast majority of my day is spent alone on a computer – and I’m in a sociable job like Philosophy Professor! In the computer and internet age, there are extents to which we are extraordinarily isolated from each other, and as I was saying at the Central APA last week, I believe it is in the interests of those who would govern us to keep us isolated from each other, more predictable, more easily governed. I am very interested in advancing the case for the value of perception-affirmation especially when it is not going to result in protest and world-changing, but may simply result in people getting together to agree: I am not alone in thinking this is bad. I suffer its badness, and I am not wrong that this is suffering. I have company!

    This brings me all the way back to Brad Cokelet’s first comment, when he said: “More generally, I am thinking complaining can in this way be a way of opening up and being honest while also leaving oneself open to friendly influence and correction. By complaining and responding with our friends we can build a kind of solidarity based on our mutual recognition that we are social emotional beings who are touchy, finicky, and reactive but who can form and act on apt emotions with a little help from our friends. We affirm the possibility that we can be emotional social-moral agents with virtues that are not enjoyed by solitary rational planners.”

    Good work, Brad! You seem so right, complaining may be this. And even more! I also hope we can build solidarity through complaining that promotes our capacities to confide in each other, to affirm each other’s perceptions, even if our options for responding to them are limited, even if our responses are already as good as they’re going to get.

  19. Mariana, I am so torn between expressing gratitude to you for your support and whinging at the horror that you’re suggesting I do hard work, connecting gaslighting to the failure of uptake regarding complaints!

    Alright, more seriously: I don’t want to over-extend the concept of gaslighting, but you’re right that I should do more with respect to how and when the redirection of attention from the complaint or complainer to the reasons that they should not complain is really a failure of attention, an injustice of sorts.

    And Cindy Stark should work on that too!

  20. Kate,

    I really enjoyed your article and I believe my students will as well. I’m sure they will be interested in, and perhaps defensive of, some of the points concerning complaining on social media.

    Your warnings of the negative effects of complaint when used as an ice-breaker or an attempt at social connection that slip into servility are spot-on! Both occur so frequently in my workplace that I often contemplate closing my office door. This would likely result in a change of my reputation though, which is why I am wrestling with the idea of a deficiency of complaining and/or uptake. If I change my habit from listening and commiserating to shutting out the complaints, is this new habit one that expresses a vice or a virtue?

    I find myself dwelling on the last sentence of the article because some of my personal relationships have suffered due to my perceived lack of sensitivity. At a certain point, I am no longer willing to entertain a friend’s complaint. I agree with you that in these cases, the complaining no longer serves relational functions and is now generating harms. Of course, my now displeased friends don’t see it that way. I suspect there is a gendered aspect of the criticism of my lack of uptake as well. I am perceived as particularly vicious in these situations because I’m no longer willing to hear the complaint, whereas when my husband takes the same stand it is not nearly as detrimental to his character.

    Okay, that’s enough complaining for one morning! Thank you for your interesting article.

  21. Best complaint joke, ever.

    Philosopher comes to Columbia to give a talk on “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
    Morgenbesser to a colleague: If there was nothing he would still complain!

  22. Kristin, I think your comments are spot-on, especially regarding the (subconscious or not) expectation that women will be more receptive to complaints, better emotional laborers, care-tending to the needs of a complainer. As I emphasize in my monograph, I do not believe it is possible to demonstrate that women actually *are* behaviorially more receptive and emotionally attentive across intersectional identities, places, and times, but a cultural expectation can have a way of thriving in the absence of evidence that it’s true, alas. So expectations are acted on regardless of the evidence that this woman, in this place, at this time, does not see the relationship between her and the complainer to be one served by the complaining.

    Don’t dwell on the last sentence more than it’s worth! I hedge with the word “perhaps” on purpose. I don’t think everyone who is feeling unreceptive to a complaint is insensitive. And in gendered workplace contexts, rejecting the often feminized role of always-available sympathetic ear may be necessary for good reasons. There’s no rule that works for all individuals. Some of us may need to close the door more than others.

    Having said that, I do think that people who are less inclined to complain include some people who are just lucky to be disposed to cheerfulness or tolerance, and sometimes lucky people can be remarkably judgmental about those who don’t enjoy the same luck. Those of us with more positivity — I’m one of them — tend to get praised for being cheerful, but I fully realize, every time someone gives me a verbal medal for being upbeat, that I’m just lucky, that I’m not really doing something meritorious any more than some persons with many pains and/or a disposition to feel negative affordances is to be blamed for being, to an extent, someone who just has that disposition.

    The fascinating thing about the ethics of complaint is that we can’t know how someone else’s neurological furniture is arranged, and so much of my interest in defending quotidian whinging is motivated by the humbling uncertainty regarding what others need and what we, ourselves, need.

    As many philosophers of care-ethics would agree, knowing how, when, and whether to care is precisely what’s at issue. That job is complicated by the cultural expectations that women will be caring, and that men will be “hard” instead of “soft.” Cutting through the thick cultural contexts and knowing how to complain and to respond to complaints is a deep ethical challenge.

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