Monday, August 06, 2007

The "Right" To Complain

At various points throughout my blogging career, I've been chastised for complaining (or, why not use the gender-specific term, bitching) on this here blog. In fact, this isn't only specific to the blogging - I've gotten similar reactions in other situations as well. But I've been thinking about this a bit lately, and I want to write about it.

Let's start with a basic premise: Every single person has things in their life that make them irritated. Things about which they would like to complain. Things about which they do complain.

I would suspect that even Oprah complains about work sometimes, or if not work then about her family, or about her friends, or about whatever irritates her. To complain is human, to write in gratitude journals divine, or some such.

At any rate, however, there seem to be people in the world who like to judge who has the right to complain - or really, to speak at all - and who does not. My question is this: at what point does one have a "right" to complain?

People who like to tell other people to stop their bitching, I've found, tend to think that the person doing the bitching has nothing to bitch about - she's lucky. So, for example, I shouldn't complain about things that irritate me related to my job because I'm "lucky" to have the life that I have.

First, let me say this: I will be the first person to say that luck played a role in me getting this particular job at the particular time when I got it. BUT. I'm not lucky. Nor is any other professor out there. Why? Well, here's what goes into getting a job as a professor:

  1. One spends years in which everybody else is earning money and putting cash into retirement and social security and buying first homes NOT earning money and doing all the other things and in fact going into DEBT (unless one is independently wealthy, or some such, which most people who go to grad school are not).
  2. One potentially puts relationships on hold during that time, and if one does that, the whole "finding a life partner" business becomes much more complicated, especially for women.
  3. One works fucking hard to earn a PhD. Without much acknowledgment and without much compensation.
  4. One has to reconcile oneself to the fact that one can't even choose what city one lives in, let alone what part of the country.
And then once one has the job as a professor, one continues to work fucking hard, without much acknowledgment and without much compensation (although obviously there is more compensation than there is for grad students). And one finds that the job that one worked so hard to get isn't precisely what one had in mind when one started off on that path 5 or 6 years before (if one finished quickly, if we're talking about the humanities), nor what one was led to expect throughout graduate school (as grad programs happen at research universities and most jobs in higher ed do not happen at research universities).

But an aside: I really love my job. I'm happy that I've chosen this path. I am glad that I made the choices that I did.

But that doesn't mean that things about this job don't piss me off. Just as things about grad school pissed me off, and I was happy I made that choice too. Just as things about temping pissed me off, and I was happy that I made that choice because it paid the rent.

So why is it that when I "bitch" about the job, when I "complain" about aspects of my life, that this is not acceptable behavior?

Well, I think part of the answer to that question does have to do with gender. If it didn't have to do with gender, then people wouldn't bring my physical appearance into the equation when they chastise me for expressing what I think. Whether I'm attractive or not attractive - or whether I talk about things related to my appearance, which I honestly don't think I do, really, but perhaps I'm blind to my own conceitedness - (and for those of you who don't know what I look like, I'll note that while I think I'm "pretty" or "attractive", I could use to lose some weight and I'm no super-model or anything) has absolutely nothing to do with whether I have a right to have an opinion, about my job or anything else. I've noticed, related to the blog, that the people who like to say that one doesn't have a right to complain tend to gravitate toward the blogs of those who admit to being single, childless women. I suspect that if I were a mother, or even a wife, that I wouldn't have to deal with this sort of "complaint" (as what are those who chastise one for complaining doing but complaining themselves?). I'll admit that I've not paid much attention to whether men get similar sort of "feedback" (often characterized as "constructive" criticism, as a "wake-up call" about what a bitch a person is), so I'll not comment on that, but feel free to post in the comments if you've gotten similar reactions, male blog readers, whether you've experienced this in blogland or in life.

I also think that part of the answer to the question has to do with the profession itself. On the one hand, non-academics think that academics have it easy. Does the comment, "must be nice to have summers off!" ring a bell? Or, if not that, "must be nice to only have to work 12 hours a week!" (and that, if one is at a teaching institution)? And someone recently noted that I "bitched" about my five-day-a-week schedule because it would cut into "vacations" - all I can say to that is that yes, I did complain about that (although I thought in a self-deprecating way), and you know why? Because the reality is that my most significant relationships right now are with people who don't fucking live where I work. With the exception of BFF, of course. But since the people I'm closest to live more than 3 hours away (whether by plane or by car), yeah, it matters that I teach five days a week, in ways that it just doesn't matter for people who are not in that predicament. If you think that I have "chosen" for that to be the way that my life is, take a gander at the job list in English Literature, and perhaps you'll get an idea of how little choice one actually has in the matter. But I digress. The point here is that I've never heard somebody say that a medical doctor shouldn't "complain" or that a lawyer shouldn't "complain" or even that a plumber shouldn't "complain" about work. There is a real belief in our culture that academics should be grateful that they get to be paid for the work that we do. That what we do is a "luxury" in some way. And the subtext of that belief is that what we do doesn't really count as work. Even administrators think this sometimes, because we "only work nine months" as opposed to working 12 months of the year. (Although, of course, that's not true either, for I do only get paid to work for 9 months but I do, actually, do work throughout the summer and on breaks.)

The fact of the matter is, everybody bitches. Male or female. And that doesn't mean that one isn't grateful for the life that they have, or that they don't appreciate the benefits of the life that they've chosen or the life that they lead. It's just that no matter how great a person's life is, some things about it suck. Period. Everybody has the "right" to complain. You know why? Because a lot of things in the world suck. And if nobody complained, then nothing would ever change, then none of those sucky things would ever be eradicated.

And whether I'm pretty or attractive or lucky or whatever, it doesn't mean that my complaints don't have validity. And if one can't bitch on a blog, where exactly can one bitch? That's the bottom line.


Marcelle Proust said...

Agreed. All of what you said. And people should read/lurk quietly for awhile before commenting, so they get to know the blog voices. Ed Smithers doesn't even make his profile available, so it's not possible to tell how he uses his blog--he might as well comment as Anonymous. Saying how he knows you feels rather creepy to me. I hope you know who he is rather than wondering which of a bunch of people it might be, which I think would be even creepier.

Sisyphus said...

Oh, I bet men don't "complain." They just "tell it like it is" and everybody loves to hear about it.


krisluvswool said...

Well, as far as I'm concerned, you can "bitch" all you want to! At least your complaints often fuel thoughtful discussion-- so I'm not sure how anyone would/could assume they aren't worthy of being heard.

And ditto everything else, too. Rock on, Dr. Crazy!

Dean Dad said...

This may or may not surprise you, but I totally agree with you on this one.

Improvements often start with complaints. Sometimes complaints lead to solutions, and sometimes they just blow off steam and let folks move on. And I'd wonder about the humanity of anyone who doesn't harbor at least a few pet peeves.

On my blog, I periodically get a flaming from some embittered adjunct who can't believe the gall of an administrator complaining about, well, anything. I can fully agree that adjuncts are treated like crap, but it doesn't follow that therefore my world is all peaches and cream.

Keep at it, Dr. C. You have every right in the world.

Anonymous said...

I think I've gotten negative responses along these lines. What right do I have to complain about how hard it is to take care of my kids when I'm rich and white and could put them in day care if I wanted, I'm just choosing not to. Also, I shouldn't complain because some women have to work and couldn't take care of their kids full time if they wanted to. I'm privileged because I've got enough money to do that.

it's usually been an accusation of excessive economic privilege but it always relates to the childcare choices I've made. And for some reason, the fact that someone else thinks they've got it worse/harder means I lose my right to complain.

Anonymous said...

oh, I forgot to say I think this is a lot of bullshit. I do. :)

Robert said...

"The more you complain, the longer God makes you live." -- Seen on a Mew York City Car's Rear Bumper

Enjoy your day(s)!

The_Myth said...

Brilliant post.

I learned long ago never to trust someone who doesn't complain.

I've made some very good friends over the years via bitchin'!

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Yeah, I completely agree with what you say here as well.

(If I can lower the tone for a minute, man, Ed Smithers sounded bitter! To be honest, my immediate impression when a man criticizes a woman for thinking she's attractive is that he wanted to get in her pants and got rejected. And anyone who thinks on brief acquaintance that they need to "give you a wake-up call" is arrogant as well as bitter. As I said, lowering the tone!)

To go along with Dean Dad's comment, though, bitching is important because it opens up issues that often get glossed over or one feels one's not supposed to talk about. And what begins as personal bitching can reveal something that's structurally wrong, and not just something that's limited to one person.

Sure, it's a great life, to be a professor, and there are lots of people who want that life who haven't been able to get it, which sucks. But just because it's a great job to have doesn't mean that in some other ways, academia isn't completely fucked up.

Um, I think I just repeated what everyone else said, but yeah, I agree with you.

k8 said...

I say complain away! For a library management course I had to take for my MLS, I wrote a lovely paper on complaining and informal communication practices between non-administrators. One of the articles I worked with was titled "All They Do Is Bitch Bitch Bitch”: political and interactional features of women’s officetalk." It was interesting to see how much the ways this is viewed is gendered (according to research, I knew anecdotally) and how productive this kind of talk actually can be in the workplace and outside or the workplace. And yes, there is a journal (from which this article came) titled Women and Language.

Oh, and I wrote the paper because the course instructor told us that he believed that people who didn't speak or actively contribute to conversations were bad, lazy workers. Totally didn't get the power differentials that account for silence and workplace bitching. So again, I say, complain away!! And anyway, doesn't this person realize that he was a guest at your blog? Bad form on his part.

Eddie said...

thankyouthankyouthankyou for #1-4.

litprof said...

I'll be honest--there are some blogs I just plain stopped reading because every single entry was just complaining. This was wrong, that was wrong, so-and-so was a jerk, my mother is a bitch, etc. ad nauseum. It's like, when it was time to click on that link in my blogroll, I honestly thought to myself, "I wonder what X blogger has found to bitch about today." Just total negativity and zero reflection.

I can honestly say that you are SO not like that. You offer a lot of insightful reflection and also seem willing to consider your own behavior/thought process when you happen to complain about something, as opposed to the Extremely Self Absorbed where it is always someone else's fault.

Besides, if you weren't "bitchy," you wouldn't so often say things that really need to be said, but often go unsaid.

wwwmama said...

Thank God for fellow complainers, I say. Great post. My view on complaints is that it helps you get clear on what you want/don't want and how to move forward. Just because things could be worse sometimes doesn't mean they couldn't be better...

gwoertendyke said...

i guess i missed the comment that inspired this hilarious manifesto--of course, everyone does have a right to complain, bitch, whine, disagree. and your portrait of academia is right on and foments rage at times, even while loving our positions.

an aside: perhaps it is only because of my sarcastic moniker that i take dean's comment personally, or perhaps it is meant to be taken personally, as i once and only once took issue with the way "adjuncts" were characterized as generally underqualified morons, but in the spirit of critique (not bitterness, which also seems gendered), i find dean's ongoing portrait of adjuncts disturbing, especially from a person of his stature and position. i would hope for more thoughtfulness, creativity, at the very least, less openly hostile discrimination.

and as anybody who has read my blog knows, i'm lucky, not your typically marginalized adjunct.

Clio Bluestocking said...

Bitch on!

As has been said, bitching leads to change. As they say in AA, first you have to admit there is a problem before you can do anything to change it.

To add to your rant, I've noticed that many of my non-academic friends and relatives seem to think that, as a college instructor, I live like a college student. Their eyes go glassy as they reminisce about keggers and ball games and the vast pool of dating prospects, along with the long holidays (note absence of academic involvement there?). Then they look at me and think that's what I do all day, everyday, all year long. So, how could I possibly complain about anything?

Jon said...

Reading other people's gripes is half the reason I read academic blogs! It reminds me that I'm not alone in confronting the frustrations of grad school life. By the way, I REALLY hate it when people criticize me for complaining and talk about academics as if we are on permanent vacation, and then when they hear just how much work it really is, they turn around and criticize me for being "stupid" for picking such a "high-investment, low-return" career. I can't win! Bitch on, Dr. Crazy! Bitch on!

The Word (fools) said...

I agree that every person has a right to complain but only to a point. I believe they can complain about circumstances that have been put upon them without their choosing. I do not think that they should complain about every detail that bugs them about work, school, housework, and many other things. Personally constant complainers annoy me, can't stand to be around them with all the negative energy.

Now I do not think that the criticisms you receive have anything to do with gender. It is just that to some people you complain to must, i am pretty sure the same thing happens with men. And of course there are hypocrites out there who tell you not to complain but they do the same thing. So it just depends on what is going on in the persons head.

Your right, everybody does complain but sometimes they complain too much and nothing changes. So when you or anybody else complains just pay attention to how much you do it and what you do about it, if you do anything at all.