“Telling people not to complain is an act of power, a way of asserting that one’s position is more important than another one’s pain.” —Sarah Kendzior
Senator Kamala Harris has officially announced her 2020 presidential bid! Appearing on Rachel Maddow’s show for her campaign’s kickoff media appearance on January 23rd (2019), Harris said that her mother always taught her that if something’s wrong, you don’t complain about it, you work on fixing it. That really stuck in my craw. I’d like to think that Harris simply meant it as a way to explain her own motivations and that maybe she was, however clumsily, actually acknowledging her privilege and position of power. But then she repeated that stupid shit on Twitter, which makes me think it was a carefully curated talking point.* If so, she’s wrong, and worse, buying into a top-down societal so-called norm that only exists to reinforce harmful power structures and further repress the already vulnerable: the interlocking tropes known as Stop Complaining, Practice Gratitude, and Take Personal Responsibility.
What if complaining is doing something about it? What if complaining is literally all you can do? Why do we demonize those who voice problems and alert others to their existence as “just sitting around”? Why do we stigmatize those who agitate for progress as “negative” and “bitter”? The fact is, no problem was ever resolved without someone complaining about it first. Every social movement began as a complaint. Every apology and renewed sense of trust is the result of complaining, and every instance of justice served began as a complaint. Ever wonder where the word plaintiff comes from? Our society needs complainers, for a society that never complains is one that has given up and resigned itself to complacency and death. We need whistleblowers. We need realists to tell us something is a terrible idea and that all the optimism and vision boards and good vibes in the world won’t make it otherwise. We need to see and give a platform to the most vulnerable and disenfranchised. We need to give voice to everyone whose stomach never really unknots over the broken promises of the American dream that so many can no longer realize. We complain to acknowledge those who look successful on paper yet live with a constant white noise of low-grade panic because we know deep down that we are likely one funky-looking mole away from bankruptcy. And this is a key reason complaining is so important: it creates a shared experience where people know it’s not just them. You are not alone in your pain and uncertainty and terrifying state of insecurity.
“But it could always be worse!” people love to pipe up. This is another form of oppression, a key component of the Gratitude Dogma. And it’s bullshit, of course, because while the statement on its face might be true, it is also true that things could always be better. Why are people vilified and labeled ungrateful for simply pointing that out? We aren’t the least bit obligated to feel grateful for crumbs and slivers when we know the entire slice of pie is being stolen from us. Women are not required to, say, express appreciation for the gender pay gap, nor do we have to walk around saying idiotic things like, “Thank goodness my male coworker merely grabbed my ass, because like, he could have raped me! Hashtag so blessed.” We have every right to feel terrified and angry that nothing is being done about rampant gun violence. We don’t have to bow our heads in thankful prayer that our kids didn’t get shot up in school TODAY. This situation is unsafe and untenable and we have every right to demand better. And the list of horrific circumstances for which we do not owe one ounce of gratitude could go on for miles, unfortunately. Hate crimes against people of color, minority religions, and the LGBTQ community; the fact that no one in power has done a damn thing to curb climate change; ever-rising income inequality, and so much more. We love to throw around the phrase “The Power of Positivity”, but the only power in positivity is reinforcing already entrenched and oppressive power structures.
Have you ever noticed the only people who preach Personal Responsibility are 1) people in positions of authority very invested in upholding the status quo; and 2) people who literally never take accountability for their own moral failings? Have you ever known an abusive parent to take accountability and truly make amends? I haven’t. Have you ever heard of a pastor or other clergy member who took real responsibility for being or enabling a sexual predator? I haven’t. How many CEOs or other high-ranking corporate managers endure any significant consequences for anything at all, be it underpaying employees, price gouging life-saving medicine, knowingly peddling risky financial investments, allowing a culture of sexual harassment, or violating basic privacy of their users? Far, far too few.
Have you ever attended or watched a town hall of an entrenched politician, assuming they have one at all? Do so sometime, and observe how butthurt they become over their constituents’ legitimate grievances. In early 2017, NJ Republican Tom MacArthur held a town hall that you’re aware of thanks to the viral video of his constituent Geoff Ginter’s articulate and scathing rebuke about the Congressman’s vote to repeal the ACA. The town hall lasted five hours, and culminated with MacArthur calling the attendees “angry” and “disrespectful.” Democrat Andy Kim represents that district now. Also, longstanding Texas Congressman Pete Sessions held one (count ‘em!), one town hall meeting after the 2016 election. In a breathtaking display of arrogance, Sessions accused his constituents of being bad listeners and actually threatened that members of Congress would not have town halls if anyone dared ask tough questions or express anger. Colin Allred handed him his ass in the 2018 midterms, and if you were hoping for Uncle Pete to reflect on his deficiencies and take some responsibility for why a majority of his constituents saw him as a failure, you’re in for a huge disappointment: Sessions’ last act as a duly elected congressional representative was to, in the midst of the government shutting down, call a late-night emergency session about cheese. Yes, cheese. Meaning, the stuff you put on nachos. I wish I were making that up.
These enmeshed catch-all credos are a grift to keep the powerful in power. If they can distract us enough, we hopefully won’t call them on their corruption and incompetence and moral repugnancy. Abusive parents tell you they wouldn’t have had to hit you if you had just chosen to behave better. Pastors literally caught with their pants down shame you for not doing your biblical duty to forgive as Jesus did. Powerful supervisors and CEOs chide workers for having the gall to expect safe and sane working conditions and a living wage for helping that company build wealth. Politicians love to accuse the tax-paying public of wanting “handouts”. Stop complaining, plebes and peasants. It’s not us, it’s your negative mindset, your bad attitude, your bratty expectations. If they can convince us to believe this lie, we turn inward and beat ourselves up for not being happier, never questioning that maybe we’re simply trying to survive a tyranny of the minority. If they can keep persuading us that a refusal to look for the positive silver lining is a character flaw, then we stay so busy and distracted trying to find the good in a shitty nightmare that we run out of time and energy to demand redress and confront our abusers. This has always been the goal.
Always remember this bit of wisdom from Sarah Kendzior: “The absence of complaining should be taken as a sign that something is rotting in a society. Complaining is beautiful. Complaining should be encouraged. Complaining means you have a chance.”
*To be one hundred percent clear, I like Harris a lot, and as of this writing think her campaign is nothing but a positive for this country. Her words disappointed me, largely because she has a long public service history of fighting for the vulnerable in various capacities. I hope she is speaking only for herself and her own privilege, and that she stops using that phrase. Right now I’m listening and studying and contemplating her policy positions and trying to gauge her sense of urgency, as those things will ultimately prove most important. Still, words matter. Whatever happens, I have no desire to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Paloma with Chaat Masala
- 2 limes, divided
- kosher salt
- A few pinches chaat masala
- 3/4 cup fresh grapefruit juice
- 2 tbs agave nectar
- 8 ounces silver tequila
- club soda, for finishing the drinks
- 1/2 tsp chaat masala
- sliced citrus rounds (lime works best, size-wise)
- Cut 1 lime into wedges and run them around the rims of 2 highball glasses. Mix some kosher salt and a few pinches of chaat masala on a small plate. Roll the rims of the glasses in the salt-chaat masala mixture.
- Divide the grapefruit juice between the 2 glasses, then add 1 tbs agave nectar to each glass. Squeeze half of the second lime into each glass. Stir gently to combine. Fill the glass with your desired amount of ice, then pour 4 oz. tequila in each glass. Top with club soda, then sprinkle ¼ tsp chaat masala on top of each drink. Slip a citrus wedge into the side of each drink and serve immediately.