The squeaky wheel gets our contempt
We’ve got lots of names for complainers: bellyachers, kvetchers, babies, whiners, and so on. That we’ve got so many words and that they’re so relentlessly negative shows how little we like and respect squeaky wheels. But some complaining is vitally constructive. In fact, some is so full of helpful warning and truth that it’s an insult to refer to it as mere complaining.
Fear of being labeled whiners keeps many of us cheerfully compliant. In the sunny, can-do, corn-fed Midwest, being judged a gloomy Gus or negative Nelly is akin to being thought a leper. And such judgments go well beyond one’s perceived personality style. We deprecate as whiners those whose aches and pains we regard as fairly trivial. We would never tell someone to stop bellyaching about an elephant standing on her foot or scold a parent for grumbling who’s just lost his child. To identify a complainer is already to judge the content of the complaint; it’s relatively insignificant, not worth the vocal air protesting it.
The whiner label also expresses judgment about the perceived power of the complainer for usually we have in mind, “Don’tmerely grumble about it; get out there and be constructive!” The complainer is seen as taking the easy route of pointing out flaws instead of taking care of business. But of course we are differently situated to do something about anything. And we are often forced to rely on someone else’s goodwill and initiative to provide a service that we have a right to expect. Been to the DMV lately? And if our leaders and bureaucrats aren’t in the mood to do their jobs and we get repetitive in voicing our legitimate requests, how long before we will be dismissed as whiners?
It’s no wonder so much ink has been spilled about the tyranny of positivity given how effective charges of negativity are at silencing critics. The imperative to be positive is a kissing cousin of the insistence that we be polite. Paint it pink and shut your mouth! But what’s the difference between being a mere whiner and, say, an insistent, astute social critic? What if speaking up repeatedly about a perceived injustice is an act of ongoing courage that empowers the speaker and those around her even if it is ignored by the powers that be?
What counts as whining is in the eye of the beholder. And if we are to be responsible to one another, before we ridicule or dismiss someone as a grumbling Gary, we ought first to see if someone is standing on his neck or has parked their 4x4 on the guy’s petunias. If we are too quick to dismiss as whiners those who will not shut up about matters they have little power to change, but which their leaders and managers could address, aren’t we complicit with the incompetence and injustice around us?
Obviously, not all complaining counts as meaningful, useful commentary. Some folks really do seem to be obsessed with the empty half of the pumpkin patch and it ain’t no picnic to endure such company. But are we more interested in ferreting out and scolding supposed whiners or in becoming more attuned to the fleas and root rot that plague us, ills that so-called complainers can help us identify?
With our antennae calibrated we will be better able to decide which circumstances demand corrective action and which, like the changing seasons, should be cheerfully borne. And perhaps we will humbly acknowledge that some of what we tolerate as inevitable are genuine evils we simply don’t care enough about to fight. No wonder it can feel so draining to be around complainers. So often their whining reminds us of what we have decided not to see.