Complaining and Optimism (A Tiny Manifesto)

First, go read Sarah Kendzior’s article In Defence of Complaining.

Overall this is fantastic. Some select quotes:

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.

[F]or marginalised and stigmatised groups – racial and religious minorities, women, the poor, people who lack civic rights – complaining is the first step in removing the shame from a lifetime of being told one’s problems are unimportant, non-existent, or even a cause for gratitude. Complaining alerts the world that the problem is a problem.

It could always be worse, they say. They don’t like to say that it could always be better, because that would require redress.

People hate complaining because they do not like to listen. When you listen to someone complaining, you are forced to acknowledge them as a human being instead of a category.

There is one thing I feel compelled to respond to:

Complainers suffer the cruel imperatives of optimism: lighten up, suck it up, chin up, buck up. In other words: shut up.

Yesterday I devoured Rebecca Solnit’s book Hope in the Dark. It’s about making a place for hope in activism, and recognizing victories even when they aren’t the end of the struggle, or aren’t the victory you hoped for. The future is dark, but only because we cannot see it, and hope is (or should be) a spur to action.

I call myself an optimist. I cannot honestly do otherwise. To my mind, the “cruel imperatives” Kendzior lists, if they go by the name optimism, are passing under false pretenses. This is not my optimism. It is a blind belief that things will get better if nobody does anything, if nobody rocks the boat. It is cruel, yes, and chained to the status quo. It is afraid of confrontation, it is afraid that if we dare to change things then they will get worse. This is not my optimism.

My optimism trusts in the bravery and ingenuity of individuals and groups. It believes that we can make the world better. It furiously insists that another world is possible, and if you do not see this it is only because your imagination has been blinkered. It thinks that the best way forward is to unblinker our collective imaginations, to see with clear eyes the problems all around and also the first steps on the paths out.

My optimism believes that if we dare to change things, they may very well get better; in fact they almost always have.

So complain, and thereby strip away the rose-colored glasses. Force us to confront the rocky straits so that we may see the way through and perhaps emerge in a new and better world.


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