The lecturer at my Tuesday class last week ran through a number of examples of things that people hate. Do you hate it when someone cuts you off in traffic? Do you hate it when you get junk mail or telemarketer’s calls? And so on. She didn’t say do you hate it when your yarn splits or the yarn supplier takes more than three days to get your fibers to you, but she could have. She asked us to raise our hands if we could relate to any of those statements. If so, she said, “you have a pet peeve. And look around. What a sisterhood we have in our wickedness!”
We laughed. I had not raised my hand. I don’t get peeved very much, and if I do, I don’t keep it and make a pet of it.
The lecturer was making a point about complaining. I am not one of those who thinks that complaining makes you feel better. Occasionally, you need to get something off your chest so you can move on, and occasionally you need to ask for a change in something because it isn’t right. But most of the time, in my experience, complaining makes you feel worse.
Our lecturer was saying that it also has moral and religious consequences. She was claiming that enduring hardships and wrongdoing uncomplainingly was good, that it was virtuous, that it glorified God.
It seems to me that one valid reaction to this is that religion is truly the opiate of the masses; by encouraging us to endure uncomplainingly, she might be discouraging us from speaking up for justice and decency.
Another is revulsion at the idea of a god who wants people to suffer in silence. Partygirl was in fact brought up to believe that people should offer up their sufferings to God. How many steps is that from a god who wants human sacrifice?
And yet — no one has a pet peeve like child labor or sexism. These things are too big for peevishness. None of us whines about exploitation of farmworkers. For these things, you either care enough to do something about it, or you don’t.
Even as I write this, though, I realize that it is false. Right now, all over xanga, there are people whining (check it out, I am using the word advisedly) about free speech. You would think that freedom of speech — an essential tenet of our national philosophy, and one which is actually threatened at the moment by our own government — would be too big for peevishness, but it is being discussed in terms more often used for people who have cut you off in traffic. And I went to school with a guy who once ill-advisedly whined, “I don’t know if I should go back to Beverly Hills and join my father’s psychiatric practice, or go to Colombia and join the revolution.” This phrase became, for all of us who heard it, emblematic of the whining approach to social justice.
When I show my concern about child labor by courteously encouraging all the people and groups that I can to use fair trade coffee, tea, and chocolate, and use it myself, I am doing more than I could do by whining and complaining about it. Obviously.
But this reminds me of the first time I heard this idea — that we should suffer uncomplainingly. At the time, I felt that I would be able to suffer more nobly if only I had more noble things to suffer. Suffering because I had too little money, or mastitis, or ticks in the yard — how, I wondered, could anyone be noble about such ignoble troubles?
Yet how much does it matter if I suffer nobly over the sufferings of enslaved children picking pesticide-laden coffee — when I don’t have to do it myself? Is there anything good about the real victims of the practice having to suffer uncomplainingly?
We are back, I think, to the idea of the pet peeve. The xangans who are whining about free speech are pretending that they are concerned about free speech. Their rants are filled with personal peevishness and self-pity, so they are not actually about free speech. My classmate who was deciding between a continuation of his life of luxury and political action was whining about his inability to make up his mind — or to be a radical without inconvenience.
Whining doesn’t persuade people to join our cause, but just reveals the self-pity under the whining. Complaining doesn’t make us feel better, but shows us in a worse light — to ourselves and to others. Vituperation and retaliation increase the sum total of wrongs without benefiting us or changing the original cause of our complaints.
When it comes to the right response to the kinds of sufferings I face in my own life — grief, inconvenience, uncertainty, difficulties in relationships, scary roads — then I think the lecturer is right. For the sufferings caused by exploitation and oppression, I’m not sure.
But at the very least, we should learn to tell the difference.