Another Week Ends

A Philosophy of Complaint, the Rotting Internet, Faith Without Emotion, #CancelKierkegaard, #BingeJesus

CJ Green / 7.2.21

1. The musician Beabadoobee has a song called “Care,” which describes the complicated experience of opening up. “I don’t want your sympathy,” she declares, “but I guess I’ve had it rough. But you don’t really care.” The lyrical push-and-pull indicates a lack of trust that whatever she might complain about wouldn’t be received conscientiously. Any such experience is a complicated knot—of not wanting to lament, but needing to, but feeling unheard, and holding back.

It’s the song I thought of when reading Agnes Callard’s remarkable essay about complaint, “Why Am I Being Hurt?” at The Point. Callard notes, first, that we live in “a world averse to complaining.”

Kant tells you, severely, that “Complaining and whining, even crying out in bodily pain, is unworthy of you,” and Aristotle disparagingly associates complaints with “the weaker sex, and the effeminate sort of man.” Friedrich Nietzsche is equally dismissive: “Complaining is never of any use: it comes from weakness.”

Callard then turns to Simone Weil, who, by contrast, found complaint to be “infallible” and “ineffable.” “Weil thought it took a genius to articulate the question of affliction”: remember the lament of the Greek chorus, the searching monologues in Shakespeare. When ordinary people bury our complaints, we bury something of great importance.

As for Nietzsche, Callard argues he was himself one of history’s great complainers.

Unfortunately, Nietzsche’s understanding of complaint was not on par with his skill at engaging in it. Nietzsche’s account of complaint is that it aims to spitefully infect others with one’s own emotional pain—“there is a subtle dose of revenge in every complaint”—as well as to fabricate grounds for moral condemnation. Beneath a façade which “insists on ‘right,’ ‘justice,’ ‘equal rights’ with such beautiful indignation,” the protester’s true motive is to find an excuse to pin the blame on someone: “it must be somebody’s fault that he’s feeling bad.” Venting is really sadism: “all poor devils like to whine—it gives them a little thrill of power.”

…a Nietzschean approach to complaint causes the very pathologies it describes. If we currently live in what [Robert] Hughes disparaged as a “culture of complaint,” or what Julian Baggini calls “a grievance culture,” this culture is born partly from a Nietzschean misunderstanding of complaint.

It’s better, in Callard’s view, to see complaint as a valuable if painful process of confessing a core truth to a confidant; an honoring of real experience. The confidant, for their part, has an opportunity—to listen well:

We often speak, vaguely and somewhat vacuously, of the importance of being a good listener, but Weil gives us a substantive grip on what this might mean. A good listener does not merely hear what you say, she listens for the underlying question that animates your words—the question hidden inside your complaint. Listening well isn’t, in the first instance, about empathetic connection or moral accountability. It is about occupying the interrogative position.

In short, “complaint is a request for understanding.” When someone opens up, whether in protest or venting, it is a sign of faith, that one will be heard and not rebuffed.

2. I found a similar concept in an essay by John Rodden at Commonweal. Like Callard, Rodden is pointing toward the importance of expressing oneself over and above suppression. He’s writing, specifically, about young writers, whom it has become common to stifle with rules about “how not to write.” A teacher, he has observed that oftentimes such instruction comes via the famous essay by George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” (which I, at least, first encountered in tenth grade). The essay warns of clichés and big words, all to be avoided—decent advice overall, but in Rodden’s experience,

I have found that Orwell’s advice in this essay can actually undermine, rather than nurture, the developing literary skills of beginners. …

Before we burden them with anxieties about improper usage or the political dangers posed by invoking dying metaphors, we might first encourage them to discover for themselves how clichés become clichés through overuse. […] Rather than caution them against fancy or unusual words, we would do better to foster in them an interest in new words of all kinds. Let them first discover and exalt in “the joy of mere words,” the phrase that Orwell used in “Why I Write” (1946) … We should encourage such students to spend more time with a dictionary or a thesaurus, and to experiment with the bounty they discover there. 

…remember, above all, that you cannot prune down a style that hasn’t yet had a chance to grow.

I think that goes for more than just writing. I’m reminded of Anne Lamott’s ideas about protecting the freedom to express oneself poorly: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.”

3. All of that, of course, exists in conversation with the internet, and how terribly we use it: how quickly we fire off ill-considered opinions, or use “free expression” as a weapon. Freedom, writes Jonathan Zittrain in the Atlantic, was the original governing ideology of the internet: “This absence of central control, or even easy central monitoring, has long been celebrated as an instrument of grassroots democracy.”

He goes on to say that this is both its strength and its weakness: the inherent free-for-all of the ’net facilitates “vectors for individual harassment and societal destabilization, with no easy gating points through which to remove or label malicious work not under the umbrellas of the major social-media platforms.”

Part of this is “cancel culture” — or the experience of a “pile-on” — which occurs when someone expresses what others deem to be the wrong opinion and is then met with anything from widespread criticism to death threats. In this amazing article, Patrick Stokes argues this uniquely modern experience actually happened in the 19th-century: to philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.

SK, the story goes, picked a fight with a local tabloid, who picked back: “For months, the paper’s writers and cartoonists mocked Kierkegaard mercilessly: poking fun at his self-importance, his broken engagement, his trouser cuffs, his voice, even his curved spine … Children began to taunt him in the street.” For Kierkegaard, the press functioned essentially the way Twitter does today. It was a megaphone, “a little talking tube which could be heard over the whole land.”

“God,” Kierkegaard insists, “really intended that a person should speak individually with his neighbour and at most with several neighbours.” The press, by contrast, is just “a much too gigantic means of communication” …

Even when criticism is deserved [today], the sheer scale of criticism, from thousands of people at once, can overwhelm communication ― and that’s before we get to genuinely sinister or even criminal forms of online harassment (including the gendered forms that women deal with every day online). Kierkegaard’s lesson for us here is that the sheer size of the medium itself, even regardless of the content, can itself pose a problem that we somehow have to grapple with.

Zittrain noticed the same thing: the internet is too big, comparable, he says, to Jorge Luis Borges’ fabled library of Babel: “a library without an index becomes paradoxically less informative as it grows.”

Amidst it all, what we must remember in Stokes’ view is that what we post to the internet is not consumed by an abstract, faceless “public”; it is taken in by individuals: “[W]e need to remember that all others are ‘actual human beings’ … the fact that we are human beings dealing with other human beings is essential for maintaining the integrity of communication.”

4. Now for a wonderfully human story, which appeared in last week’s Wall Street Journal. In a powerful testimony, Jory Fleming shared how autism has informed his faith in God. I love how candid he is:

It frequently surprises people that my faith is based entirely on logic and reason. It has no emotional base. Many may wonder how that squares with the message of love. But to me, it comes down to the principle of mutual recognition: If you believe in a Creator, then you believe that the Creator knows his own handiwork. You believe that each of us has a place, has equal value, and fully belongs in this world. […]

The stereotypical view of autistic people holds that we “lack emotion.” It’s truer to say I operate in a very different emotional register. But I am not sure the rest of the world handles its strong emotions so well. I see all kinds of disabling emotions—despair, fear, irrational anger, hatred, paranoia—being used to devalue others and declare them unworthy or inferior. America’s public discourse seems to consist of a never-ending series of brief monologues, typed out on social media and intended to wound others and aggrandize the self. I see so much anger, and I wonder if the world might benefit from an “autistic circuit breaker” to stop this emotional overload.

As important as it is to respect one’s emotions (see Callard above), Fleming is also right to point out that, like with anything human, we can and do project our feelings harmfully. And many Christians will have had the experience of relying too heavily on feelings as divine guideposts, which quickly becomes disorienting.

Fleming concludes this way:

In many religions, not just Christianity, a guiding message is that the weak display surprising sources of strength. Many of Jesus’ teachings revolve around the value of the outcast, the stranger, the leper and the suffering. I wonder what kind of hidden strengths those people had and how they were able to better the lives of those around them and bring light where they are. Maybe God’s love showed them how, as it has showed me how.

5. The humor this week is as hilarious as it is devastating. First, McSweeney’s went all out (charts and everything!) with “Unfortunate New Data Regarding Your Positive Attitude.” The data includes “Seven Ineffective Habits of You,” among them “Complaining constantly,” “Whining,” and “Sniffing Fingers.”

And then there’s this, from The Onion: “Patient With 18 Months To Live Not Sure She Can Sustain Cherishing Every Moment That Long.

“…I’ve been thinking a lot about savoring the little things in life, and, honestly, a year and a half is just way too much time to keep that up,” said Williams, who told reporters that she could see herself spending six or maybe even eight months relishing each visit with loved ones, sky full of stars, or even breath of air, but that it was impossible to imagine feeling gratitude toward the universe for more than a year. “Would I love to cherish every moment? Yeah, sure. But that’s, like, five hundred sunrises. Let’s be real. Am I going to wake up that many times and always feel like basking in the majesty of nature? Absolutely not. Sometimes you just want to lie in bed and mindlessly scroll through Twitter, y’know?”

And two more, both from The Hard Times:How I Learned to Trust My Boyfriend By Going Through His Phone Every Night,” and “Man Always Thought His Rock Bottom Would Make For A Better Story”: “Lillian Prescot, a professor of literature at Columbia, said she does not believe Trotsky’s journey of self-discovery will lead to anything of value.” Damn, Lillian!

6. In culture, a hashtag is circulating that I honestly never thought I’d see: #BingeJesus. It’s the promotional tag for The Chosen, a show that I have not watched but, after reading Chris DeVille’s review in the Atlantic, want to! Acknowledging the show’s appeal with a tone of relatable reluctance, DeVille says that it resonates insofar as its storytelling is grounded in everyday life:

The Chosen’s Jonathan Roumie plays Jesus as someone you’d actually like to hang out with, projecting divine gravity accented with easygoing warmth. He cracks jokes; he dances at parties. “What The Chosen has done well is give us kind of a robust portrait of a highly relatable Jesus that moves beyond some of the holier-than-thou, untouchable, unapproachable portraits of Jesus in the past,” says Terence Berry, the COO of the Wedgwood Circle, an investment group that finances faith-based media. […]

Rather than merely reciting Jesus’s greatest hits, Jenkins and his writers linger with characters in their daily lives — marital and professional conflicts, financial struggles, campfire gatherings. When the audience sees climactic moments from the Gospels, such as Jesus’s miraculous healing of a leper, the events register as disruptions of the status quo.