The History of Complaining

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   July 1, 2021

Many large businesses have or used to have “Complaint Departments,” where a specially trained employee deals soothingly with dissatisfied customers. To my knowledge, there is never a corresponding “Compliments Department.” The only approach I’ve ever seen to that idea has been an occasional jar labelled “TIPS.”

In this online age, it can be much more frustrating and less soothing trying to get satisfaction from a series of nameless, faceless machines, before you have the doubtful pleasure of speaking in real time to a live human being.

A friend I asked for ideas about complaints apparently had no difficulty in coming up with a random list of her own, including: “Trying to avoid smokers; screaming children in a restaurant; renting a hotel room that isn’t clean; people talking loudly in the library; friends who betray your trust; people who don’t know when to applaud at the symphony; people who blatantly lie; and people who eat out of their basket at the grocery store.”

But apart from faulty merchandise, and people’s inconsiderate behavior, what really is there that a fair-minded person can legitimately complain about? Of course, there are the current atmospheric conditions, about which we have the remark, commonly attributed to Mark Twain, that “Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Little was it dreamed, when that bon mot was uttered, that a time would come when large numbers of people would seriously be trying to do something about the weather.

Some of us, with more on our minds than the weather, resort to God’s Complaint Department, through the special channel known as prayer. However, that traffic is generally one-way. In political terms, we have what’s known as “the right to petition,” as guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – and in many other countries. But all it means is that you have the right to complain, without being punished for complaining. It doesn’t guarantee that your complaint will be considered seriously, much less that anything will be done about it.

But even getting that far has been a long historical struggle, going back in England to 1215, and the document known as Magna Carta, which was an agreement between King John and his Barons and the Church, and really had very little to do with the Common People. The closest it came was Item 39, which, in effect, gave to all “free men” the right to justice and a fair trial. However, that excluded most of the population, who were not at that time considered free, but were unfree peasants, or “villeins,” whose only resort to justice was through the courts of their own lords.

However, that was a starting point for a long series of events and enactments which has led Britain to a point at which it is now the Monarch who, while monarchy still endures, has virtually no rights at all. It seems ironical (and, to me, as a born Brit, somewhat sad) that this whole process of petitioning for redress of grievances, broke down in that critical period in the 18th Century when the British colonists in America had plenty of reasonable complaints, and tried repeatedly to get them fairly considered by a King and Parliament 3,000 miles away, but eventually felt they had no recourse but to revolt.

Meanwhile, in another part of Western Civilization, someone else was finding it impossible to deal with alleged injustices of established authority merely by complaining, even though he chose to do it in a very public way — in this case, by nailing a list of grievances to the door of a major church. The man was a monk named Martin Luther. The church was in the town of Wittenberg in Germany. The year was 1517 and the issue was some practices, then common, of the Catholic Church, regarding what was, in effect, the purchasing of forgiveness. And the ultimate result was a cataclysmic social and religious movement which we now know as the Protestant Reformation.

Whether you call it protesting, objecting, complaining, or demonstrating, this long, honorable tradition has continued to our own day. And sometimes it works — occasionally, even without bloodshed. Leaders do listen (or depart). Policies do change. Squeaky wheels do get the grease.

But, in closing, let’s also give credit to the people who know when NOT to complain — who, rather than rock the boat, are (in the words of our own Declaration of Independence) “disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable.”


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