The culture of complaint

‘Culture’ is perhaps the wrong word here, since it dignifies the tendency to complain to an unnecessary degree. Last week, it was OFSTED complaining that there are boring teachers, and that they, the teachers of course, should be sacked. Patients are being asked to shop doctors. Firms invite you to ring a number and tell them if their employees are driving badly. Everyone is expected to be perfect. Teenagers are asked to sign forms at colleges detailing their ‘rights and responsibilities’. I don’t think anyone or anything is changed by all of this – certainly not those complained about. But of course, that’s a bit naive of me, since day-time TV wouldn’t be filled with adds suggesting you call in and complain about injury, and have a shot at taking someone to court. And doubtless, too, consumer watchdogs have helped to drive some criminals out of business.

The trouble is that setting up a society which feels it has the right to complain turns almost everyone into a snoop and a suspect at the same time. It licenses people to twitch, metaphorically speaking, their lace curtains, and it gives a huge amount of money to whoever profits from hotlines. In extreme forms, it leads to the kind of society which not only finds innocent people guilty, but then sets about proving their innocence after they have been put away. What seems to have gone out of the window is the idea that there might be some people who are particularly good at teaching, caring, understanding the legal system, you name it. Those who aren’t quite so good get stigmatised.

I sometimes wonder if there is a causal link between the proliferation of popularity shows (they aren’t talent shows) on television, and the idea that you can complain about everyone from voluntary workers to vicars. The idea of ‘voting off’ is quite central to how people see the world, and any daily newspaper is likely to be as full of stories about people who should be censured as it is about actual news. The right not to be sacked is the same as the right to sack – one recent complaint was that very few teachers had actually been sacked for incompetence. There were no statistics for how many inspectors had been sacked for incompetence.

Stereotyping gets into this. Inspectors themselves are sometimes highly efficient and wonderfully helpful, in the face of tick-box systems which might well be said to have the potential to drive them insane. They’re the ones who are happy to say that teachers are competent (I am focusing on teachers because it’s my home territory). If the teaching force were to consist of brilliant teachers, it would be a very small force indeed. And incompetence itself is a relative matter. I have certainly taught incompetently in my time – misjudged a moment, underprepared a session, or simply got out of the wrong side of the bed that morning.

One of the worst lessons I ever taught, I taught because an inspector was watching me. He was watching me so intently that I lost all sense of time (I lost half an hour of it), and, thinking I had been pronouncing for a really hopeless length of time, suddenly started a helpless spray of questions, before sending the students away (they were a bit bewildered, since I wasn’t given to handing out free half-hours). Not many years later, my job involved having to watch other teachers. I can think of some who were tedious one day and geniuses on the next occasion. I hated it. And I expect they hated me.

So I would like to complain about complaining. Everything in the garden is lovely, all right? (Actually, that’s not true. My garden is a mess. I am going to sit write down and write myself a letter of complaint.)


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