The art and value of complaining

George Takei Facebook entryI saw this recently in my Facebook. For those who can’t see the image, it’s George Takei saying “Goodness, I didn’t realize that I wasn’t permitted to have “first world problems.” We all do, and we shouldn’t pretend they don’t bother us. Not if we’re being honest, right?”

You may have heard the term “white people’s problems” or the less privileged “first world problems”, which refers to complaints – usually silly ones – made by people who could be much worse off than they are. While it’s entirely good to remind ourselves once in a while that struggling to decide which restaurant to go to is a wonderful problem compared to struggling to get enough to eat, it’s often an act of privilege to tell people to stop complaining because they are so privileged.

Huh? No, you read it right. Let me explain.

I have encountered gender discrimination because I’m a woman. If I hold that up as the worst thing that can befall a person, it is correct to remind me that I could have the additional problems associated with being a woman of color, or a woman starving in a third world country, or a woman in a war zone where rape and torture have become the norm, etc. But if I am merely pointing out that gender discrimination is wrong, and giving examples to show I know that firsthand, what sort of person seeks to silence me? One who wishes to preserve the status quo.

Complaints are not a bad thing by nature. If you come at discussions with the assumption that they are, that they are “just being negative”, or that the complainer is “just sitting around complaining instead of doing something about it”, you are part of the problem. You are closing your mind to the possibility that this world could be improved for everyone. Because that’s what complaining is about – identifying problems, which is the first step toward doing anything about them.

If only the most mistreated, disadvantaged people have the right to complain, imagine the problems we wouldn’t be able to solve.

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