A Complaint Biography

I have just begun research for a new project on complaint. I realised I wanted to work on complaint whilst supporting students who were testifying in multiple enquiries into sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. A complaint is usually required to initiate an enquiry. Once a complaint is lodged, a procedure is followed, supposedly automatically. What is supposed to happen does not always happen.  A process can be quite different to a procedure even when a procedure is followed. In the project I will be asking those who have made complaints to reflect on their experience of the process.

I learnt a lot about complaint from what happened during and after these enquiries. I learnt how difficult it can be to make a complaint – and to keep making a complaint as a complaint is not completed by one action alone. As I noted in my lecture, “Snap,” students are often warned about making complaints; they are told that making a complaint would damage their reputations, relationships, career prospects, lives.[1] If a complaint is made, it tends to be treated as potential damage, as that which could damage the reputation of an individual or an organisation. There is often a concerted effort to stop a complaint from going through the system or to stop a complaint from getting out.  I will be drawing on some of my experiences of these stopping and stalling mechanisms. But I know enough to know there is much I do not know. The project is a qualitative empirical study[2]; the first such study I have conducted since my research into diversity work within universities, the results of which I presented in On Being Included (2012) and which I returned to in the middle section of Living a Feminist Life (2017). In this project I will be listening to other people’s experiences of making and not making complaints. I will be gathering written as well as oral testimonies over the next year; learning and listening.

I am at the very early stages of the research and I have already learnt so much [3]. I am learning that you can make a formal complaint and it not be treated as a complaint due to one technicality or another, a quite unexpected finding that I will discuss more in subsequent posts.

It is also the case that statements that are not intended as complaints can be received as complaints. Just using words such as racism or sexism can mean being heard as making a complaint. If we think of the word complaint we might think of a formal statement; a complaint as something you officially lodge. But if we think of the word “complaining” it brings up something else; it brings up somebody else. The word complaining has a negative quality: the word belongs with the killjoy in the same family of words; complaining, killjoy, whinging, moaning, buzzkill, party-pooper; stick-in-the-mud. In an earlier post, I described how being heard as complaining is not being heard. You are heard as expressing yourself; as if you are complaining because that is who you are or what you are like. If you are heard as complaining then what you say is dismissible, as if you are complaining because that is your personal tendency. When you are heard as complaining you lose the about: what you are speaking about is not heard when they make it about you.

What I have already learnt from my complaint research is that being heard as complaining can mean being slowed down. You might have to complain because you are not promoted, and you might not be promoted because you complain. A complaint: how you can be stuck. Avoiding making a complaint (to avoid a complaint – not go in that direction – you might first need to consider making one) does not necessarily mean escaping these consequences. The situation you avoid complaining about is often what you cannot avoid.

I should also add here that diversity work in the first sense I have referred to it – trying to open institutions to make them more accessible to populations that have historically been excluded – is often framed as complaint. If a meeting has been planned in a room that is not accessible to those with mobility restrictions, or at a time that is not possible for those with caring responsibilities, and a request is made for the room to be changed, or the time changed, that request is heard as complaint, not only as being negative, but as an imposition of your will upon others; as depriving others of their first preference, and even as restricting their freedom.

You should not have to ask for a room change or a time change in order to be accommodated. But if you have to ask for a room change or a time change, a request becomes an appropriation: as if you are taking (up) their room and their time.

Even a request that is about meeting compliance with existing equality legislation can be treated as complaint.

What is treated as complaint seems to warrant making a complaint.

Also: for some to enter the room, to make a time, not just to proceed but to be there at all, you have to do something or say something that is heard as complaint. If a complaint is what you have to lodge, complaint can become a lodge; where you end up residing because residing requires changing how things are being done.

My task in asking about what complaint is doing, what we are doing with complaint, is not to specify what makes a complaint a complaint. Definitions can be used as political tools: an organization can say a complaint is x in order to render a submission not x as a way of not doing something about x. Nevertheless, I need to account for how complaint becomes a distinct genre, how a complaint becomes tight, this becoming generic is part of the process. In order to make a complaint you usually have to fill in a form that is determined in advance by an organization – and the forms are often shared even copied from other forms. I want to track the implications of how complaint is framed; how complaints and channeled by how they must take form, whilst also exploring the murky and messy world of perception: who is heard as complaining; what is heard as complaint.

How can we talk about how complaint is narrowed without narrowing complaint?

How can we give room to the one who is heard as complaining before she makes a complaint?

Let us assume in the first instance that a complaint is what somebody intends to make. It would then be useful to think of complaints as having institutional lives or biographies: a letter might be written that meets the criteria for a complaint, which decides what happens to the letter; where it does and does not go.  I do not think whether something is received or not as a complaint is the only factor in determining how something circulates. From my informal conversations over the past three years, I have learnt of many complaints that are acknowledged as such only then to be filed away– and that’s how things stay. A complaint can just sit there, even though a complaint procedure if followed should have meant that the complaint would have gone somewhere.

As ever: the gap between what should happen and what does happen is densely populated.

Diversity work: mind the gap.

A complaint biography is not simply a story of what happens to a complaint. Individuals too might have their own complaint biographies: histories of saying something or doing something that are understood either at the time or retrospectively as complaint.

A complaint often becomes present in the experience of a need to make a decision. That experience can often be one of a crisis: you have to decide whether or not to complain (either formally or informally) about a situation. We should remind ourselves (this is obvious but it matters) that a complaint comes up because of what has already come up: you are considering whether to complain about something, which often involves an experience of something as wrong or of being wronged. It is might be you are uncertain about whether what happened “merits” a complaint. That uncertainty is part of the story if it is what stops you from proceeding.

This recently published report on sexual harassment and sexual assault at Australian universities, concluded that the vast majority of students who experience sexual harassment and assault at universities do not make formal complaints. It suggests: “Common reasons for this were that students who were sexually assaulted or sexually harassed did not believe their experience was serious enough to warrant making a report or that they did not know how or where to make a report” (4). Both of these reasons need investigating. The inaccessibility of complaint policies has already come up as a serious issue in my research. Let me also say here: the sense that harassment is not serious enough to warrant a complaint is often part of the experience of harassment, or an effect of being harassed; it not that you lose confidence it is that your confidence is stolen from you. You might also be told by others to reduce the significance of what happened, not magnifying something as being mature about something; as if something is big or significant only because you have let it be so.

How a complaint is treated is also about how those who abuse power are not made responsible for abuses of power; how a complaint is treated is how abuse itself is minimized or reduced and made the responsibility of the abused, as if abuse would just disappear if those who are abused do not let it appear.

A complaint biography would include those times we decide not to make complaints – not to say something or not to do something – despite an experience or even because of an experience. A complaint can mean being prepared to talk about difficult and painful experiences over and over again, often to those with whom you have not built up a relationship of trust and those who represent an organisation that is implicated in some way in what you are complaining about.  You might decide not to complain because of your attachments; to a person, a group, a department, an institution: you might take seriously the warnings that a complaint would be damaging; you might worry about causing damage. And you might make a decision not to complain because you cannot risk the consequences of complaint. A decision not to complain can be influenced by past experiences; you might not be confident your complaint would be taken seriously because you have not been taken seriously. The reasons you don’t make a complaint are often the same reasons you need to make a complaint. The decision whether to complain is also often made in light of advice, suggestions and guidance given by others, whether welcomed or not.

A complaint biography includes the experiences that lead to a complaint but also the experience of a complaint if that is indeed the course of action taken. In these cases, a biography of a complaint and that of a person are part of the same story; what happens to a complaint also happens to a person. In some cases, it takes a group to form in order to proceed with a complaint, or a complaint involves gathering testimonies from a number of people. What happens to a complaint also happens to a group of people. And given that a complaint can take many years to go through a system, the story of a complaint is often a story of exhaustion.

A complaint can take over lives.

A life can become a complaint.

Or a life can feel like a complaint.

I am also learning: when you make a complaint within an organisation so much is revealed about an organisation.

A complaint biography might not even begin with something that has been explicitly said. A complaint biography might not even begin with the word no, or no might not only be expressed through words. To give a complaint biography we need to slow down; to get a sense of how a complaint is embedded within the intensity and thickness of a situation.

A situation: how you encounter a structure. A situation: how you are thrown.

Complaint can be the experience of the absence of exteriority to what you are complaining about.

You are there; you are right there; there you are.

I want to take an example from one of my first interviews. This is an account provided by a woman of a situation in which she found herself when she was a postgraduate student. There is much that follows the situation she is describing here that I will leave for later. She offers a powerful description of how harassment works by creating the figure of a complainer who appears before she says anything at all:

They were making jokes, jokes that were horrific, they were doing it in a very small space in front of staff, and nobody was saying anything. And it felt like my reaction to it was out of kilter with everyone else. It felt really disconnected, the way I felt about the way they were behaving and the way everybody else was laughing. They were talking about “milking bitches.” I still can’t quite get to the bottom of where the jokes were coming from. Nobody was saying anything about it: people were just laughing along.

What do you do when sexist jokes become part of a culture? Can you complain about a culture? To whom would you make that complaint?

The sexist expression “milking bitches” seemed to have a history; a number of men in the cohort would regularly refer to women in this way. It is interesting how for her, the expressions and jokes seem somewhat mysterious, she “can’t quite get to the bottom of where they are coming from.” That they keep coming does not mean you know where they are coming from. Each time the expression is used, that history is thrown out like a line, a line you have to follow. As she shows, to feel alienated from the jokes is to experience your own reactions as out of kilter with others; there is a gap between what she hears when she hears those jokes and what she hears other people hear.

It might appear that sexist jokes bind everyone together; it can sound like everyone is laughing. If you are not laughing it can be hard to hear others who are not laughing; laughter can sound even louder, louder still, when it does not have your agreement. Whether or not everyone is laughing, it is important that that is what it sounds like. If you experience jokes as offensive, you are alienated not only from the jokes but by the laughter that surrounds them, propping them up, giving them somewhere to go.

We can hear in this description how sexist jokes are recruiting; not to laugh is to become out of line, not part, alienated from a we that announces itself with glee.

Sexism makes it harder not to be recruited by sexism.

Alienation from a we can be costly.

Power is maintained by increasing the costs of challenging power.

We can sense too how a killjoy would be a source of solace and connection in such a situation: if you could just catch someone else’s glance, someone else for whom the jokes were not funny, for whom they were violent, what a difference it would make: finding others who are alienated by the jokes is one way of feeling less stranded, less alone.

Killjoys: sharing our points of alienation.

Sometimes not participating in something is heard as complaining about something.  If you are alienated by virtue of how you affected, it can be picked up. And you can then be picked on.  As she further describes:

I was actually finding it was quite aggressive the way they were dealing with people as well. I got a sense that he realised that I was really not very happy with what was going on, maybe it was just everything about my person was just this is not acceptable, there it should not be like this, I was just not condoning the way they were behaving, I was not finding it funny. You start to stand out in that way; you are just not playing along. I got a sense then, the only way I can explain it is he decided to come after me a little bit.

Just by not laughing, not going along with something, she comes to “stand out.”

Note how perception matters; you become an object of perception by not going along with something. If you laughed too, you would become part of a we and also part of the background. We learn how a we is asserted or becomes assertive by not having to appear. One suspects that some might laugh in order to recede, in order not to stand out; laughter as a form of passing. Because she does not find the jokes funny, because she is not condoning the behavior, because she is not happy with what is going on, he comes after her.

Not laughing becomes audible as complaint because this “not” is registered as a different direction. You can be caught out; your own reactions becoming testimony. The violence that is diffused throughout the room (this is  violence that is still directed, that makes women the butt of the joke, whether or not they hear themselves as the butt, and getting used to it is often about learning not to hear something), is directed or redirected toward anyone who does not go along with it.

And more follows:

 So he was doing things I think to try and provoke me to react to him. I think he was doing it under the guise of humour. But he specifically went for me, verbally at a table where everyone was eating lunch. It was a large table with numerous amounts of people around it including staff….I was having quite a personal conversation with someone….and he literally leaned across the table or physically came forward, he was slightly ajar to me, he was really close, and he said “oh my god I can see you ovulating.” It was really lurid; it was really unpleasant. You can imagine the conversation stopped, right; I didn’t laugh. I didn’t find it remotely funny and from the expression on my face, I was horrified that he thought that was appropriate. I was really aware that I had a member of staff next to me, and they didn’t say anything. The overwhelming sense of humiliation that came off it was really uncomfortable. And it was so silencing. I had never been put in my place like that; I had never been brought down so acutely.

Description can be insightful. There are so many insights in this description of harassment about how harassment works. Any acts of non-compliance or disagreement are picked up on; in this case non-compliance involves not just not laughing but getting on with it, talking to someone else, about something else. This rebellion of not directing her attention to the one who is trying to trying to provoke her is punished; her personal space invaded, words flung out, flung at; she is reduced to body, brought down, pulled back, woman as ovaries; she is not allowed her to do her own thing, to converse with others, to be a student with others.

Harassment is an access issue; if you are harassed when you are occupied with being a student, when you are harassed you are not allowed to be a student.

Those who share the table, including staff as well as students, do not say anything; they do not do anything.

I need to add a still: still do not say anything, still do not do anything.

Silence still.

Silence can be occupied.

Silence: I have learnt from working on sexual harassment that nothing is louder than silence; you can hear the failure to do anything, to say anything; you can hear the turning away, the sounds of distraction; busy; preoccupied. Even when people don’t agree, by turning away, their actions are as loud as the words they do not say.

And still there is silence.

You can be harassed because you experience other people’s behavior as harassment or because you identify an experience as harassment. This means that: the more you experience harassment the more you are harassed. Violence is increased because you experience something as violence; violence is amped up.

There is more:

I think the staff member knew I was deeply upset by it. I pretty much left the table.  And he (the staff member) followed me out and started a conversation, and this is when probably in hindsight it started to get difficult, in that staff member started to lean on me; immediately he said to me, oh you know what he’s like, he’s got a really strange sense of humour, he didn’t mean anything by it, and the implication was I was being a bit over-sensitive and that I couldn’t take a joke, and that I need to sort of forget about it and move on. It really affected me, that the person who I think should have done something, did that. And he didn’t do it once. He did it again. He did it on the way home. I ended up in a car with him, so he started telling me in the car, you know, if something was said, all I think is that it would cause a lot of trouble, I don’t think it’s worth it – and I had not actually brought it back up so I could tell he knew that it was really not right; he had to come back to it as an issue. I think that’s probably because my demeanor wasn’t right, I was quiet, I had felt really affected, emotionally affected, that sense of being quite close to tears.

 Nowhere to go.

She has nowhere to go.

She leaves the table; she leaves.

A complaint biography begins from what is thrown up by a situation; how words are used to occupy spaces, how spaces are occupied by bodies. Warnings about complaint – instructions not to complain -are often made within the situations; they do not just happen after. A complaint is in the situation a complaint is about. She is told to make light of the situation when she is in it; because she is in it. She is encouraged not to say anything; not to be over-sensitive, not to do anything, not to cause trouble. It was just a joke, he didn’t mean anything by it, he didn’t mean anything: the excuses given give permission to those who conduct themselves in this way to conduct themselves in this way. The staff member in advising her, nay, warning her not to complain, by leaning in this way, positions himself with the harasser, treating the verbal onslaught as joke, something she should take; something she should be willing to take. The harasser physically came forward; the staff member leans on her. She implies again that it is by virtue of how she is affected (being quiet, being “close to tears”) that makes him bring it up again.

This is why I think using the word harassment is important: to experience an advance as unwelcome, as harassment, is to be reharassed, often by those who embody institutional will.

The response to harassment is harassment. The more you resist pressure the more pressure is exerted. Institutional harassment can be what follows making a complaint about harassment.  As I pointed out in my post on no, what follows a complaint can give you more to complain about. The more you complain the more you have to complain about.

You are punished for not going along with it. If complaining is how you are heard because you do not go along with it, you are punished for complaining. And if you complain about the punishment you are punished even more.

This woman’s powerful description of a situation is one fragment of her complaint biography. We learn from the detail, from the sharpness; how hard it is to keep going, how little room you have, how not being affected in the right way by violence, by not laughing at it or laughing it off, by the act of perceiving the address as violence, can lead to more violence being directed your way.

Perception can be action; you can disobey an instruction by perceiving a wrong as if your perception is what’s wrong.

A feminist fight is for the one who has to complain to stay in a situation to be given a hearing.

If you would have to complain in order to stay in a situation you often have to leave the situation.

We have to fight so complaints can be heard.

We have to fight so she can stay.

[1] I will be writing a post/chapter on warnings in due course.

[2] Many institutions deal with complaint as a potential risk to their reputation. All the data collected will thus be carefully anonymised with no individuals or institutions being being named.

[3] I have decided to share the research as I go along. I am aware that we often wait to present our findings until after we have finished the research. I understand the reasons for this. I do not expect to finish the research just as I never really finished my research on diversity work. And what I have already found is that the findings are in the accounts. Note: I will be asking all interviewees for permission to share specific quotes drawn from interviews on any posts published here.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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17 Responses to A Complaint Biography

  1. Keja Valens says:

    Thank you as always for your words and work. This post made me think about grievances. At my University, through the union, what faculty and staff officially file are grievances, with the union’s grievance officer.

  2. naturallynadia says:

    Your words are so important to me as a high school student of color. Lately I have been giving a lot of thought to how institutions work, especially when it comes to filing complaints. There’s been a lot of issues with abuse and harassment in my school district with both students and teachers as perpetrators, and I don’t think my district handled it well at all. I want to do something about it, but I’m not sure how to tackle the issue all by myself. I’ve done some research on policies but I don’t know how to go about conducting surveys or talking to people about it. I don’t expect you to have a step-by-step guide to advocacy (it most likely doesn’t exist) but any advice you may have would be greatly appreciated.

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  4. I learned as a young girl that complaints (about sexual harassment/assault) are not heard as cries for help, they are exclamations that require explanation on behalf of the victim and turned into lessons on how one should protect themself. We learn not to report because reporting is equally as demeaning and prolongs the occurrence and aftermath.

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    • “Telling the story is part of the feminist battle. A feminist ear can be what we are for. The more wearing it is, the more we need to hear” (2017, 203).

      I appreciate your thoughts and ideas!


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