Listening to those who have made or tried to make formal complaints about abuses of power within institutions is teaching me about institutional mechanics; how institutions work; how different parts fit together. The testimonies I have gathered zoom in on processes that are usually obscure, if perceived only dimly perceived, because of how institutions work. The accounts I have heard have helped me to make sense of the concrete ways we are directed along institutional paths, those well-traveled paths that are assumed to lead to better or happier outcomes, as well as how we are directed away from other paths.

Complaints are “other paths.”

In this post I consider the implications of how those who are considering whether to make a complaint are often warned about the consequences of complaining.  I will share with you some examples of the different kinds of warnings received by would-be-complainers.  By evoking the figure of a would-be-complainer I am thinking not simply of persons but of times. To be a would-be-complainer is to be in a time of consideration; the time of consideration is an important part of what I described in an earlier post as the time of complaint. Many things can happen during this time that influence how or whether someone proceeds to a formal complaint.

When you have to consider whether to make a complaint about bullying or harassment because you have been harassed or bullied you have to go through a difficult and life-consuming process. Experiences of the difficulty of making a complaint are often shared at this time such that when you are considering whether to make a complaint you often become even more conscious of the difficulty of making a complaint. You might decide not to go through with a complaint not despite but because of what happened to you. Being harassed or bullied is already painful and difficult and can leave you with a sense that you do not have the resources you need to take a complaint forward. This is why: the experiences that lead you to complaint are often the same experiences that stop you from making a complaint.

A would-be-complainer is someone who is in midst of this process; in the middle of it; right in the thick of it. A would-be-complainer might have taken some steps in the direction of a formal complaint by making an informal disclosure to a line manager, supervisor or peer (1). From my study I have learnt that it is at this point that many people are cautioned or discouraged from complaining. And they are often discouraged by the use of warnings.

Warnings are familiar: we know what to do with them. A warning could be thought of as an ominous sign; a sign of a danger-to-come. A warning can be an instruction.

Stop! Danger ahead!

Take this sign.

Danger Stairs

Such a sign is affective: it can fill you with the alarm of what could happen if you went that way: you could topple right over.  Even if the danger being evoked points to a future, the point of a warning is to grab someone’s attention in the present. A warning tells you “it is alarming” by making you feel alarmed. A warning in telling you what to feel is also telling you what to do: to change direction; to find another route. Warnings are only useful to the extent they give you enough time to modify your behaviour. Warnings are how we learn what (as well as who) to avoid. The usefulness of warnings is thus restricted in terms of timing, a warning that is given too late, before you venture somewhere that is deemed dangerous, might as well not be given at all. And given that warnings are often about safety, they might even evoke the danger of death, the right response is to respond quickly, not to think or to hesitate but to act.

Danger of Death

A warning tells us how to approach something: as an emergency. I think of warnings and I think of slamming the brakes, an expression that can literally mean stepping on the brakes of a vehicle to slow it down as quickly as possible but can also mean by extension to slow down or stop whatever one is doing. I think of a warning and I hear a screech.

Warnings litter the landscape as signs, as exclamation points, points that tell us when to stop or start, or when to be concerned.

Exclamation Point

And warnings are also spoken; they can even be how we speak to each other with concern; notes of caution given as everyday wisdom. In thinking about warnings – a thinking that was prompted because of how and how often warnings came up in my complaint data – I was rather surprised that I had not written about warnings before. So much of my work especially Queer Phenomenology (2006) and The Promise of Happiness (2010) has been about techniques of direction – how we are directed toward some paths, towards some things and not others. Happy objects circulate as promises; we are directed toward things that are anticipated to cause happiness (anticipatory causality). I now realise warnings can also be understood as promises: if the point of a warning is to avoid what is deemed dangerous, you are also receiving a promise (of safety or even happiness). I began to realise that the speech act that had so intrigued me, “I just want you to be happy,” often said by a parent to a child can be heard as a warning. The speech act appears to give the child freedom to do whatever makes them happy, and yet is often said in frustration, which is to say or as if to say, “so don’t do that,” because that is deemed the cause of unhappiness. A warning can thus be made without being made explicit: warnings are how we learn “don’t do that.”

Warnings might be useful because they articulate a “no” predicated not on some abstract rule but on someone’s own health and safety.  We need to tease out the implications of the usefulness of warnings: useful to whom, useful for what?

We learn from the mere fact that would-be-complainers are warned about complaining that complaints are deemed dangerous. (2) Simply put, complaints are anticipated to compromise the health, safety or happiness of those who make them. Warnings can come from many sources –from supervisors, from administrators, from senior managers but also from friends and peers. Warnings can be offered with quite different intonations; from caring and concerned, cautious and ambivalent, dramatic and fearful, to aggressive and threatening. A would-be complainer is often surrounded by warnings, which means that you are surrounded by alarm, concern, caution and fear for your future, which is why even considering complaint can feel like you are risking toppling right over.

Danger Stairs

Let’s start with the softer warnings; those spoken in the language of care and concern. A concern about the consequences of complaint is often expressed as “thinking about your career.” One student describes: “I ended up going back to the chair, and saying, look, this is harassment and I am going to file a complaint. And his response was essentially, ‘well we are just thinking about your career, how this will affect you in the future.’” Another student describes: “I was also told that if I made a formal complaint, this was the Head of Department, I had to think about my career.”  The implication is that to proceed with a formal complaint is not to think about your career. Being advised not to complain is thus offered as career advice. Your career is evoked as a companion who needs to be looked after; maybe your career is a plant that needs watering so that it does not wither away. If your career would wither as a consequence of complaint, then a complaint is figured in advance as carelessness, as negligence, as not looking after yourself.

We are often encouraged to think of our careers as having an exteriority, as what you have to care for in order to have somewhere to go. You might be told to do something “because it would be good for your cv.” For those who are institutionally precarious, who have a fight on their hands to become established, a career is a not-quite-formed and thus all-the-more fragile thing; a career is what can be easily broken. The more precarious you are the more you support you need to secure a foothold. If you do not take heed of a warning, that is, if you are not stopped from complaining, you are understood not only as having damaged your own future (a career becomes like a shattered jug, broken because you carelessly left it too close to the edge) but as having failed to protect the investment that others have made in you (the scholarship, mentorship or support you might have relied upon along the way). A complaint becomes a failure to protect an investment.

If we treat warnings about complaint as part of a wider cluster of speech acts that go under the heading “career advice” they teach us about how we are taught to approach careers. You might be advised to approach your career strategically, which in practical terms means doing what would maximize your chances to go somewhere or to get somewhere. To be strategic is the requirement to select from a range of possibilities open to you that which would enable you to go further. Being strategic can thus also mean not going in a certain direction. I have heard again and again from students, and also from colleagues, how they were directed away from certain kinds of work, away from certain stances, away from words even, don’t do a feminist project, that won’t get you very far, don’t do race, that’s too narrow, race and gender are often framed as too narrow, the universal is given width, breadth, as well as speed, faster, lighter.  As academics of colour we learn from what happens when we use the word race. You hear alarm bells: you can feel like you are constantly being warned. Don’t say that, translating into, don’t do that, or even, don’t be that.

We can and we do refuse the instructions. But we do need to listen to them, to learn from what they are asking.

Warnings that are expressed out of concern for one’s career do not always feel like concern; in the cases above, it was quite clear to the students that the concern for their careers was masking something else (such as concern for departments or colleagues). Whether warnings feel concerned for the welfare of those being warned seems to depend not so much on the words used, or how they are used, but on the kinds of relationships we have with each other. One junior academic who had an experience of unfair and unequal treatment in her department was warned by a senior woman of colour not to complain. She describes: “This was a professor who I really trust and who did probably have my best interests at heart and she said to me at that point, don’t put in a grievance, you are a young academic, and if you do that now you are going to be known as someone who puts in grievances, you are going to be known as someone who puts in complaints, so just let it go, and work out something informally.” The language in this warning is familiar. Warnings about the costs of complaint often evoke the figure of the complainer as who you do not want to become; to become a complainer is to be slowed by how you are known. But this early career academic sensed this professor “had her best interests at heart.”  I sensed her trust come out of political allegiance as well as recognition of political struggle; of the work it takes to be a senior woman of colour at a university; how some have to battle their way to create spaces (and have careers) in institutions that are not built for them (3).

I have been thinking about this: how if you have to battle the institutions of patriarchal whiteness to establish yourself you might become warier about being worn, warier about complaining, and how that wariness can end up being passed on as advice to others.

In this instance the early career researcher did not proceed with a complaint.  And in not complaining she became conscious of the costs of not complaining (4): “Looking back on that, I don’t believe in regret, but I definitely believe in complaining, even when it’s a bad outcome, just creating that record of what happened. When something really bad happens, and you don’t complain but you do something informally within the institution you are really implicated in letting go of what happened even if that thing is just to you.” Not complaining can mean you let go of what happened and thus come to feel implicated in what was not resolved. We learn from such accounts, however they leave us, how individuals are presumed to benefit from not complaining; from not addressing certain kinds of problems as institutional problems. If you benefit from not complaining you also become implicated – or come to feel implicated – in how that problem is reproduced. This is one of the reasons that a decision not to complain can be so complicated: you are considering whether to benefit from not addressing the cause of harm. If we have to complain because of a structure (what gives unfair advantage to some), sometimes it is because of that same structure that you don’t complain. Not complaining can be an effort not to be further disadvantaged by that structure by leaving it in place.

If warnings are used to discourage a course of action they can also function as more positive directives: in being discouraged from complaining you are being encouraged not to complain. Indeed one academic described how not complaining becomes a default setting: “the default academia thing, the university thing: it will be fine, if we do wait, don’t make a fuss.” It is interesting how complaining is evoked as making a fuss, or as making something bigger than it needs to be or as impatience. Not making a complaint becomes a form of virtue or even a style of good citizenship: patience is tied to a positive outlook as if waiting is what would make something fine, as if the best way to approach a wrong is to wait for it to right itself. The flip-side of a warning is thus that promise, an institutional version of what I called “the promise of happiness,” a promise that if you don’t complain you will go further.

Sometimes you can be given permission to complain and be warned about the consequences of complaint at the very same time. In one instance a postgraduate student was considering making a complaint against her supervisor who had sexually harassed her. She had concrete evidence – he had sent her photos of his genitals.

She goes to the office that handles such complaints. And what happens?

They were like, “you can file a complaint.” But then the same narrative “not much is going to happen: he’s really well loved by the university, he has a strong publication record; you are going to go through all of this emotional torment.” It was even proposed that he could counter sue me for defamation of character. The line was essentially, you can do this, but why would you.

What she calls “the same narrative” is also skepticism that there is any point in following a complaint procedure (by those responsible for the administration of procedures). There is a sense that even if you file a complaint what will happen is “not much” no matter what evidence you have in a file.  There is a certain kind of fatalism operating here; we might call this a procedural fatalism. We can relate procedural fatalism to what I called in an earlier post, institutional fatalism, a sense that this is how institutions work so there is no point in trying to change how they work; or a sense that sexual harassment is everywhere so there is no point in trying to change it here. That fatalism can be performed through warnings is instructive: after all warning are about how you can avoid certain consequences. It is implied that institutions are what they are, such that whatever they will be, they will be. This disbelief that something would happen operates as recognition of what or who is valued by the university: it is because of what such-and-such professor is worth to the organisation that it is presumed not much will happen; in other words, the confidence that not much will happen is a confidence that not much will happen to him. A prediction that the consequences of complaint will be dire (not only that you would experience emotional torment but that you could render yourself even more precarious further down the line) is also an expectation that those who are institutionally valued will retain their value no matter; no matter whom.

So if a complaint is deemed in advance as dangerous, a complaint can also be framed as pointless, as what will not stop the reproduction of the same thing. This is important: because it might be that someone would proceed to complaint even if it might cause damage if they sensed there was a point to that damage, that a cost would bring some benefit.  And note you can be told that “you can do this” whilst being warned about doing this. Warnings can operate in the realm of the “would” rather than the “could.” Warnings can be translated into questions you end up having to ask yourself: you could complain but why would you? A warning becomes about what you would not do if you wanted to protect yourself; your career and your happiness.

Sometimes you can be told you should make a complaint and be warned about complaining at the very same time. A woman student, who was sexually assaulted by a male academic, describes a warning she receives from a female research assistant:

She told me that if I wanted to make an official complaint (which I should), she would support me. Yet, she also told me about her own experience of sexual harassment by another professor in another school and warned me about what would happen and what would not. Especially considering this professor’s image in the school, she said I should have been ready for the possibility that many people wouldn’t even believe me and would accuse me of misunderstanding his open-mindedness and intimacy.

A warning about “what would happen” can be predicated on what has happened. And a warning about “what would happen” can even be offered as feminist knowledge about how sexism operates as a belief system – a knowledge of how much is invested in the professor and his image and how that investment means he will be protected from facing consequences of his actions (turning even an assault into a fault of perception, a misunderstanding of his “open-mindedness and intimacy”). I think it is important that a warning can be offered in the style of a report: the person who warns you can do so by reporting on beliefs she does not hold and even on beliefs she might oppose. We learn from how even a wealth of feminist knowledge can be transformed into a warning. Even as she is told she should complain and that she will receive the support of the one who is giving the warning if she does complain, she is told to “ready” herself for the consequences. In fact warnings are telling you to be more concerned with consequences than with anything else. And so, if we accumulate more evidence that she will not be believed that evidence can be used as a technique of redirection; she can be given even more reasons not to complain.

A warning is a technique of redirection when you are directed away from a path that your commitments would otherwise lead you to. One academic described how she and a number of other colleagues decided to make a formal complaint about bullying from a head of department. Whichever way they turned – to human resources, to the union, to other colleagues– they were discouraged from taking that route. We learn not simply from the fact that complaints are discouraged but how they are discouraged and by whom they are discouraged. She describes: “Every time we tried to initiate a formal enquiry someone would stop us and say it is not a good idea to do that. Someone from the union, someone from HR or someone from the university, they would frighten you with the process, I think that’s what they do. They would say most complaints they go on for a year, the people are so resentful by the end of it they don’t want to work in the place and nothing ever happens: and that’s the union.” I started this post by noting that the process of making a complaint can be difficult and that consciousness of that difficulty can make people reluctant to complain for understandable reasons. We are now learning how evidence of the difficulty of a process can be used as a technique for stopping someone from entering or completing that process.

Note again the function of fatalism: a sense that what will happen, will happen; the past can be used like an arrow that points to a miserable outcome. You are being told the likely consequences of complaint before you proceed: that complaints have lead people to leave or to want to leave (“people are so resentful by the end of it they don’t want to work in the place and nothing happens”) is used as a prediction of what will happen if you complain: that complaint will lead you to leave. We might note here that predictions can have truth value (people do leave as a consequence of complaint) and function as directives (don’t complain unless you want to leave); indeed warnings might be useful to those trying to stop a complaint or trying not to address a problem raised by a complaint because they contain a kernel of truth.

Predictions of dire futures for complainers are also statements or even convictions about the very nature of institutions. Or we could say a conviction is how a judgement is converted into a prediction: this is what will happen because this is what such-and-such institution is like. And so: to proceed with a complaint requires going against other people’s convictions. No wonder then: warnings can feel like walls.

In this example, the union is one of the many actors who tried to stop the complaints from being turned into a formal enquiry (5). She describes further: “We keep putting in complaints but our union constantly discouraged us going down the formal complaint route. We were wondering whether to put in an official grievance and the union kept discouraging us and discouraging us. It was like they were on the side of the university: it felt like that to us; I don’t know what was going on there. You would meet with the union leader and he would say things like ‘it’s their sandpit they can decide who is going to play in it.’” The union’s effort to stop a formal complaint or grievance is experienced as siding with the organisation. You can be left unsure about what is going on, but still feel a wall built from how different actors are siding together; siding as stopping. A warning becomes an alignment; how different actors seem to be invested in the same thing, stopping a complaint from going forward.

Judgments about what institutions are like are not just descriptions: they are ways of viewing the organisation; ways of considering who or what an organisation is for.  Just think of how at that meeting the head of the union shares his view of the university: “it’s their sandpit they can decide who is going to play in it.” Warnings can also be about reproducing a view of an organization. In this instance the discouragement of a complaint about bullying is an endorsement of bullying, treating the university as a sandpit that is owned; decisions made about who gets to play as how conduct is justified as right or even a right. Indeed such a view is how a bully is given permission to bully; as if to say, those who are heads can do what they like. Warnings about complaint can offer not just predictions of bad consequences for those who make complaints; they can function as endorsements of the conduct that complaints are put forward to challenge. Institutional fatalism could even be thought of as a useful tool for those who wish to assert their power within institutions: it is how certain kinds of behaviour are deemed natural and inevitable; as just the nature of the game. A complainer becomes by fault and default the one who does not know the rules of the game.

We could even speculate that warnings operate as extensions of bullying and harassment. Indeed bullying and harassment often work by making it costly to identify certain kinds of conduct as problematic. It becomes easier to go along with something because it is made harder to challenge something. If you complain about bullying you are bullied all the more; if you complain about harassment you are harassed all the more. It is not surprising then that warnings about the difficulty of complaint can be used as threats; I will call this institutional bullying. (6)

A threat is not necessarily made at the outset – a warning often becomes a threat somewhere down the line, when a warning fails to stop someone from going ahead with a complaint. When a warning becomes a threat, it is usually apparent to the recipient that the threat was there all along; the threat has just come out into the open. (7) One student describes what happened when she and a group of postgraduate students tried to make a complaint about harassment from other students: “I was repeatedly told that ‘rocking the boat’ or ‘making waves’ would affect my career in the future and that I would ruin the department for everyone else. I was told if I did put in a complaint I would never be able to work in the university and that is was likely I wouldn’t get a job elsewhere.” I will return to the descriptions “rocking the boats,” and “making waves” in due course – these are such common descriptions from my interviews. We are already familiar with how complaint is framed as self-damage. This statement shows how damage caused by complaint can be as much about the anticipation of damage to a department or institution; you would ruin your career but you would also ruin a department. Perhaps a warning is about how your own happiness is made dependent on the extent to which you are willing to protect the happiness of an institution.

This student describes how the pressure not to complain was exerted: “In just one day I was subjected to eight hours of grueling meetings and questioning, almost designed to break me and stop me from taking the complaint any further.” You can stop people from doing something by making it harder for them to do something.  Stopping someone becomes part of the design. She describes how at a certain point in the meeting, the head of department made reference to her source of funding. To be reminded of how she was dependent upon the department for resources is to be told by the head of a department how they have the power to make her topple right over.

Danger Stairs

When a warning becomes a threat you are being told not just that a complaint will damage your career but that if you complain they will damage your career.

Even when threats are made more explicit they are rarely made fully explicit in part because such threats are against policy and procedure. But a threat does not need to be made fully explicit to be made. You don’t have to say: I will take your funding away if you proceed with a complaint; you can just casually mention the source of funding in a meeting. You cannot always tell when someone is telling you that making a complaint will damage your career or whether they are really telling you they will damage your career if you complain. Whether a warning is really a threat might seem to depend upon whether someone is in the position to cause damage. It is important for me to note that you can threaten to damage someone’s career or indeed damage someone’s career without necessarily having what we might call institutional power (such as the power to secure or withdraw funding). One common tactic is the spreading of rumours about those who make complaints.  The figure of the malicious complainer has an institutional life for a reason. That figure can circulate and cause damage; if you become her you are less likely to have a place to go.

When we think of how warnings can be threats, we also learning more about how power operates within institutional settings through the control or routing of information or data. Let me share with you another quote from this interview:

All this time everyone had said to us informally, different students and staff members, had said to us don’t do this, you’ll ruin your career, you’ll be making waves and no one likes you to make waves, you’ve just got to laugh it off, this will last for ever in your career if you do this you’ll be known as the person who made a fuss, and complained. At this point, we really realised that, like oh shit, we started to realise that we could actually get kicked out because of this, we could lose our jobs because of this, and the university was making it quite clear that they are a really big institution and we are four PhD students with not very much power or resources.

A complaint is heard as making waves: as stopping things from being steady. Keeping things steady is here the requirement to make something light; to laugh it off; to grin and bear it. A complaint is implied to be what sticks – it might not be on your CV; but you will always be known for it. A complaint is sticky data. You will become not only a complainer but a complaint in the sense of a minor but irritating ailment or condition. The implication here is that rocking as a motion is more dangerous for those with less stable footing. Warnings are thus used to heighten your consciousness of the precarity of your situation. They are also being used to put people in place; to tell you who is bigger and who is smaller (they are bigger; you are smaller) or who will prevail and who will not (they will prevail; you will not). In other words, warnings can be how some are put in their place by being told how easy it would be for them to lose their footing.

Danger Stairs

Maybe the complainer topples over or is told she would topple over in order to keep something in place (and something can be someone).  When an MA student made a complaint about the conduct of the most senior member of the department she was told by the convener of the programme: “be careful he is an important man.” A warning not to proceed is a statement about who is important. Importance is not just a judgment it is a direction. A professor becomes a conductor; information, energy and resources travel through him. I would describe his becoming as institutional funneling; paths become narrower and narrower at the exit points; you have to go through him to get anywhere.

The student went ahead with a complaint.  In her terms, she “sacrificed the references.” In reference to the prospect of doing a PhD she said: “that door is closed.”    That door is closed: references can function as doors, mechanisms that enable an opening or closing, how it is made possible for some to progress, others not.  Reference are letters sent out that might reach their destination; they are how some are enabled by their connections, how some gather speed and velocity, more and more, faster and faster, “he is an important man.” References can be being withheld or they can offer faint praise: when praise is faint a no is being expressed, a no can be how someone has nowhere to go.

Many do not make complaints because they feel they cannot afford to lose the references.  All you need is to be reminded that you need a reference to be warned about the consequences of complaint. A reference can be what you need to have a future in the academy. Another student describes: “you can’t complain against your supervisor, you can’t be that PhD student if you lodged an official complaint against your supervisors, these are the people you are going to rely on….as one academic said to me; your supervisor is not just for your PhD it’s for your life.” If a supervisor is for your life, a complaint against a supervisor could be the end of a life. A complaint can thus be framed in advance as career suicide, institutional death; how you would reach the end of the line.

Warnings can thus quickly become punishments when they fail, when they do not succeed in stopping someone from making a complaint. And punishments can also be converted into warnings; when the consequences of a complaint are made dire, those consequences can be used to warn others not to go in that direction.

However, not all punishments are spectacular or dramatic. A punishment for complaint can entail the withdrawal of support: to withdraw support is enough to stop someone from going somewhere.  A complaint teaches us how power can work through what might seem a light touch; the mere lifting of a supportive hand can function as the heaviest of weights. Not being supported as much as you would have been supported if you had not complained can be how you are stopped.  Power manifests as the withdrawal of support for those who show how power manifests.

It is important for me to note that if I have ended my discussion with how warnings can be used as threats that is not where I started. Some warnings are offered as career advice; they are intended to direct people along a path that would enable them to progress in their careers. This is in itself a key finding: we learn from concerns and how they meet. We are learning that concern for someone’s career progression can be expressed as advise not to complain about the harassment and bullying that person has experienced. This means that: a concern for someone’s career progression is the same concern that stops harassment and bullying from being addressed. And this also means that: a concern for someone’s career progression is the same concern that protects those who harass and bully others from complaint. These are deeply concerning meetings of concerns.  A meeting can be the point we need to uncover. Although warnings do not come from the same place they can point in the same direction, rather like an arrow that has been crossed out indicating a direction you are not supposed to take: don’t go that way.

Turn left is prohibited. Traffic sign with crossed out arrow to

Let me return to my starting point. Listening to those who have made or tried to make formal complaints about abuses of power is teaching me about institutional mechanics; how institutions work; how different parts fit together. By institutional mechanics I am referring to the mechanics of power.

Making it costly to complain about an abuse of power is an abuse of power.

I want to conclude with some notes of caution about the implications of my own analysis. When I noted that the difficulty of a complaint process can be used to stop complaints I need that note to be a note to self: to remind myself that as a researcher I need to take care and be diligent. Because I too have been documenting a difficulty it is possible that my own work could be used as a warning to others. The possibility that our documents of difficulty can be used as warnings does not negate our responsibility to share what we find. We still need to describe people’s experiences of these difficulties because those experiences are too often hidden from view. An allusion to difficulty is an emptying out of an experience.

However it is given these difficulties that it is important not to turn complaint into a duty. To make a complaint a duty would be to perform another injustice – it would be to require those who have experienced bullying and harassment to do the work of trying to change the institutions that enable bullying and harassment in the first place.

We know that the costs of complaint are higher for those who are most precarious.

We know that those who most need to complain are often those who can least afford to complain.

We have to work to distribute the costs of complaint.

We do the work because there is work to do.

And so: what to do?

This is my view: one of our most important tasks as feminists is to ensure that making a complaint does not mean closing the door. That ensuring is work. We need to do this work together: a complaint requires a feminist collective. We need to provide the references. We need to be the connections. We need not make light of a difficult situation nor under-describe the difficulty of complaint out of concern for discouraging others. Support might be about not encouraging or discouraging an action. It is because complaints are difficult that we need to become a support system. From necessity, from the need to support those who are having to make life more difficult for themselves to address difficulties that are shared, comes so much feminist creativity and invention.


1) In the UK if a student makes an informal disclosure to a member of staff and then proceeds to a formal complaint, the informal disclosure is treated as the first step of a formal complaint. This can mean that a student embarks on a formal complaint before they think of themselves as doing so. I will be exploring the connection between informality and formality in the wider project.

2) I say “deemed dangerous” cautiously. One issue that came up with my earlier empirical project on diversity is the role of perception in creating institutional realities. So if you are perceived to be a problem then it is made more difficult for you to proceed (or alternatively if you are perceived to have potential a way is cleared that enables your progression). So if a complaint is perceived as being dangerous that perception can structure what is going on in such a way that making a complaint can endanger the one who complains (because of how they are treated). Perceptions matter.

3) I will return to the costs of not complaining in future posts. Many of those I have interviewed talked about these costs in reflecting on the times they did not complain.

4) There is a complexity here that I am passing over relating to the vulnerability of political trust in institutional contexts, which I hope to return to in future posts. I have also collected stories of how those who complain are not supported by those with whom they shared a political allegiance. I also have stories of those who have been bullied by those with whom they shared a political allegiance. I will be working out how best to handle, to care for and to share, these stories.

5) We need a much fuller investigation of the role of unions in enquiries on bullying and harassment than I will be able to provide in my study. Some people I spoke to did have positive experiences with their union, but I have been struck by just how many people described their union as unsupportive or even as part of the problem. In some cases, staff experienced the union as too aligned with management and in other cases union representatives were friends with harassers/bullies and worked to protect them. Some staff I have spoken to in the UK have identified the problem as a “macho culture” in unions.

6) Please see this report on the extent of bullying within universities in the UK. I will be developing my analysis of institutional bullying (and institutional harassment) in future posts. I will address how bullying and harassment can also be extended by the use of complaint procedures: those who identify a problem with bullying or harassment often have complaints procedures used against them. I will also talk about the misuse of mediation to address the problem of bullying and harassment: a situation where one person is wielding direct power over others by the use of threats and other forms of intimidation is treated as a conflict of viewpoints (so the bully or harasser is given legitimacy as someone with a viewpoint), often leading to a tactic support of bullying and harassment.

7) I think popular culture is full of examples of warnings that could be threats or warnings that become threats or warnings that we learn to hear as threats when we refuse to be warned. The story, “The Willful Child  is a warning: a warning to a child to obey her mother becomes a threat to a child who disobeys her mother. I am sensing this story will help me in approaching complaint: a complaint is like that arm that keeps coming out of the grave. I am trying to catch the arm when it is still rising.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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3 Responses to Warnings

  1. sibilge says:

    “a complaint is like that arm that keeps coming out of the grave. I am trying to catch the arm when it is still rising” thank you Sara. Thank you for all your work

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