Why complain?

Why complain? What do you hear in this question? It is a deceptively simple question. It is a difficult question. A question can be a journey. This question can take us places, to scenes of devastation, yes, but also to other kinds of scenes.

Why complain, why would you; a why can be sharp, a reminder of the point of a complaint. There must be a point to what is hard, to what is made hard.

Do you hear should in this question: why complain as why should you complain? In asking why, I refuse to smuggle in should. I am not using the question to mask an instruction.  I hear should and I wince. Rather I am thinking of do, why do people complain; we learn why from do. I have been learning how complaint means committing yourself, your time, your energy, your being, to a course of action that often leads you away from the work you want to do even if you complain in order to do the work you want to do (as many do). A formal complaint can lead you into the shadowy corners of an institution, meeting rooms, corridors; buildings you did not have any reason to enter before become where you go; what you know. We can learn from this: how trying to address an institutional problem often means inhabiting the institution all the more (1). Inhabitance can involve re-entry: you re-enter the institution through the back door; you find out about doors, secret doors, trap-doors: how you can be shut out; how you can be shut in. You learn about processes, procedures, policies, you learn to point out what they fail to do, pointing to, pointing out; you fill in more and more forms; forms become norms; files become futures; filing cabinets, graves.

One student submitted a letter of complaint to her head of department about bullying from a professor in her department. Nothing happened: after being told there would be a follow up, there was no follow up (2).

She describes:

“I feel like my complaint has gone into the complaint graveyard.”

When complaints are buried you can end up being buried.

And yet, many do complain. Why complain given so many complaints ends up being buried? A burial is not only where you might end up, the last stop in a sorry tale, a destination; burials can be evoked as a potential before you even start. Warnings evoke burials: you are warned that a complaint would mean career suicide, the end of a line; making a complaint as becoming a ghost.

You are also warned that you will be buried by the process.

Maybe a burial is a part of a story. The question of why, why complain, help us to pick up other pieces of the story. This question why complain is around me, surrounds me; hovering as hearing, as I am listening to and transcribing the final interviews for the project; as I am thinking about how to pull the pieces together (3). Thus far I have been sharing data in posts and lectures that offer snap-shots of institutional life, as well as accounts of what I call simply institutional machinery; the clunk, clunk, of how complaints are stopped from getting through or getting out as the sound of institutions at work. My data is generated by listening to those who did complain or who took some steps in that direction even if they did not go through with it. It is those who try to get through who teach us about stoppages. And so: in listening to stories of stoppages and blockages, I am also hearing about the work that some – let’s call them the complainers – are prepared to do; despite the walls they come up against, because of the walls they come up against. The clunk, clunk is not the only sound I can hear; I can hear the strain, the physical effort, the wear and tear; I can hear how hard some are willing to push, because they are not willing to give up or to give in.

Why complain? Why would you?  How could you?

I did not make this question, why complain, an explicit question during interviews. I began the research thinking I would be doing semi-structured interviews. I arrived with my prepared questions for my first interview, and realised they would not work. Complaints are too messy even for a loose series of questions.  So I asked those I spoke to one opening question: I asked people to share the experiences that led them to consider making a complaint as well as their experiences of making a complaint. I wanted the stories to come out, fall out, in whatever order they came out.

Perhaps I have gathered testimonies. And so: a complaint testimony can be an answer to the question: why? In this post I am sharing some of the points shared with me.

I am sharing why, a why can be shared.

One academic talked to me about the problem of misogyny and racism in her department. Like many I have spoken to she understood the problem she was coming up against as a problem of institutional culture. It is hard to make a complaint about the culture of an institution. Procedures (also routines, habits) often direct us to make complaints about individuals, to somebody who can be held to account. But that does not mean that the institution is not the object of a complaint from the complainer’s point of view (4). She made what we might call an informal complaint; gathering statements from a number of people, pulling them together to create a document, a collective complaint, which she submitted to human resources (5).

Why complain? She gave me two important reasons. She “wanted it recorded” and “the culture was being reproduced for new PhD students.”

These reasons are related. You have to record what you do not want to reproduce.

The point of a complaint can be to intervene in the reproduction of something. She did not understand the culture of the institution as simply something or some simple thing, institutional culture as an object, a fetish object, cut off from history, from labour; as being inevitable, what you have to accept, what you had to protect. Reproduction instead becomes a scene of instruction; norms and values are passed on for new postgraduate students. A complaint is a refusal of that instruction, a refusal to pass on the same thing. If you complain because a culture is being reproduced you complain in order to stop that culture from being reproduced.  A complaint can come out of a sense that the culture will be reproduced unless you do what you can to try and stop it.

We could thus think of complaint as non-reproductive labour, as the work you have to do in order not to reproduce an inheritance (6).  Of course, we know about the clunk, clunk of institutional machinery when we try and stop the machine from working. When those who try to stop a culture from being reproduced are stopped, a culture is being reproduced.  Those who try to stop a culture from being reproduced also know how a culture is reproduced.  You know the engines of social reproduction do not run smoothly.

You know how much work is required for things not to change.

A student made a complaint about the conduct of the most senior member of her department. He would repeatedly swear at students, make racist and sexist jokes in class and during social events; undermine and ridicule students in class, especially mature women and any women who articulated feminist viewpoints. She described her action as “alerting the university,” to what had been going on. She had already left the university. So why complain? She complained because she “wanted to prevent other students from having to go through such practice.”  By the reproduction of culture, we are talking about practices: we are talking about what people are routinely doing; how they are behaving; what they are saying; what they are allowed to do and to say (even when what they do and say contradicts commitments made in official policies on equality and diversity and dignity at work).

To prevent other students from “having to go through such practice” requires stopping those who are participating in such practice. What you want to prevent, others can be invested in reproducing.  Under-statement: when you challenge people’s investments you do not tend to be received well. Many have talked to me about how their complaint was assumed to be motivated in some way. Discrediting is often performed by giving the complainer motives: to discredit is to answer the question why complain on her behalf. She is assumed to complain because she has a will to power or because she wishes to deprive others of a power they enjoy: perhaps she is envious or disappointed. If these reasons are familiar it is because they are rehearsed with regularity in anti-feminist arguments: feminists are often dismissed by judging a concern with injustice as a desire for power (7). A common strategy for discrediting a complaint (and perhaps also feminism) is to suggest a complaint is motivated by the desire for punishment; a complainer is often treated not only as a killjoy, as being mean, against pleasure, but also as being punitive (8). The language of punishment is often used diagnostically, that is, as a way of explaining the psychology of the complainer. But we can use the diagnosis to say something else about someone else. Perhaps the effort to stop some ways of acting is experienced by those who are acting in such ways as punishment in the sense of potentially depriving them of what it is that they want. In other words, punishment is the effect not the cause (an effect that is then turned into a cause). Trying to stop harassing and bullying behaviours (by describing such behaviours as harassing or bullying) is experienced as depriving some of their freedom as well as what they assume as their entitlement (9). I will have much more to say about the relationship between harassment and entitlement: the right to have or use something.

In this case, it turned out that many students in the past had made similar complaints about this professor’s conduct: the university did not need to be alerted of the problem. Another member of staff from her department responded to her initial informal complaint by saying “I hear a lot of these complaints every year,” in an intonation that almost implied a yawn, heard that before, been there, done that. There was no interest in stopping the behaviour; perhaps because he was the most senior member of the department, a highly valued and highly paid professor. It is not just the institution that was invested in him: the more a person is networked, the more are invested in that person. The resistance to hearing a complaint often comes from colleagues and peers, from those who benefit from an existing set of arrangements, those for whom reproduction also means: connections; resources; alliance; allegiance.

A complaint can be what you do in order to stop something from happening. What happens does not “just happen.” If something keeps happening, we are talking structure not event or structure as well as event.  Wanting to stop something from happening can be about wanting to stop something from happening to others. An academic told me the she would complain again despite the fact that her previous complaint about racial harassment had cost her so much in terms of career progression as well as personal well-being. Why complain can be posed as a question again, why complain again? She said: “it was something I had to do because of my politics, a wrong had been done, I had to make sure it had been put right even at my own personal expense it turned out. I’d still do that again. I’d do it for another person not for me, if the same thing happened I would do it again. I wouldn’t change my mind on it or say no I didn’t notice anything. I wouldn’t do that.” She would complain again not for herself but for another person despite what happened to her; perhaps even because of what happened to her.

You do not want those who come after you to have to go through what you went through. A complaint can be experienced as what you do for others. Note also: a complaint can be a refusal not to notice something, a refusal not to notice “a wrong has been done.” She added: “In the worst possible situations, you learn a lot about yourself, other people, and institutions.” Noticing too can be what we do for others; it can be how we learn about ourselves as well as others. No wonder complaint is feminist pedagogy: we often learn about worlds from the worst possible situations. We learn what’s wrong when we try to address what’s wrong.

What’s wrong with you? Those who make complaints are often asked by friends, peers, colleagues why they make complaints; the question why complain is often asked out of concern. A complaint: you have to keep explaining yourself. A postgraduate student made a complaint about the conduct of her supervisor. When she told me why she complained she also told me she was asked why complain: “A lot of people are: why you are doing this? You are at risk or do you want the moral ground. For me it might sound dramatic, but it is simply true: I couldn’t live with myself.”  

You might proceed with a complaint, despite what it requires in order to live with yourself. Note the negative: not to complain would be not to be able to “live with myself.”  That expression “I couldn’t live with myself” or “I can live with myself” has been used a number of times in testimonies.  I hear an implication in an expression: a decision whether to complain is also a judgement about what you can live with; it becomes a way of expressing not simply your values and commitments but the values and commitments you could not give up with giving up on yourself.

A senior academic made a complaint about bullying from her head of department. Why complain? She gives us an answer in telling her story:

 Apart from anything else at a personal level I can live with myself. I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself just coping with that situation and letting it happen. I could have gone the other way and just protected myself, and just said can I take my sabbatical early and get out of there, that would have been another strategy, but that wouldn’t have been me to do that so I couldn’t have done that. I didn’t feel I had options really. I had to complain. It wasn’t like a choice. For me, if I saw something that was so wrong, I couldn’t not do anything.

A complaint can be how you live with yourself because a complaint is an attempt to address what is wrong, not to cope with something; not to let it happen; not to let it keep happening. You make a complaint as a way of doing something. And so: a complaint can be a way of not doing nothing. Many who make complaints don’t do so because they feel they will necessarily get justice or some other resolution of a problem, although of course different people enter the process with different expectations about what they can achieve. A beginning can be a refusal: you refuse to cope with a situation that is unjust. You will not just leave the problem behind you by not complaining (even if a complaint leads many to leave). A complaint is often about confronting what is, saying no to a wrong that persists.  A complaint is what you do if you are someone who does not want not to care about what is wrong, as someone who “saw something that was so wrong.”(10)

For those who complain because of what they came to know, a complaint becomes an expression of a commitment; it can be how express yourself. It is given you have the commitments you do (there are many givens that need to be given before a complaint can be made), that complaints tend to be experienced not as choices but as being necessary (“I couldn’t not do anything”). If a complaint is how you live with yourself a complaint can also be about the kind of world you want to live in; a complaint can be about the wrongs you are not willing to let happen.

A desire not to reproduce something, violence, an injustice, is a desire for something, for a world in which those violences; injustices, do not happen.

In past work I have focused more on how the costs of complaining are made high. These costs can be about warnings as well as punishments: you are warned you will be punished; punishments are often used as warnings to other would-be complainers. There is no doubt: complaint is made costly. From the question, why complain, I am learning about the costs of not complaining. Not complaining can be thought of as an action or as a series of actions that are performed in the event of there being something to complain about (11). The decision not to complain can be strategic: the flip side of a warning is a promise; you are told that not complaining will ease your progression. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with doing what you need to progress – think of how many do not have to make difficult decisions in order to enable their own progression. For example you don’t have to decide whether to make a complaint about not being promoted if you are promoted. If you have to decide not to complain in order to progress you are already having to do a certain kind of political work that others are spared from doing.

This is not to say that progression is not a feminist problem.

What we are told we need to do to progress is what reproduces the system. 

A decision not to complain can also be about what you can cope with: you might not be able to cope what is required in making a complaint; you might estimate that a complaint would cost you too much. We can learn from how and why people decide not to complain when they have grounds to complain. I have learnt so much about not complaining from those who have complained: even if I have talked mainly to those who have participated in formal complaints, many have spoken to me at length about their experiences of not complaining. One woman professor did not proceed to a formal complaint after experiencing gross misogyny from senior male colleagues at an away day. She did raise the issue with senior members of the university; she just did not follow it up when they did not follow it up. She did not go on to a formal complaint in part because her previous efforts to support students making a formal complaint about sexual harassment had not got anywhere (stopping a complaint can lead to more stoppages down the line). She also did not go on to make a formal complaint because when what happened, happened, her mother was seriously ill. She was having a difficult time in her personal life; she had caring responsibilities. Life can be a reason for not complaining; if complaints require time, time can be what some of us do not have.

Not complaining because it would be too costly to complain does not mean it is not costly not to complain. Those costs can be personal – you might find it hard to live with yourself if you had grounds for a complaint but did not or could not do so. Costs can also be institutional: the grounds remain, and they are often the same grounds you have to do your work; the same grounds that make it difficult to do your work.

The same grounds.

And so: the costs of not complaining can be the same costs as the costs of having to put up with what makes it difficult to do your work. I spoke to a retired academic about her complaint history – she gave me her history in three chapters with each chapter corresponding to her experiences at the three different universities in which she had been employed. She talked to me about how being a person who had complained – a complainer, even; we can reclaim that figure – mattered to her. Why complain? Why not: “I took a huge risk by complaining and fighting and not accepting what they had done to me.” She describes: “I bloody decided to fight them and I’ve seen so many people who don’t and I’ve seen so many people crushed in many ways because they haven’t gone to the union, they haven’t gone to access to work; they’d just been so isolated that they just get crushed…there’s no way I was going to let them do that to me.” A complaint is a way of not being crushed. Complaints do not just lead you into the secret chambers of the institution, as I described earlier; they can also lead you to form new partnerships; they can lead you to work more collectively, to work with the union and with other colleagues to address a problem that is shared.

Similar problems; similar complaints.

Participating in a complaint can thus be a politicising process in a similar way to participating in a protest: you get a real sense of the scale of a problem when you try to address a problem. And getting “a sense of the scale of a problem” means acquiring a stronger sense, a sharper, clearer sense, of how institutions work. Participation in a formal complaint can often lead people to develop strong critiques of institutional power. Critiques can be expressed in action: they can be about what you are willing to do or not willing not to do. Formal complaints (often because of what they fail to achieve) can often lead to other more direct forms of political action such as occupying the university, leaking information about failed processes either to other members of the university or to a wider public, or to creating complaint collectives in order to create a shared record or to share experiences (12).  I will be describing the formation of “complaint collectives” in future work.  The work of complaint does not stop with a complaint (although it is hard to tell when a complaint stops and starts) in part because when you complain you find out about others who have complained.

Findings, meetings: they can change things.

Even if organisations try and isolate complainers, and even if sometimes their efforts succeed, not complaining can be how some end up even more isolated. She described further: “You’ve got to pull in as many resources as you can. But for me the tragedy was that I have seen so many other colleagues go under because they’ve been too scared to fight that fight and I completely understand why they have been.” It might be fear that stops people from fighting. But whatever stops people from fighting (and sometimes people are just too tired or have too much already on to take on a fight), when more people are stopped from fighting, the less people are fighting. And that is one way power works: by lessening (and thus also lessening the impact of) those who challenge how power works. As she described: “It’s really hard because people are so overworked and don’t have the time to defend themselves or campaign about everything.”

Complaining can be a hope, an aspiration – it can be what you have to do to breath. Sometimes you complain in order to survive. This does not mean that you get through: many of the stories I have and will be sharing are stories of not getting through or of not getting very far. But not getting through does not mean not getting somewhere. If you have to create a record of what you do not want to reproduce, that record exists for you; you take it with you. A complaint can become a companion. One lecturer who made a complaint about bullying at her former institution gives us an answer to why complain by reflecting on what she was asking for: “I am glad that it exists for me, and that if any questions are raised I have it and also that I did lodge a grievance, I had a go, I did try, and for the record that matters to me. It matters to me not that I tried to seek justice, because I don’t really believe the process can deliver that, but just to have some accountability and explanation in the hope of institutional change, which was I think all I was asking for in the end.”

The hope of complaint can end up being modest, tied closely to the wear and tear of fighting institutional battles; the hope of institutional change of some kind. That hope can be in the trying.  A hope can thus be immanent: it can be in the institutions we are in; hope as the effort to transform institutions. That hope can also be weary; a weary hope, a hope that comes from an experience of wearing, of being worn down by what you have to do to keep on, going on. The work of complaint is often about going back: you are willing to go back over what has happened, however hard.  If there is a hope in this work that hope also takes us back; we keep going over what is not over. But the weary hope of complaint can still points forward, to what is not yet possible given an existing arrangement. It is this kind of hope that animates non-reproductive labour; the work of trying not to reproduce what already exists is the work of trying to make something else possible.

One student who talked to me about a series of complaints about harassment and bullying, none of which got anywhere, gave an answer to why complain by leaving with a sense of hope: “You know the process is broken, but still you know you must do it, because if you don’t, more falls to the wayside. So it’s like a painful repetitive cycle where you do what you know is right, knowing it may not make a difference at that time, but you always hope, you always have that hope, that maybe because I did this, it paves the way for something else. I think that is why I keep doing it: because I have hope. I have hope that justice maybe confronted at some point. But it is hard to say, hard to say what will happen.” To pave the way is to make something possible, even though it might be hard to say, hard to know what will happen. Perhaps that paving can become pavement; you try to create a different ground in the present by insisting that the present is not enough. This is not a bright hope, agentic, forward, and thrusting. This is a hope that is closer to the ground; slow, below. You can have hope because of what you come to know from below.

Perhaps the hope of complaint is below the ground. I think back to the image of the complaint graveyard. I shared with one person this image that had been shared with me by another.

A dialogue is possible by connecting stories; tales; trails.

Why complain? A complaint can be a collective:

You have to think about the impact of doing this. Because having yet another complaint, it means that you give more credibility to the one who comes after you. When you talk about haunting you are talking about the size of the graveyard. And I think this is important. Because when you have one tombstone, one lonely little ghost, it doesn’t actually have any effect; you can have a nice cute little cemetery outside your window, but when you start having a massive one, common graveyards and so on, it becomes something else; it becomes much harder to manage.

If our complaints lead us to leave, we might leave with a sense of failure, of not having done very much at all (12). But think of this:  an impact can be in what follows, who follows. Even when a complaint leads you to leave, you leave something of yourself behind by complaining. The ghosts can gather; the more we complain the louder we become; it can be explosive. We might not be able to hear it now; it might not have happened yet. We might feel like a lonely little ghost; gone. But each complaint gathers a momentum, picking more and more up; we do not know what a complaint can become.

Complaints can point to those who come after, who can receive something from you because of what you tried to do, even though you did not get through, even though all you seemed to have done was scratch the surface.

Why complain? We become harder to manage.

Why complain? I can think of so many reasons because so many reasons have been shared with me. We become our reasons.



Whitley, Leila and Tiffany Page 2015. “Sexism at the Centre: Locating the Problem of Sexual Harassment,” New Formations. 86: 34-53.


(1) One of the reasons given to me for not proceeding with or to a formal complaint is precisely this: a sense that some people have that to proceed would be to commit to an institutional process and to allow oneself to become institutionalised in a certain kind of way.

(2)  This is one of the methods of stopping a complaint that I will be discussing in more detail in future writings: no follow up. In some cases there is no response at all (no indication is given that a complaint has even been received). Many people have talked to me how they simply do not get any response to emails, letters or even to comments made in person during meetings. They do not receive a no (eg. a warning) or a yes (eg. a nod); they receive a blank. I will be thinking with those I have spoken to about institutional blanks.

(3) I have now interviewed 40 people for this project. I completed transcribing my data in early July 2019. I am no longer arranging formal interviews but continue to communicate with people informally as well as to receive written statements. Over this summer I will be starting to write a new book on complaint as well as writing a new lecture, If these Doors Could Talk, and revising and updating my lectures Complaint as Diversity Work and Complaint as a Queer Method to give this autumn.

(4) This is very important: institutions often work to atomise complaints, to separate and to individuate, at the level of process as well as procedure. For example a group of staff wanted to make a complaint about discrimination in the handling of promotions but they were not allowed to meet with human resources as a group; they were required to have one-to-one meetings. And institutions often restrict the scope of a complaint by requiring the complaint to be about a singular person (or by reducing it to a single person in how they interpret or frame the findings). As one of my interviewees who participated in a complaint about sexual harassment, which she understood as a complaint about the culture of the institution, describes: “The bottom line is, and this is what the report has done, is basically protect their interests. And what they have effectively done with that report is identify one rogue member of staff whose been encouraged to take retirement, and then of course ‘they’ve dealt with the situation’, and the reason they left all of our testimony out of the picture is that they didn’t want to accept exactly why we wanted to talk to them about it in the first place which was that this all was the face of culture.” There is so much that is not faced (include the face of culture) when harassment is located in a rogue member of staff. As Leila Whitley and Tiffany Page describe “Yet, it is very hard, within the structure of the complaints process, to name a culture or an institution as being involved in the maintenance of an environment where sexual harassment is common”  (2005, 47). It is hard to make institution the object of the complaint given the complaint is handled by that institution.

(5) Many of the activities I will be describing in my work could be described as informal complaints (from an institutional point of view). An informal complaint would be any disclosure (written or spoken) about a problem to a person or persons who have an institutional position (for example, a head of department, a director of postgraduate studies, a supervisor, a senior manager or a member of human resources). In the UK in the case of student complaints in the event a complaint goes forward an informal disclosure or complaint is then treated as the first stage of the formal complaint process. This means that you can make a disclosure to a person without intending that disclosure to be a complaint even though it will acquire that formal status retrospectively if you go ahead with a complaint (I have some interesting examples of what can follow from this quirk). This also means that: if you make an informal complaint, but do not take it further, that informal complaint does not acquire the status of a complaint and does not need to be recorded as such. Many (I would even speculate most) complaints are stopped at this first informal stage, which means many of the actions I am hearing about are not recorded (or do not have to be recorded) by institutions as complaints.  The tightening of the complaint as a genre is, indeed, how many struggles are not recorded. This is why I am trying to loosen my understanding of what is involved in complaint without making complaint too encompassing of too many different kinds of political work.

6) This is one way I am thinking of complaint as a queer method, complaint as non-reproductive labour. I will be picking up from some of my arguments about “queer use,” complaint as the work you have to do in order to open institutions up to those for whom they were not intended.

(7) In an earlier post, Sexual Harassment, I described how anti-feminism is crucial to how complaints are dismissed. I wrote there “I think moralism is useful as a charge because it carries another implication: that feminism masks its own will to power. Whenever we challenge what is being assembled, who is being assembled, we are assumed as wanting power: as wanting their courses, their centres; even their students, for ourselves.  This can circulate as rumour and innuendo, implying that the feminists only object because they want what they object to.”

8) This is especially the case in complaints about sexual harassment and sexual misconduct – the carceral feminist appears here as a figure to imply an alignment between making a complaint and becoming part of a disciplinary institutional apparatus. The complainer is then positioned as the police/ prison guard. Sometimes of course it can take a removal of persons to stop some forms of harassment; that this is the case is telling us something about how harassment is enabled and built into a system. Complaints if they lead to an enquiry do involve a disciplinary process. In cases when persons are removed from posts either by resigning before a tribunal takes place or by having their contract terminated, those who initiated the complaint are often made responsible for that outcome, as if that was what they intended or as if that is why they complained (when what they want is for the problematic behavior to stop). A complaint is then framed as a failure to be conciliatory; it is as if rather than complaining those who complained could have just tried to talk to that person. The idea that you could just talk to someone who is being abusive is an idea that protects the abuser. Note formal complaints are usually a last resort; they are made because those who abuse power given to them by virtue of position cannot simply be persuaded by other means, such as informal conversations, not to engage in problematic behaviours. If persons are removed, they don’t suddenly recognise their behaviour as problematic. Instead, they typically represent themselves as victims of false accusations, neoliberalism, management, feminist campaigns, and so on, and so forth. This is also why the figure of a malicious complainer is exercised long after a complaint has been “resolved.” It is a way of re-telling the story of a complaint as a witch hunt.

(9) In practice many forms of harassment including sexual, racial and transphobic harassment are justified as expressions of freedom (freedom as the freedom to say or do such things). See an early post, “Against Students,” for some reflections on this. I would also argue that many recent trans-exclusionary and transphobic statements made by academics also treat some forms of harassment (such as the purposeful misgendering of students) as expressions of freedom (as if whether you respect other people’s preferred pronouns is simply about being polite or what you should be free to do or not do in accordance with your own beliefs), with clear evidence of confusion between academic freedom and personal freedom. Note all equality and diversity frameworks are about the creation of norms of conduct that are intended to restrict what is permissible to say or to do. That some experience such restrictions as restrictions of their freedom is telling us something about how their own sense of freedom depends upon maintaining the inaccessibility of social worlds and public domains to others. I am considering showing just what recent anti-trans statements get wrong about equality and diversity (and diversity training – with all its limits), but it is tiresome to have to argue against these kinds of viewpoints.

(10)  She also told me how many colleagues who “sort of knew” something was wrong tried to avoid her once she indicated she might pursue a complaint even though they were sympathetic colleagues who would be otherwise concerned about abuses of power. Perhaps one way some avoid having to make a complaint or participate in a complaint about wrongs they themselves are committed to challenging is by trying not to “see it,” or to “know it,” by looking away or staying away. The effort to avoid proximity to a complaint often means in practice trying not to notice what is wrong. For those who have political commitments to challenging wrongs, the work of trying not to notice wrongs that are closer to home can be potentially compromising (of an idea of who you are or what you value), which might be how and why those who complain come to embody a threat.  For some not to be reminded of how they did not challenge what they would be otherwise committed to challenging, they might have to eliminate (avoid, dismiss, reject) those who make the challenge.  No wonder then: a complainer often becomes institutionally dead. She is made to disappear; it can be most convenient.

(11). It matters what a complaint is about. In my project I am inheriting this about: whatever those I have spoken to have complained about, my project is about. It is with reflecting on the different meanings of complaint here. A complaint can be an expression of grief, pain or dissatisfaction; something that is a cause of a protest or outcry, a bodily ailment or a formal allegation. I hope in my work to show how the latter sense of complaint as a formal allegation brings up other more affective and embodied senses. But I am also interested in how a complaint can be a cause: a complaint is not simply something you make but what you have; a complaint as a cause to complain. Complaints can thus be about objects as well as subjects.

(11) I have been rather bemused by how some who offer strong critiques of institutional culture or politics in their work can turn around and offer weak appeals to due process. Many of the stories I have been collecting are stories of due process: they are stories of what happens to those who follow the procedures that are developed “in house.” That these are often the same stories as stories of institutional violences gets us to the heart of the problem. It is by following processes and procedures, even those developed in consultation with feminist activists and academics, that often leads to a deep recognition of the role of processes and procedures in reproducing the problem they were intended to address. It does not follow we should not use due processes and procedures – we should learn to learn from those who do.

(12) I will be writing on complaints and leaving in due course. Many of those I have spoken to who went through with formal complaints did end up leaving their posts or programmes. This has something to tell us about the nature of this work: a complaint can make it hard (or in some cases impossible) to stay; a complaint can sever the connections you need to survive and thrive in an environment. Some people I have spoken to who put forward complaints only did so once they knew they were leaving: this also tells us so much about the nature of the work. Some people need to know they have somewhere else to go before they can make a complaint because they know a complaint might lead to them needing to leave. It might be assumed that to leave is to leave a problem behind you. My research suggests otherwise: leaving can be the effect of not putting problems behind you, and leaving (however hard or unchosen) can enable other ways of dealing with problems that are shared.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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6 Responses to Why complain?

  1. Pingback: What we are reading | Issue No. 27 - The Polis Project, Inc

  2. Pingback: A complaint? A Reflection on Power Dynamics in the World of Funding Feminist Work – African Feminism (AF)

  3. heliotactic says:

    Thank you for this essay Dr. Ahmed.

    Your works have helped me enormously as a queer trans solar faculty in an engineering dept known for coal, oil, and gas.

    I have a phrase that I use in my own works: ‘We measure what we value. We value what we measure.’ To work while queer in STEM is to float as a ghost, haunting the corridors of the buildings we temporarily steal within for refuge. Complaints help ground me when nothing else can be made to matter.

    Thank you–

  4. Mac says:

    Just wow. I feel like I’ve been fighting exactly this brick wall. I have written of my experiences and am still in the process of ‘complaining’ – I think I am now going to the equality commissioner and/or the scottish funding council. The public ombudsman currently believes there has been no impact on service provision or maladministration. They ergo do not believe PhD students require protection. So yeah, where is the support for fighting for support? establishment wake up and listen. We aren’t going away.https://theunbecomingacademic.wordpress.com/2020/01/17/the-cautionary-tale-mac-dunphy-2020/

  5. Pingback: Underrepresented faculty members share the real reasons they have left various academic institutions (opinion) | Studently

  6. Pingback: The Complainer as Carceral Feminist | feministkilljoys

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