In the thick of it

A complaint can be what you have to make because of a situation you are in. Complaints are immanent. Immanence implies to be in something or to dwell; to remain.  Perhaps a complaint is what you make because you do not want to remain in a situation; a complaint can be an effort to get out of a situation you are in.  You are in the thick of it, right in the thick of it. To be in the thick of it means to be in a situation where it is most intense; it means to be in the most crowded of places. The idiom “in the thick of it” can also reference how much you have to do; it can imply, being occupied or busy. What do we learn from complaint, or about complaint, by considering complaint as intensity, as crowded, as busy?

Complaints might come up or come out in the middle of a journey: a middle can be a muddle. I am muddling through, at this difficult time; thinking about time. If it takes time to make a complaint; it takes time to reach a complaint.  When we think of complaint as what you have to reach, we are thinking about different ways that complaints come out as expressions of dissatisfaction with a situation. A complaint might be how you say no to something whether in speech or in writing or even through non-verbal communication; complaints as objecting, calling out, contesting, naming; questioning; and so on.

When a complaint is about something, you first have to admit to something, to recognise something as being wrong, as being something you need to complain about. To admit to something can mean both to confess a truth, and to let it in. A complaint can require opening a door to the truth of a situation; letting it in; letting it sink in. Before you have any conversations with others, you might first have conversations with yourself. A complaint might begin with a sense of something not being quite right; with an uneasy feeling, with discomfort; concern. You might sense something is not right without being sure of yourself.  A complaint might begin with being unsure about whether what you are experiencing is something to be complained about.

A Masters student begins her new programme with high hopes and expectations. And then “it started.”

It started I would say in the second or third lesson I had with Prof X. There were certain signs that rang alarm bells for me and my first reaction is stop being paranoid, stop being a feminazi where everything is gendered, you know, you are probably reading too much into this, you need to take a step back. What I started doing was questioning myself first rather that questioning his behaviour.

When an alarm bell rings you are hearing a warning; the sound of a bell announces a danger in the external world even if an alarm bell is what you hear inside your own head. It does not always follow that you take heed of what you hear. And so: she starts questioning herself rather than his behaviour. She recalls how she doubted herself for being alarmed. She tells herself off, even, she gives herself a talking to; she tells herself to stop being paranoid, to stop being a feminazi, to stop being a feminist, perhaps. It is striking how in questioning herself, she also exercises familiar stereotypes of feminists as feminazis, with the implication that gender is a judgement that is imposed upon a situation from the outside. We learn from what is possible: it is possible to identify as a feminist and worry that gender is an imposition. External judgements can be given voice as internal doubt.

It takes time for her to realise that her first impressions were right. Her sense that something was amiss, which was followed at first by telling herself not to be paranoid, is confirmed by what she keeps encountering. She describes how the syllabus was occupied: “he left any thinker who wasn’t a white man essentially until the end of the course.” A syllabus can tell you who is being valued, what is valued; who comes first, who has priority. You can come up against a structure in a syllabus. Many of us are familiar with such structures. Even structures can take time to reveal themselves: “and then by week 5, I was like, no, no, no, no, things are wrong not just in terms of gender, things are desperately wrong with the way he is teaching full-stop.” Perhaps her first reaction is to say no to the bell, no to no. But then she realises she was right to hear that something was wrong; those no’s come out; more of them. I think of those no’s, all four of them, as the sound of an increasing confidence in her own judgement: “it was a progressive realisation that it wasn’t just me being paranoid.”  Perhaps once you get a single no out, other no’s will follow.

Sometimes if you have a sense of something wrong, you might check in with others. What did you think of this? Is that what you think? A senior woman, a professor, a head of department experiences misogyny and sexism at a table on an away day. One of the male professors says things that are particularly offensive. She checks in with friends and colleagues. This happened; this is what he said. The responses lead her to doubt herself: “the person who was the main protagonist in the banter; I was told he couldn’t be you must have imagined that because he is married to a real feminist.” You must have imagined that; it can’t be true; it couldn’t be. She knows what happened.  External voices can be internalised as doubt. To proceed (and she did, although her complaint was to stall later, after she was placated by a senior manager) she has to put their voices aside, not to believe them. What if the experiences you need to complain about have shaken your confidence?  She said: “it does shake you; you think oh am I making a fuss, should I make a fuss. I have already made a massive fuss at my previous institution, which went on for months.” She had participated in a formal complaint in her previous job, at an earlier time, another time, a complaint about sexual harassment that did not get anywhere. If a complaint is stopped it can have a knock on effects on those involved; you can be stopped later, another time.

We carry our complaints with us whether or not we make them.

So many of the people I spoke to made use of this expression, “making a fuss,” as if to complain is to be fussy, to be too particular, demanding even, as if a complaint makes something bigger than it needs to be, as if you are making yourself bigger than you are. But you also might know that that is how you will be judged. You might try and keep the complaint secret in order not to make a fuss. One early career lecturer describes: “I felt frightened to tell other people. I don’t know why. I did feel really frightened. I did not want to kick up a fuss. I didn’t want to make a big scene. I don’t like that anyway. I don’t like to feel that a lot of people would have known what was going on.” You might avoid talking about what you are going through to avoid making a spectacle of yourself.  And it is not that you would be wrong: those who complain are often perceived as making a fuss, even making a fuss over nothing. Another early career lecturer was told: “you look like somebody who is causing a fuss.”

Those times you have not been heard: you don’t leave them behind either. One postgraduate student describes: “I would wonder how much is going to be a repetition of not being taken seriously, not being heard.” When you have not been heard, you wonder about the point of speaking out, of expressing yourself. Hearings can be walls, silence can be hard; you have to push very hard to make a complaint if that’s how you have been heard, not heard, if you have not being taken seriously before.

I have learnt from talking to people how ways of speaking and behaving that seem, at one level, obviously problematic can still be justified as how things are or how things are done. An international student, for instance, arrived into a new department only to find professors being intimate and sexual with students in front of staff and other students. No one seemed to be paying any attention, to show any signs of noticing that something was amiss. She said: “I thought at first this must be how they do things in the UK.” Sometimes it is the unremarkability of the behavior, how other people are not remarking upon something, not objecting, or showing signs of objecting, that can make you wonder whether what is happening is not objectionable after all.  Leila Whitley and Tiffany Page have noted how the absence of objections to sexual harassment can work “to normalise sexual harassment in the university environment” (2015, 42).

The absence of other complaints can make it hard to recognise there is something to complain about.

This also means that: complaints can be stopped by stopping other complaints.

The work of complaint can also involve an internal process of coming to terms with what you are experiencing. Even if you have to complain about something that is being done to you, whether by somebody else or by a structure that is enabling somebody else, you still have to come to terms with yourself. A complaint can feel like an existential crisis, a life crisis. The conversations you have with others are relayed endlessly as conversations with yourself. I noticed in listening to people’s testimonies how often people when sharing their complaints with me put on “other voices,” so when they told me what the head of human resources said, or what their supervisor said, they would change their voice; it was like I was listening to a chorus. And that is probably because making a complaint can feel like becoming a chorus, all those conversations take up time and space in your head, more and more voices, they become loud; louder still.

I am talking to a postgraduate student based in small progressive university in the US. She is talking about the time it took to get the point where she realised she might have to make a complaint, to decide whether to complain. She is part of the story; she is telling the story. She is a queer woman of colour. She is the first person in her family to go to university. She’s had to fight really hard to get here.  She has had to fight really hard to get here. I have repeated that sentence because of how much it matters; because of how it matters. She knows something is not right, she is feeling more and more uncomfortable: he keeps pushing boundaries, wanting to meet off campus, then in coffee shops, then at his house. She tries to handle the situation: “I tried very hard to keep all of the meetings on campus, and to keep the door open.” She keeps the door open; an actual door, at the same time she closes another kind of door, we might call this door the door of consciousness, trying to shut out what he is doing. She describes “I thought I would take myself down by admitting to the kind of violence he was enacting.” To admit can mean to confess a truth but it can also mean to let something in.  Take myself down: if to admit to violence makes it real, then to admit to violence can feel like becoming your own killjoy, getting in the way of your own progression.

A closed door can be a handle, how you handle a situation, by which I mean you close a door by not letting it in, the truth of a situation sink in, because letting it in would mean giving something up.  But handles can stop working:

I was sitting with another colleague at another lunch another day and he started texting me these naked photos of himself and I think I just hit a critical mass of like, I just can’t handle it anymore. I said just look at this, and she was just like, you know like, completely speechless…. And then like it suddenly started to seep into me, into her, in this shared conversation about like, how horrible and violent that I am having to receive these things, right, and so that basically put a process in motion.

When the handle stops working, the violence directed at her seeps not only into her but into her colleague; into the conversation, into the room in which they are having that conversation. That violence is only witnessed because of this seepage; a complaint is expressed, gets out, at the same time the violence gets in.

A complaint can then feel like an alarming exteriority, what you have to do to get out of a situation, yes, but also what comes at you, what would mean giving up on something you had fought very hard for.  For a complaint to get out, something gets in. And I think it is important to remember that the work of complaint (including the work of reaching complaint) is work you are doing when you are still at work, when you are still trying to do your work; you are trying to hold yourself together; you are trying not to fall apart. If some of the work around complaint might seem or feel like internal work (the conversations you have with yourself), complaints often come out at work, in social situations.  These points about internality and sociality are related: if you are trying to hold something in and that effort fails, a complaint is expressed; what was kept apart is shared.  To express can mean to squeeze something out. The sociality of how complaints are expressed is another way of considering the effects of how complaints are contained.

In another example, an early career woman academic is being sexually harassed by a senior professor, a star professor, mainly through verbal communication.  The professor arrived at the same time she did: “he was much older, late 50s, early 60s. It was a big thing in the university, what a coup we have got this extraordinary professor; he was on the side of the angels.” This new professor starts communicating with her in a way that feels increasingly uncomfortable. She does not want to make the situation worse than it is; she describes his behavior as mildly irritating; annoying yes, distracting. His behavior, however mild, is still getting in the way of her being able to do her work. And she wants to do her work:

He made me feel uncomfortable and at the time I didn’t know it was ok to say, please can you give me some personal space, that’s not appropriate. Because I wasn’t saying no, I really didn’t know how to negotiate this. He clearly read that as “all things ago here.” The comments became more overtly sexual to the point where he made this strange comment about wanting to suck my toes, even I, naïve as I was at that point, went, oh shit this is not, this is really, really not ok in the work environment.

She does not know how to tell him to stop, even if what he is doing seems small, perhaps because she feels smaller than him, he is a professor, “on the side of the angels,” no less; she a junior lecturer. Hierarchies can make handling harassment hard, which is how hierarchies enable harassment. But she wants the behavior to stop:

All I wanted at that point was for someone to talk to him and say you need to stop this. Like that’s what needs to happen. So I went to my line manager who was a woman and said this is going on, this is making me feel really uncomfortable, and I don’t know how to handle it, we are in a shared office space and we are often in the office space alone, I just want someone to have a chat with him and say, please don’t continue with this. And she assured me that she would do that. And much later I learnt because she did not want to complain, nothing happened.

She needs assistance to get no out, to say no to the behaviour. The harassment she has to deal with has already seeped in; she doesn’t know how to handle it. She wants it to stop; she wants him to stop. It is her line-manager who sits on the complaint, despite her assurance. A complaint can be stopped because others do not want to pass the complaint on. Passing on a complaint can be making a complaint (“she did not want to complain”), which in itself is telling us something about stoppages, about what does and does not get passed on; passed around.

When an attempt to stop harassment is stopped, the harassment does not stop:

And then I was in a meeting with my line manager and her line manager and we were in this little office space, like a glass fish bowl type meeting room, and then the main office where all the staff desks were and he emailed me and I made a sound, eehhhhh, there’s no way to articulate it, someone’s just dragging your insides like a meat grinder, oh god this is not going to stop, and I made that sound out loud, and my line manager’s line manager said, what’s happened. And I turned my computer around and showed him and he said for fuck’s sake, how stupid do you have to be to put that in an email. You could see a look of panic on her face. Like, crap, this has not magically gone away.

A “yes” can work rather like magic, assurance, she would do that, she did not do that, making a complaint go away, disappear into air, rather like steam: puff, puff. If the complaint was evaporated the harassment “has not magically gone away.” Her complaint comes out in the middle of the meeting, not as an account given by someone to someone, an intentional action, but as a sound, eehhhhh, a gut-wrenching expression of a no, or even a no, not again, or even, enough is enough. That sound, that eehhhhh, pierces the meeting, that meeting taking place in the little glass room, a fishbowl, where they can all be seen. Something can become visible and audible sometimes even despite yourself; a complaint is what comes out because you can’t take it anymore, you just can’t take it anymore, your insides like a meat-grinder; a complaint as how you are turned inside out.

A complaint can be expressed rather like a snap; you hear the sound of something breaking.  If that sound sounds sudden, it is because of what you did not hear before, the pressure of what came before. Her sound becomes an alert, leading to a question, what’s happened, what’s up; the sound leads to her turning her computer to him, so he see what she has been sent. A complaint comes out because what she was sent is heard and then seen.  And note how the problem once heard is implied to be not so much the harassment but that there was evidence of it (“for fuck’s sake how stupid do you have to be to put that in an email”).

A sound becomes a complaint because it brings to the surface a violence that would otherwise not have to be faced. Violence is often dealt with by not being faced.  It is then as if the complaint brings the violence into existence; forcing it to be faced. Perhaps this is how complaints (and complainers) are often heard as forceful. For those who receive the complaint, who hear the sounds she makes, it is the complaint that alerts them to violence, to what she has to face, which means, in a certain way, the complaint can then be treated as the origin of violence. There is a clue there, in that description, her description: how the complainer becomes a problem because of what she does not contain.

A complaint can be what it takes to get through; to pierce the seal, to open the door, to let something in, to get it out. A complaint can be the work you have to do to get violence out. It can be terrifying but necessary.



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


About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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