Complaint Activism

I have just sent the proofs off for Complaint! The book, which is rather like a complaint, long, drawn out, somewhat messy, hard to hold, hard to contain, full of emotion and shared reflections, full of pain and also possibility, a collection of stories, a collective, an assembly, is on its way to you, co-complainers.

To mark the moment, I am sharing some paragraphs from my conclusion on “complaint activism.”

With killjoy solidarity

Sara xxx


Complaint Activism

Many of the stories I have collected in this book seem to be stories of working very hard not to get very far. We learn from what we fail to achieve. The complainer knows how much work goes into things staying the same. Being involved in a complaint can thus be a politicizing process in a similar way to participating in a protest or demonstration. It can be violence that brings you to the protest, the violence of the police, for instance. But in protesting against violence, you witness that violence all the more—the violence of the police, the violence of the media which misrepresents the violence of the police as caused by the protestors—you learn how violence is directed, against whom violence is directed. You come to learn how violence against those who challenge violence is how structures are maintained. You come to realize that some are more readily targeted. A formal complaint can lead you in a direction similar to a protest: you come to witness the violence of the status quo when you challenge the violence of the status quo; you come to realize the politics of who gets identified as the origin of the complaint. When you make a complaint, you might not necessarily begin by thinking of yourself as part of a movement nor as a critic of the institution, let alone as trying “to dismantle the master’s house,” to evoke the title of Audre Lorde’s important essay. But that is where many who make complaints end up. There is hope in this trajectory.

Making complaints can lead some to become complaint activists. I first thought of the term complaint activism when I was talking to a disabled woman about the complaints she had made as a student. She needed to make a formal complaint in order to be able to study part time, to have the time she needed to be able to do the work. I drew on her testimony especially in chapter 4; she taught us how you can be heard as complaining if you do not display the right attitude as a disabled person, how you have to show “grovelling gratefulness” in order not to be “a pain in the ass.” She told me not only about her experiences of making a complaint at her former university but how she took what she learned out, onto the streets. Becoming a complainer at her university led to her becoming a complainer wherever she went: “I have started doing this activism using the law and in particular the part of the Equality Act (2010) that only applies to disability regarding reasonable adjustments.” She made use of the law, however limited, as a tool to try to press organizations to become accessible, to become compliant with existing legislation. If complaints can lead you to learn how institutions work, how policies work, what they do and do not do, you can take that knowledge with you. I noted in chapter 6 how a complaint can leave a blank space in a cv, but really it could be claimed as a transferable skill. Even if you can’t claim those skills, you can still make use of them.

Her activism was probably well described by what she said her former university perceived her to be: “a complete pain in the ass.” She was indeed described in local media as trying to ruin small businesses because of demanding they be accessible to her as a wheelchair user, a demand she should not have to make. From her I learned how complaints about institutions can be used to press against them. You are making noise; you are making demands on their time; you are requiring them to do work (even the work of covering over a problem is work) and to use up their resources. A complaint can be a way of occupying their time. You complain again and again about inaccessible rooms and buildings; yes, you are saying it because they are doing it, but it does not mean it is not worth saying it; we just need more to say it as well as to say it more. Perhaps they hope you will stop saying it. You keep saying it even if you don’t have much hope that they will stop doing it; you don’t want their hope you will stop to stop you. If the complainer is irritating, complaint activism might involve being willing to be an irritant, an institutional killjoy.

To be an institutional killjoy, a killjoy at work, you need to work with others. Complaint activism can lead to forming new kinds of collectives. She began working with a group of disabled activists, to use compliance with the law as a method for putting organizations under pressure to be as accessible as they claim to be. Complaint activists can thus also be understood as complaint supporters; you not only work with each other, but in working together, in pooling your resources, you are also more able to give advice and practical support to those who are making complaints.

This kind of complaint activism has a long history. Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie, and Suzanne Scafe ([1985] 2008) in the Black British feminist classic text The Heart of the Race quote from a Black woman talking about the work of her activist group in the 1970s. She refers to how they gave support to a Black mother “in making a complaint against the police” (158). She expands: “We picketed the local Police Station and called in the local press. Then we got involved in a People’s Enquiry, gathering information and evidence on the courts, the police, our housing situation, employment and education practices—everything which affected the Black community in our area. A lot of Black people came along to give evidence on how they had been dealt with by the local police and we helped to compile a report” (159). Supporting a complaint can be about how you make a complaint more public and visible, using pickets and the press, as well as how you collect the evidence needed to compile reports. To make a complaint against an institution is how you gather more evidence of its violence.

We can turn our own experience of institutional violence into a shared resource for others.

Complaint activism might describe a stance or a style, a willingness to fight back, to fight for more, whatever the costs, whether or not you get through. Not getting through does not mean not getting somewhere. This also means that getting somewhere is not always about getting through. Complaint activism is a way of thinking about what we get from complaint even when we do not get through. To complain is also to create a record. Remember: you have to record what you do not want to reproduce. If you record what you do not want to reproduce, that record exists even if what is reproduced is still reproduced. Yes, a record can end up in a file. But the record is also what you retain: you can take it with you wherever you go. A complaint becomes a companion, a noisy companion. One lecturer who made a complaint about bullying at her former institution told me,

I definitely believe in complaining, even when it’s a bad outcome, just creating that record of what happened. I am glad that it exists for me, and that if any questions are raised I have it and also that 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.

A record can be what matters to the one who assembles it; a record can be a reminder that you made an effort, that you had a go, even if that effort did not lead to institutional change.

To be a complaint activist is not necessarily to enter a process believing it can deliver an end such as justice. Complaint activism does not come from an optimism in the law or in complaints procedures; if anything, complaint activism comes out of the knowledge of institutional violence that comes from making complaints. I noted earlier that there is hope in the trajectory of becoming a complaint activist. The hope of this trajectory is not tied to success. Complaint activism comes from an experience of institutional failures of many kinds. One student said, “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.” Complaint activism involves the willingness to make use of complaints procedures even though you know “the process is broken” and you are likely to enter “a painful repetitive cycle,” which you can recognize because you have already been through it. You have hope because even if a complaint does not make a difference at the time you make it, it could still “pave the way for something else.” I think of how paving can become pavement, how possibility can be preparing the ground. The hope of complaint could be thought of as a weary hope, not agentic, bright, forward, and thrusting, but a hope that is close to the ground, even below the ground, slow, low, below; a hope born from what is worn.

Even going through an exhausting of processes can have creative potential. Yes, we can be in a state of exhaustion because of that process. But complaints, even formal ones, slow and tedious ones, long and drawn out, can be creative. Consider how feminist artists have made use of complaint, or how feminist art can be complaint. The Guerrilla Girls, for instance, had an exhibition called Complaints Department, in which individuals and organizations were invited to post “about art, culture, politics, the environment, or any other issue they care about.” They also ran office hours where you could share your complaints “face to face.” You can turn what might be assumed to be a mundane administrative practice into an art project. The direction of travel goes both ways. Those who make complaints, who enter that department, the Complaint Department (though of course making formal complaints often means entering many departments), can turn what they do—it might seem tedious, it might seem dull, all those papers—into art. Or perhaps there is no turning involved; perhaps there is an art in the mundane, to the mundane.

Complaint activism is not simply about using formal complaints procedures to press against institutions, although it involves that. It is also about taking complaints out, making complaints across different sites: the walls, the committees, the classrooms, the dissertations. Complaints can be expressed queerly, coming out all over the place. Complaints can be sneaky as well as leaky.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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4 Responses to Complaint Activism

  1. Judith Mintz says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this chapter. I’m still digesting, but it’s very resonant.

  2. SD says:

    Thank you for all your generous sharing of this powerful material!

  3. Mo says:

    I have never been more excited for a book in my life. Super powerful!

  4. Pingback: The Complainer as Carceral Feminist | feministkilljoys

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