When it comes to the art of complaining, I’m among the best. Ask my friends, my partner, my mum-in-law – the cat. They’ve all heard me drone on like a clapped-out vacuum cleaner about anything that comes to mind on any given day. Invariably though, it’s injustice that irks me. That’s why I tend to shout at the telly, crumple newspapers, and prod the computer screen.
Glaring or subtle, micro or macro, overt or hidden, noticed or not, injustices are everywhere – often right under our noses. They’re bothersome (hence the complaints) and involve some degree of what peace scholar, Johan Galtung, refers to as direct, cultural or structural violence.
The direct sort can range from physical and sexual violence to violence against nature, and digital violence, while cultural violence covers anything from assaults on social norms, language, or education, to suppression of religion and worldviews. Structural violence on the other hand can range from exploitation to ecological destruction, to economic inequality and lack of access to resources.
These forms of violence commonly overlap. Suffice to say that violence, in all its various forms, has specific consequences for families, social groups, communities and entire societies.
This is where complaining comes in. As moral philosopher, Julian Baggini, points out in his book, Complaint: From Minor Moans to Principled Protests, complaint is the basis of almost all social and political action.
It starts by recognising that something is amiss.
You settle on the underlying cause, and then you act – most times alongside others – to address the problem and seek some sort of solution. It doesn’t always work out that way, of course. Entrenched power has a way of shielding itself from even the most egregious sources of complaint. Nonetheless, complaint is vital if we’re seeking change.
But there’s complaint and complaint, right? The personal, sit-at-home whinging sort can, as I’ve discovered, prove counterproductive. But storied discontent, articulated through casual or more substantive conversations, can have greater leverage when it comes to building movements of change.
Complaint is about noticing something that rubs against one’s sense of decency, fairness and justice (we all have different views on these, of course). Sounding off or airing grievances to someone can actually be the harbinger of system-toppling activism. When complaints are connected to structural conditions – even in the crudest form – they can give rise to powerful collective movements. (As recent events in Brazil, Italy and the US show, such movements can often turn out to be antidemocratic and violent. Ultimately, it’s the underlying values and principles that count).
The great Brazilian educationalist, Paolo Freire, recognised how political consciousness, once stirred by the recognition of common experience, can radically transform lives. Founder of Citizens UK, Mathew Bolton in, How to Resist, experienced the same when he and others began building bridges with isolated cleaners in London – some of the most unnoticed, exploited and disempowered employees in the labour market.
By sharing their experiences, linking them with others in similar circumstances, and eventually by acting collectively, pay and conditions of these ‘unpeople’ were remedied through the British parliament.
But I digress – sort of. What I want to complain about here, is the traffic congestion in Mullumbimby. ‘Not that again!’, I hear you say. But it really is getting ridiculous. Last market day was a case in point. Logjam, gridlock, call it what you will, the entire town centre was crammed full of vehicles vying for that elusive parking space. Cars, vans, and trucks circled the streets like hungry wolves in pursuit of these vacant spots.
My partner was caught up in this merry-go-round, craning her neck in every direction. ‘We should install a blue plaque when we find a spot’, I suggested. ‘It could read, “Here at 12.30pm on 21 October 2022, after several hours of searching, a driver successfully colonised a space to park her vehicle”.’
How and why has the centre of Mullumbimby come to resemble Piccadilly Circus? I mean, we’re not even in the holiday season and already the streets are clogged with pollution-spewing traffic. And it’s about to get much worse if proposed new developments get off the ground.
So, what’s the injustice in all this? Well, for starters, there’s the unwelcome noise, pollution, the jangled nerves of drivers and pedestrians, and the more than occasional instance of road rage.
The spectre of accidents looms large too. And then there’s the aesthetic dimension, the ugliness of it all and the evisceration of peace and quiet. Too many cars, as we know, wreak havoc on community life. (Remember the ‘Stop Adani’ banner that was draped over the wall of a wholefood store in central Mullum? No-one seemed to notice the irony as if thousands of vehicles belched fumes from their combustion engines, right in front of the store).
But the most perplexing thing of all is the virtual absence of bicycles, scooters, mopeds or people on roller skates. How can this be? I suspect that part of the reason is because of the lack of decent cycle lanes and the ever-present danger of myopic drivers. But it’s more than that.
It’s a kind of systemic neglect. Sure, there will be the usual claims that there just isn’t the money for this or that. But do you really buy that argument? I don’t. Where there’s a will… This applies too, to the lack of pavements, zebra crossings and street lighting in many parts of town. People living with disability, the elderly and others have good reason to complain about this. After all, not being able to get around safely, or at all, is a real problem – a problem that we need to turn into a pulsating issue.
The thing is, we are sometimes led to believe that Mullumbimby is the epicentre of enlightened, progressive thought. But is it? Are there touches of Galtung’s notion of violence here? It’s clear that some of the town’s shortcomings interface with global injustices. Right now, of course, there are the consequences of floods to deal with, and a housing affordability / availability crisis.
I get that.
I get too that fixing major infrastructure problems in regional areas is challenging. On the other hand, I see umpteen examples of places around the world – many of them far less wealthy than Mullumbimby – making urban changes that are consistent with regenerative, life-affirming principles. Sadly, it seems that when it comes to traffic congestion in dear old Mullum, we’re in a state of indefinite limbo.
But hey, that’s only me complaining, again.
Now where’s that cat?