The petition in support of arresting the youths said to have urged a suicidal man to jump off a car park roof in Telford has now passed 8,000 signatures. The Jeremy Clarkson protests are accelerating like a turbo-charged SUV. No doubt there is an anti-Clarkson protest that is also doing well. The arrival soon of a new Netto rather than a Waitrose supermarket in Lymm, Cheshire, has caused outrage. On a more personal front, emails to me have recently encouraged me to take a stand for or against roads, houses, open spaces, gorillas, woodland spaces and grouse shooting.
Have we ever, in our entire history, complained as much as we do today? Never famous for looking on the bright side, the inhabitants of these islands seem to be in the grip of a new epidemic of whinge. We are disgruntled about pretty much everything: the Government, doctors, judges, social workers, the BBC, policemen, Europe, business – “them”, in other words, the establishment.
To every annoying, venal, bureaucratic thing that “they” do, we have the same weary, dreary response. We complain to one another, whipping ourselves up into a terrific huff of disapproval. If we feel really strongly about something, we might even sign a petition – that is, click through to a page on a computer screen, and tick a box. This clicktivism, as it is approvingly known, will make us feel politically or culturally engaged. Those behind the petitions will thank us for making a difference.
Complaining about things, psychologists claim, acts as a sort of social glue. The complainer is relieved to discover there are others – perhaps millions of them – who are as cheesed off by something or other as he or she is. Then there is the new belief, convenient for those who like to take action without risk or effort from a sitting position, that clicktivism represents a new, cleaner, bolder form of democracy: with enough clicks, someone in public life might get fired, or forced to make an ashen-faced apology in front of the cameras.
Unfortunately, there is another universal rule about the moan. The more people complain about something, the less likely they are actually to do anything about it. Those who can, do; those who can’t be bothered prefer to maunder on pointlessly from the sidelines.
It matters, this culture of complaint. Not only does it make us less satisfied individually, but it eats into the shared national morale, spreading defeatism and cynicism, widening the gulf between “them” and the rest of us.
The moaner used to be something of a joke figure, middle-aged or old, querulous, or eccentric – a Victor Meldrew or an Ena Sharples of Coronation Street. Now, dismayingly, the epidemic seems to affect all ages. If you listen to the interviews of those under 30 who are too jaundiced and world-weary to be bothered to vote, or to the vox-pop interviews that are now an obligatory part of the TV news, the same tone of impotent discontent can be heard.
Few nations on earth have less to complain about, and yet we regularly top the charts for international dissatisfaction. Perhaps we have always been a glass-half-empty bunch, but there seems to be a new level of alienation in the air. The political journey of the past 30 years, from Thatcher via Blair to Cameron, has taken us away from any sense of shared civic pride. When everything is being quietly privatised, and even public servants talk and behave like entrepreneurs, there is not much sense of personal investment in national projects.
Pride in the NHS has been whittled away. The BBC has begun to seem not dissimilar to any other large corporation. These institutions are not just out of touch, as we are repeatedly told, but out of reach.
Admittedly, we enjoyed a brief moment in 2012 when our national self-esteem ratcheted up a few notches while London hosted a friendly and well-run Olympic Games but, within days of the athletes leaving town, the mood quickly evaporated.
There is an odd and paradoxical connection between this tendency to complain and the prevailing tone on the internet towards cheerfulness – what Bryan Appleyard, in a recent New Statesman essay, described as “an airheaded, cringe-inducing positivity”. Online, we are encouraged to press “like” and “favourite” buttons, to support one another on social media sites with trilling affirmations. Making others feel good, the message goes, will lead to great results in our own lives. Positivity is more than its own reward; it has a practical effect.
The large corporations rather like this malleable torpor. The more passive their consumers are, the easier they will be to manipulate with feel-good advertisements and the illusion of involvement.
McDonald’s, as ever a reliable indicator of corporate attitudes, is about to introduce an app on which consumers will be able to express “their feelings, opinions and requests, aiming at strengthening our ability to listen to customers’ voices”.
Whether clicking a mouse to register a protest or to make a stranger feel better, the principle is the same. It is your state of mind, how you feel, that matters. Want to succeed? Think positive. Angry about something? Sign a petition.
Aware that it may seem a bit rich for me to complain about complaining – what else does a columnist do, after all? – I have made a post-Lent resolution to pay 50p to charity every time a pointless, muttered complaint passes my lips over the coming month. The jar is already filling. It could be a good month for Macmillan nurses.Reuse content