Ahmed’s Good Grief

From Public Books:

I am a serial complainer within a history-plagued institution: a school that tells a story of being keenly interested in attracting more students and faculty of color; expanding diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives; and becoming less overwhelmingly white. What is it to be a serial complainer? In my case, it means that I have complained with and on behalf of students who have been sexually assaulted, who have received racist and sexist fraternity invitations, and who have had access to fewer resources than their peers. I have accompanied colleagues in their complaint processes, and I have experienced my own.

As I discuss in Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace (2016), institutions that have trouble preventing sex- and race-based discrimination, harassment, and retaliation (often in the staff and faculty ranks) have no shot at dealing well with sexual assault and other types of violence (often crossing over into the student ranks). Having a formal complaint process burdened by the weight of a deeply risk-averse general counsel—who communicates each step and each action to the administrators in power—means having a complaint process that will always favor the people complained about, and not those who have complained.

My first exposure to the university’s complaint system was when I was placed at its helm for a year. I learned quickly that handwritten notes from the general counsel meant that something wasn’t to be formally documented and that whatever couldn’t be documented usually wasn’t right. I should have known immediately that I wasn’t cut out for a job that did not allow me to be forthright about processes and procedures. Being a serial complainer also means having the privilege and/or the damned foolishness to stick your neck out because you think it is the right thing to do. To speak out against the actions this culture engenders is to complain, to introduce a germ in the system, to attempt to undo almost three centuries of white heteropatriarchy.

But, despite these experiences, it seemed I had more to learn about what it really means—or what it should really mean—to complain. In Complaint!, prolific UK-based author Sara Ahmed reveals that true complaints cannot be contained by mere word or action. What we need to do is seek and implement more creative, enduring solutions to institutional problems of bullying, harassment, and unequal working conditions.

Why do we need to change the way we address complaints? Because, as Ahmed makes clear—and as my own experience has demonstrated—the current system simply doesn’t work. To register a workplace complaint is to express grief and lament, and to go through the institution’s endogamic complaint system is to bring grief upon yourself in a seemingly fruitless effort to effect change. Writes Ahmed, “Complaint seems to catch how those who challenge power become sites of negation: to complain is to become a container of negative affect, a leaky container, speaking out as spilling over.” The exclamation point in the book’s title serves as an exhortation—to do something. “We have to push harder,” says Ahmed, who also winks at her readers by addressing us in the second person: “(Some of you, I expect, are complainers too).”

Link to the rest at Public Books

2 thoughts on “Ahmed’s Good Grief”

  1. “Allegation is evidence!” (Functionally the same as “believe all women” – or the earlier “justifications” for lynching black “rapists” on simple accusation by a white woman.)

    Only one of the problems in the current system. The other major one is the use of “preponderance of evidence” – which might be a reasonable standard, IF evidence contrary to the accuser’s story were actually considered. Which, for certain classes, it is automatically excluded.

  2. Marquette University had a serious problem with that kind vitriolic bias, in that it spent about 5 years trying to fire a tenured professor for making a comment about an adjunct professor’s ability to teach. On her blog. On his personal time.

    The case itself was actually winding its way through the federal court system (I believe) when he died.

    Sadly, I think the case ended when the professor in question passed away last year from a stroke.

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