The Microcomplaint

Friday, December 18th, 2015

It was once considered unbecoming to moan about trifling ordeals:

Now, in a seismic shift for the moral culture, abetted by technology, we tolerate and even encourage the “microcomplaint”: the petty, petulant kvetch about the quotidian.

Complaining has historically been deemed permissible when reserved for the ears of significant others, family members or close friends. A simple hypothesis, then, would be that those who gripe online are simply lonely in the physical world, lacking intimates with whom to vent, or are chronic malcontents. But lots of rich, popular celebrities also do it.


The smartphone in particular has facilitated extemporaneous caviling. Irritations that the passage of time may have soothed can, in the moment, be immediately expressed to an audience. Often these complaints take the form of a narrative developing in real time: the talkative taxi driver, the hostile airline ticket clerk, the interminable security line, the malodorous seatmate and crying baby. Such threads frequently pick up steam as the audience validates or shares the narrator’s posts; the nuisances others must contend with can make for excellent vicarious entertainment, and accreting Likes tend to fuel the microcomplainer.


In this way, the microcomplaint functions as a kind of reverse boast: You may be celebrating a new job or engagement with a Michelin-starred dinner, but look at how much I have suffered today — I’m deserving of more attention.


Those who were offended in an “honor culture,” where one’s reputation is paramount, once resorted to direct retaliation; think of duels or blood feuds. This vengeful climate eventually gave way in the West to a “dignity culture,” in which people consider themselves to have intrinsic worth that cannot be devalued by others (“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”).

When conflict cannot be brushed aside in a dignity culture, the affronted attempt to compromise or turn to the legal system rather than seek out violent recompense. (Long before ignoring personal attacks became the prevailing mode, Jesus had a few ideas about turning the other cheek, too.)

Gary Cooper, Tony Soprano would argue, combines the best of both worlds: He fights back when necessary — he is “strong” — yet never betrays any feelings of hurt — he remains “silent.”

The authors of the paper assert that we are now in a culture that valorizes victimhood. “The moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights,” they write, which “increases the incentive to publicize grievances.” Instead of pursuing violent or legal confrontation or letting the insult slide, the victim now appeals for support from third parties while “emphasizing one’s own oppression,” often through social media.


  1. Alrenous says:

    Complaining is reserved for close friends. Indeed, in person, you can tell how close someone is by how much pushback they give to your whinging.

    Nobodies do it online when they get deranged. Various problems can cause them to start treating everyone like a friend, and yes one of them is extreme loneliness.

    Celebrities do it to make you feel like they’re your friend, and thus buy their kitsch.

  2. Bomag says:

    It looks like they are exploiting our natural inclination to help the distressed.

    We used to stress the cautionary tale of the “boy who cried wolf” to warn of wearing out your welcome. Now our ruling class has taken our growing societal wealth and turned it towards the therapeutic State, and everyone is urged to find a problem the authorities can salve. (I’m thinking here of my time fifteen years ago lobbying at a State legislature. We’d joke in planning sessions about all the groups that seemed to conveniently roll someone in a wheelchair up to a microphone with an ever more desperate plea for added funding to their cause.)

  3. Bill says:

    On the Nightly Show yesterday, host Larry Wilmore said he couldn’t understand why Rachel Dolezal would give up her superior status as a white woman and try to pass herself off as black.

    This is a really good answer:

    “The authors of the paper assert that we are now in a culture that valorizes victimhood. “The moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights…”

    She knew that she could double down on victimhood status by being not only female, but black as well.

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