I noticed an odd phenomenon the other day: as an outspoken member of civil society, I sometimes find myself in the trenches of debate, arguing in odd places like banks and Internet message boards. (I must sound like tons of fun.)
But one thing I noted about, especially, the message boards, is the large number of people who believe that issues-based activism constitutes “whining.”
The best example I have is of a commentator on a news website who posted on a story about Wal-Mart’s unethical labor practices something along the lines of “Quit your whining and shop elsewhere!”
I was struck by this sentiment. It’s a really tangled piece of rhetoric, despite it’s simplicity. Let me break down the tactic of telling people to “quit whining” and we’ll see where it leads, shall we?
First, “whining” is something that immature kids do when they have to do something that they don’t want to. The implication here (I’ll stick to the Wal-Mart story, but these principles apply broadly) is that those who speak out against Wal-Mart are immature, self-centered, or both. The use of the term “whining” indicates an attempt to shame the speaker into silence, something that is both explicit from the phrase “quit [speaking]” and implicit in the tone of condescension.
Secondly, a false choice is created by this rhetorical move. The writer implies that “speaking/whining” and “concrete action” are somehow mutually exclusive and that the writer is wasting her time and others’ by speaking rather than voting with her dollar. The problems with this rhetorical construction are manifold. Primarily, one can both speak and act, and the presence of one does not imply the absence of the other.
In addition, though, these actions are presented as nearly equivalent, and the assumption is that, if anything, concrete action is more effective than merely talking. But this is wrong: a company can weather the loss of one customer. What it can’t do is weather the loss of a large segment of its customer base.
The commentator seems to believe that activism is about soothing one’s own conscience: if you don’t shop at Wal-Mart, the commentator says, then you won’t feel bad and we can get back to our lives. The activist, however, does not write for herself: she writes because there may be a number of Wal-Mart customers who don’t know about its questionable labor practices. She wants other people to examine their own consciences and see if they can tolerate supporting a corporation that treats its workers the way Wal-Mart does.
If the writer takes the commentator’s advice, then she is implicitly giving in to the status quo, which is, ultimately, the commentator’s goal in posting. He wants the writer to go away so that Wal-Mart (or whoever) can thrive, and get away with whatever it is doing.
Ultimately, we talk to communicate: a fact, a desire, a belief, or a need for action. Collective action, often. If you are a writer, a thinker, or an activist, and someone tells you to “stop whining,” then shake off the sting and keep writing. It means you’re reaching people – and that’s terrifying for those who profit best when silence is in the air.