The Ethics of Complaint
“Live and let live” has its appropriate applications. It is true that too many Americans believe that the maxim’s meaning is to let the misconduct of others continue without comment or criticism, which would make it a formula for the breakdown of societal norms and cultural values. In reality, all of us have an obligation to make ethical judgements, which is little more than making it clear what kind of society we want ours to be. Not only is it a good idea to complain about lying, dishonesty, disloyalty and disrespect, it is essential.
But there are those in our society who see power in complaint, and seek to exploit it for fame, self-importance, or just because they like to meddle. They search for things to complain about; they devise complex and intricate explanations about why behavior that virtually everyone finds harmless or even beneficial is in fact wrong. This often works because, illogically enough, many of the very same people who object to anyone criticizing the conduct of others also believe that if anyone is “offended” by something, no matter how exotic or fanciful the rationale for the offense may be, the offensive thing must be eliminated, sterilized, and banned. These professional complainers are not ethicists. They are what are technically known as “trouble-makers.” They live to leech the variety, whimsy and freedom out of life.
This brings us to the saga of the pink locker room.
For decades, the University of Iowa’s stadium has painted its visiting team’s locker room pink. It seems that legendary Iowa football coach Hayden Fry, an amateur psychologist, had read that pink was a soothing color that tamed aggression, and thus thought it might give the Hawkeyes an edge if their opposition were pinked into submissiveness. It was a crack-brained idea at best, but a combination of superstition, tradition and humor has kept the locker room pink pinker than ever, fact, after a recent renovation that added pink porcelain toilets and sinks. Then Iowa acquired a new law professor, Erin Buzuvis, who has announced that the school’s pink locker room reinforces gender stereotypes, and is thus offensive to women and gays. “With a pink locker room, you’re saying that ‘You are a girlie man. You are weak, like a girl,’ “she has explained.”That implies that girls are non-dominant, therefore, lesser. And that is offensive.” Smelling blood in the water, another law professor, Jill Gaulding, has joined the crusade.
Color this complaint stupid. First of all, to attribute a message to a color with such certitude strains credulity. Second, the intention of the perversely pink locker room is well-documented, and it has nothing to do with “girlie men,” a phrase that hadn’t even been popularized when Hayden Frye had his interior design brainstorm. Third, why is a law professor presuming offense that has not been expressed, at least publicly, by any of the locker room’s occupants over the past few decades? Offense by proxy is inherently dubious, as with the NCAA’s declaration that Native American themed mascots are “hostile,” even though the tribes they are supposedly hostile to don’t think so. Finally, who cares? When you have to be this creative to concoct a cause, isn’t it time to move on to more earth-shattering matters, like, say, anything?
Of course, this is the genius of trivial complaining. Just as a pink locker room isn’t worth complaining about, it also isn’t worth fighting over and this is just what inveterate grievance-mongers like Buzuvis count on. The authorities who have some sense of perspective shrug their shoulders and say “fine, have your way” and the grievance-mongers win. But while the topic was trivial, the resulting victory isn’t. It establishes a precedent, and lays the foundation for the next complaint. Sure, it’s ignorant to complain that the word “niggardly” is racially insensitive, but since we can’t make the complainers read Reader’s Digest’s “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power,” let’s just ban the word altogether. Next up for discussion: “niggling.” Let’s put “censored” over the name of the Niger River in maps. Somebody might be “offended.”
Little by little, the trouble-makers, complaint-mongers, busy-bodies—call them what you will—make life less diverse and entertaining. I’m not religious, but I love the traditional Christmas carols, which are beautiful songs. Unfortunately, the offense police took umbrage, and now my radio plays endless renditions of “Santa Baby” and “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, easily one of the best, funniest and most tuneful musical comedies ever written, once was a staple of college and high school drama departments because it used lots of performers and is relatively easy to do well. But a spate of complaints that it is offensive to the Japanese (the show is, in fact, a withering satire on the British) has relegated it to rarity status. Who benefits? Only the victorious complainers, who puff up with pride and move on to their next targets: Show Boat, Finian’s Rainbow, Flower Drum Song. Who loses? Just about everyone else.
There are really harmful and offensive things in the world that continue to flourish because nobody has complained about them. Complaint is an important tool, and like all tools, it needs to be used with skill, consideration and judgement. Unless we want to spawn a generation of complaint bullies, we have an ethical obligation to test the objections of complainers with debate and argument, and not let their contentions prevail simply because they have the brass to raise them. It’s always possible that they have a valid point. But when they don’t, to let them prevail does society a disservice.
And now, a confounding footnote. The pink locker room is unethical, but not for the reasons cited by Iowa’s complaining law professors. Athletic contests are supposed to be fought on the field, not in the locker room, and good sportsmanship dictates that a school should make its visiting teams comfortable, and not subject them to psychological warfare before the game. A pink locker room, a day-glow orange locker room, pumped-in Montevani and Slim Whitman music or eau de skunk added to the air conditioning system all constitute the same thing: unfair, disrespectful, unsportsmanlike treatment of guests, and an obvious violation of the Golden Rule. The University of Iowa should tell its law professors to worry about the Supreme Court and not locker room colors, and just as soon as things have quieted down, change the locker room décor for the right reason not because it’s offensive, but because it’s unethical.