Grousing and Freedom

Posted on 2013 June 12


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We do love to grouse. We complain about our bosses, our neighbors, our spouses, dumb TV shows, music we don’t like, and on and on. It’s an idle habit, and almost nobody who grouses does anything about the trouble they’re concerned with. It’s like complaining about the weather: so what?

The problem with grousing is that it enhances our feelings of impotence, of being unable to solve problems. If we knew how to fix the situation, we wouldn’t waste time complaining about it! Instead, we grouse, which merely reinforces our helplessness. We give up options — the freedom to respond and to choose — when we complain.

Psychologists believe we should express our feelings, and people often take that to mean “bitch and moan”. But there’s a big difference between “That bastard screwed me!” and “I felt hurt and betrayed”. One is grousing, which feeds our sense of impotence; the other is processing our experience, which enhances our understanding of the world. The former begets helpless anger; the latter teaches us what we need to know, however painful the lesson, at a deep level so we can move forward.

Why do grown men and women love to complain? Nearly all of us are raised in families where Mom and Dad are in charge, while we kids must comply with their rules. This training begins an early age, deeply etching our minds with fundamental attitudes about how to deal with others. Then we go to school, where the teacher and principal replace Mom and Dad as authority figures, and we continue to learn how to navigate in a social world where we’re underlings who accede to others’ power.

Then we get a job, and — you guessed it — the boss becomes the parent. By now we’re experts in complying and complaining: our upbringing has taught us to be subservient while permitting us to blow off harmless steam by complaining to others. We enter adulthood as skilled children, not so much self-reliant as other-dependent. But we have jobs and cars and spouses and kids of our own, so we assume we’re adults. We aren’t. We’re children in grown-up suits.

The biggest thing we like to grouse about, of course, is the government. The federal Big Daddy looms over our lives, and — well-trained as we are to fit ourselves into a pecking order — we bend our heads before its dominating presence. The American Experiment began as an exercise in citizen control over government power, but during the past century the roles got reversed. Now we treat the government as the parent, while we supplicate it — and complain about it to each other — like children.

Hearing this, most people would respond, “Hell, no! I don’t bow to anyone!” And then they’d continue bitching and moaning about taxes, regulations, wars, fat cats, and so forth … like children grousing about their moms and dads.

A good parent is wise and compassionate; a bad one childishly lords it over the kids. As with the rest of us, the people in government possess many juvenile traits, except they also have power, like a sibling who baby-sits us and uses that authority to push us around.

A blogger reports on a recent Pew survey that found a majority support being spied on by the NSA. He believes the majority is wrong on the grounds that such a position flouts the Constitution. I wanted to agree, but then I pondered awhile and replied:

If we argue that general-warrant spying is bad because it’s unconstitutional, and later the voters amend the constitution to permit it, what then? Wholesale spying isn’t bad because it’s unconstitutional; it’s unconstitutional because it’s bad.

Most people think America is free on account of democracy. True, democracy is a bulwark against tyranny, but it’s not the only one, nor is it sufficient. Democracy itself — like the executive branch, Congress, and the courts — can become an instrument of oppression. The Bill of Rights is a firewall, not merely against government abuse, but against overzealous voters and the tyranny of the majority. Otherwise we could have a situation where the majority supports the extermination of a minority group, as took place in Germany, Yugoslavia, China, and elsewhere in recent decades.

When most voters agree to be spied on — in contravention of long-standing legal tradition — simply to facilitate the government’s search for enemies, they would do well to harken to Franklin’s warning: ‘Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.’

“Sure, Dad, it’s fine if you go through my emails and phone calls in search of friends of mine whom you think might be bad. I’m just a child, so I’m either incompetent or malicious, and I need to be monitored. But I’ll complain about it anyway.”

Here’s the eery joke: many who read this actually agree with Dad and want to be “watched over”. It makes them feel safe. Like moths to a flame, they’re drawn to authority, in the childlike hope that those in charge will take care of them … only to have their freedoms incinerated by people who probably shouldn’t be allowed to play with matches.