Content crowds header hiram caton whither-progressWhingeing  

Published in Quadrant, January-February 1982. pp. 45-49.

People complain about in-laws, the weather; taxes, traffic, mosquitoes, Telecom, and spouses. If they are poor, they complain of poverty; if they are affluent, they reproach materialism. The average Australian consumes about six whinges a day, while practised whingers can find fault. non-stop from dawn to midnight.

Despite-the marked presence of this colourful behaviour in human life, moralists have not classified its types or studied its styles. We might expect this remarkable oversight to be mended by modern researches into human behaviour, but alas no. Sociologists and anthropologists have not -laid their hands to it, despite minute inspections of so much else. Novelists who make it a point of honour to dissect our foibles have let this one slip past their net. Is there a conspiracy of silence to conceal the strategies and functions of whingemanship? Probably not. But we want to break the ice over this neglected behaviour with a few preliminary observations.


Since it is fashionable these days to hitch one's sociology to zoology, we had better begin with the whinge instinct. While many species whinge, ha; man beings alone .are born. whingers. Crying begins at birth with a shriek of dismay. Within weeks. the infant diversifies its repertoire to distinct wails signalling alarm, hunger, discomfort, and loneliness. These signals, are further elaborated as the infant develops. Pouting mimics the facial expression of whimpering; sulking is a still more subdued whimper mimicry. After the- infant acquires speech, it mimics crying by vocalizing its complaints in a high, twangy wail or sing-song voice that we recognize as the authentic adult whinge.

Infants cry to arouse care and attention. Other. mammalian neonates use this device too, but with less virtuosity because they are not so helpless as human infants, who come into this world naked, immobile and nearly blind. Whingeing expresses this unique infantile weakness. The child continues to develop its whingeing aptitude despite progressive release from apron strings. We might wonder why it doesn't outgrow whingeing as it outgrows milk teeth and rapid emotional changes..The reason, probably, is that we scarcely outgrow the whinge need when we acquire, in puberty, a need to respond 'to the whinges of our offspring. A survival need so crucial could not be left to the discretion of parents. Like other innate signalling mechanisms, the infant's cry closes neurological circuits that arouse us to action — in this case, to pacification and relief. Although hormonal changes in mothers place them in an especially high state of receptivity to cries, male and female are subject to this arousal regardless of kinship with the child. Cry and response, then, is a basic sympathetic bond between human beings. Whingeing, like whimpering and sulking, is an extension of the cry, which operates as a social bonding mechanism regardless of the age or sex of whinger and whingee.

This bonding function is readily seen in the weather whinge. The comforts of civilization do not protect us entirely from, heat, cold, and rain; nor have we lost the physiological mechanisms that compensate for climatic adversities. Our moods change as well. Two days of hard rain annoy everyone, and you may easily ingratiate yourself with a-stranger by giving him an opportunity to tell you how he suffered when his car stalled in a downpour and he was soaked to the skin. With a combination of bravado and pathos, he describes the water, a foot deep, rushing through the very street where a woman was drowned in a flash flood, and so on. Protocol requires that you express alarm about his adversity and congratulate him on his fortunate survival. Then you must narrate your own tale of woe. The exchange of misery sets up a rapport between fellow sufferers.

A basic feature of whinges is visible in this simple vignette. They depict suffering or victimization in a way meant to elicit sympathy or assistance. Whinges do not always succeed, however. We are familiar with that moment of horror in the child's life when an exasperated parent beats the hapless youngster about the ears and screams, "Stop whingeing!" Clearly in such cases an override switch has shut off the sympathy circuits in the neuro-endocrine system. A defence mechanism against whingeing is necessary because parents can invest only so much care in one child. Moreover, without it, whingeing would develop into parasitism on sympathetic hosts. The fact that whinges can fail, or even arouse attack, places a premium on skilful whingeing as a strategy in social competition for attention, prestige, and goods.

Moral whinges are among the oldest, most practised forms of social competition, and today they are in vigorous growth. Of fashionable whinges, one of the most fascinating is the animal liberation movement. Few of us worry very much about whether chook-cages induce neurosis in Colonel Sanders' finest. But the socially aware have discovered that they should feel guilty about the atrocities perpetrated by the agricultural industry. Such sentiments are not novel. They appear in several religions, and humanitarians of the last century often linked the struggle against slavery with equal rights for women and animals. Animal libbers today are nauseated by the programmed slaughter of millions of animals to supply our food requirements. They disapprove of hunting, fishing, and vivisection. They want to Save the Whales and the Great Barrier Reef.

What is this whinge about? The whales they want to save eat two tonnes of crustaceans daily; "controlling" The Crown of Thorns starfish means exterminating this colourful, innocent predator. Professor Peter Singer, of Monash University, gives an answer in his book Aminal Liberation. He notes that whales and other animals are incapable of making a moral choice in the matter of their diets; and even if they were able to they cannot survive as vegetarians. We humans, on the other hand, can live quite well as vegetarians (at least below the Arctic Circle), and morally we are able to abstain from inflicting unnecessary suffering on animals. This is the nub of the matter: "If a being suffers," Singer declares, "there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration" because "pain and suffering are bad." The moral is, harm no sentient being. Sad to say, though, modern civilization inflicts immense suffering on animals as a matter of course, and not merely in the agricultural industry. Singer passes in review the use of animals by scientific and commercial researchers an estimated 100 million annually in the U.S. alone, who perish by radiation sickness, induced diseases of every sort, dissection, decortication, and other esoteric modes of technical mayhem. Scientists have no more compunction about this "inhumanity to animals" than farmers. As for their positive moral duty to provide animals with lives rich in opportunities for creative pleasures, they have no inkling of it.

Professor Singer suffers from this immense suffering, as he suffers also for blacks and women. He shares his suffering by levelling accusations against meat-eaters, cosmetics manufacturers, medical and scientific research, and circuses. We are all guilty of horrible atrocities on a scale that provokes Singer, at one point, to compare us with the Nazis.

This is classic whingemanship. The strategy is to discover crime in actions or feelings that are natural or unavoidable. The old accusation against sexual desire is discredited today, so moralists must find new sins. A good new sin is by no means an easy thing to invent. It must be something impossible to avoid entirely, so that guilt is inescapable and the need for moral ministry is perpetual. On the other hand, it must be possible to progress by slow degrees toward purity and blessedness. A good sin should also have about it the air of paradox. It must be something startling and confusing; something that requires endless commentary and explanation; something capable of supporting a cult. Furthermore, it is not a disadvantage if the sin is a bit daft or silly. Absurdity and paradox attract ridicule, which the moralist may use to describe a boundary between the Philistines and the Enlightened; in this way he enhances the solidarity of his followers. Ridicule is also helpful in striking the pose of the martyred hero bravely witnessing to "the truth".

"Moral whinges are among the oldest, most practised forms of social competition, and today they are in vigorous growth."

A skeptic once said that moralists usually commit the sin they condemn. This is true in Singer's case. No one will mend his meat-eating ways unless he feels guilty about those chooks. But guilt is painful and Singer says that making animals suffer is wicked. For all that he is not a wicked man, only a little naive about pain and suffering: Pain often acts upon us as a stimulating tonic, psychologically and physiologically. Blood sports have been popular at all times and places. American Indians. ritualized hideously painful torture which they delighted in inflicting and suffering — as moral duty! Roman prefects turned away thousands of Christians who demanded to be thrown to the lions. The religion of love is a museum of exotic pious cruelties. The ordinary suburban household is often the site of exquisite cruelties, blandly called marital problems. We mutilate one another in the work place with gusto, and surgeons routinely inflict dreadful pain. Singer's whinge indeed appeals to our taste for cruelty to ourselves and others. To stand accused by God, conscience, or those pathetic Kentucky frieds is a proven recipe for psychological thrills; for guilt, like notoriety, makes life meaningful. The poor anonymous self, wasting away unnoticed in mass society, suddenly becomes important thanks to its crimes. Now life acquires a purpose, and a direction toward "salvation".

Singer caters to this conversion experience by supplying acolytes with an intoxicating salad of cult practices and fetishes that mark out the ascetic path leading from guilt to righteousness. The faithful must exchange fancy cosmetics for healthy, austere herbal soap. Leather clothing and shoes should be given to the needy. The disposition of fur coats, those costly signatures of vanity and cruelty, requires a ceremonial event to mark the sacrifice. There is to be no more dining out at good restaurants or dinners with those meat-eating. Philistines who were once your friends. You must sign on with the earnest, pale, intense people who run the animal aid societies. Your holy calling is to throw sand into the gears of scientific research and to boycott meat suppliers into bankruptcy. This salvation kit, with its implied assault on modern civilization, scored a huge success with reviewers, who could not praise Singer enough for discovering a new moral passion of practically unlimited scope.

The implicit message of animal atrocity stories is the child's indignant protest, "But that's not fair!" And often it isn't, since. the social ideal of caring togetherness is frequently marred by the knocks of social competition. The certainty that life will not be fair no doubt accounts for the popularity of moral whinges. Bosses, spouses, teachers, the taxation office, and the courts provide a continuous harvest of unfairness. Wage scales, of course, are chronically unfair, and so are profits. This brings us to the most successful whinge of modern times, Marxism.

Marx's intellectual milieu was not favourable to cosmic whinges of the sort he invented. The dominant outlook was pride in recent commercial and scientific achievements, and optimism about - the future. That was the heyday of progress.

There was, to be sure, the plight of the working man. But working conditions had improved markedly since the first factories were built in 1790, and informed opinion expected these improvements to continue steadily, as they did. Improvements were expected to come primarily by technical manipulation of natural powers in a social context of interest politics, where notions of moral regeneration were at a discount. In this environment, world reformers could scarcely aspire to more than good-natured tolerance from the Establishment and patronage from humanitarian magnates.

For the past seventy-five-years the idea of "social science" has formed a sort of buffer between natural science and humanities. In retrospect, it resembles a peace treaty meant to secure territorial boundaries. Scientists agreed to keep quiet about man, and leave this subject to humanists, who in turn agreed to become "scientific" and stop knocking Darwin, vivisection, big research budgets, power, and the like. But in the post-war period the agreement began to unravel. Natural scientists got all the kudos while the social sciences had nothing to show but mediocrity and failure. This was enough to cause murmuring; but humanists didn't abandon their pro-science ideology until the student revolts of the 'sixties brought "values" back into vogue. Scientists were-rather passive toward the outburst of anti-science sentiment for a variety of reasons. Some felt guilty about the involvement of science in weapons research. Many another was anxious to conciliate an angry son or daughter. But a counter-attack was bound to come, and in the late seventies it arrived. Biologists let Darwin out of the closet, this time equipped with such formidable advances in behavioural biology, and the certainty of more to come, that they predicted the replacement of social science by biosocial science.

"Some have pondered the oddity that although Marxism is passé among intellectuals in Marxist countries; it is gaining ground among us."

The invasion of social science by biologists has jettisoned the makeshift peace treaty. Those who cannot, or will not, join the invading army have little option but to retreat into aesthetics and ethics, or run up the anti-science flag and whinge about the oppression of students; women, blacks, and animals.

It would be a mistake, I think, to drive this activity from universities, however atavistic it may be. Whingeing is a basic human behaviour that cannot be repressed. Professional whingers have from time immemorial performed the important function of imparting style and emotional coherence to the otherwise chaotic whinges of the people at large. In western society the parish church and the university have been the privileged sanctuaries of these persons. Despite their incongruity with research, organizational enclaves for "communication" and "values" remain appropriate. Youth who need help formulating their whinges find it. Government and corporate executives are spared the difficult task of coping with multitudes of inchoate whinges. And scientists are reminded that they, must not be too arrogant

© 2008