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Yes, You Need to Talk to the Manager
When strivings for justice lose hope, they become weaker, not stronger.
At the risk of leaning too far into generational stereotypes, which are indeed lazy and perpetuate slipshod thinking, I’m going to observe yet another difference between people of my age and of my parents’ age.
On multiple occasions I have seen my parents, my in-laws, and other Boomer and Silent Generation-era adults ask to speak to a manager. The order at the restaurant was wrong, or took way too long. A shipment was damaged, someone was over-billed, or the hotel room was not clean. Sometimes the necessity of such a tense confrontation is obvious, but often I’ve cringed when the older people I’m with decide to complain, especially since complaints almost always land hardest on employees who make the smallest wages and have the littlest control of the situation (as a veteran of the fast food industry, I can verify this).
My wife and I are far, far more likely than either of our parents to accept an unsatisfactory experience without complaining to the people in charge of it. We’ve eaten the wrong order, accepted an inaccurately described package, and put up with being put out. I’m sure my parents and in-laws have done this too, but the point is that the idea of complaining to a person and trying to get something wrong fixed seems to be more plausible to the older people in my life.
You know why that’s interesting to me? Because I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve known an older family member to take to the Internet to complain. I don’t think my parents have written a Yelp review in their lives. I think there’s been a few negative Amazon reviews, but the ratios of Amazon purchases/negative reviews and restaurant experiences/in-person complaints don’t even begin to compare. Again, these are generational stereotypes that by definition are not true of everyone. But if you look through Yelp reviews and if you use Twitter or Facebook to read what people are saying about community businesses, it does tend to be true that the complaints, the criticisms, and—more to the point of this post—the expressions of outrage and personal injury skew closer to my age than my parents’ age.
What I’ve noticed is that my parents seem far more willing than I to engage a person and tell them to make a situation materially better, whereas I am far more willing than my parents to use the digital marketplace as a weapon, to “get back” at the people who fail me in some way by telling others that these people are untrustworthy. The older generation acts as if the proper recipient of their frustration is the institution itself and that asking them to make it better is reasonable and right. The younger generation believes that their anger should be directed toward the audience, and that the goal of complaining in these spaces is not to get anything fixed by the institution but to see the institution punished by others.
I’ve been meaning to reflect more on this for a while, but the idea was triggered afresh by Freddie deBoer’s recent post “You Can’t Be Good Enough.” Freddie sees online cancel culture much more clearly than most people his age and sociopolitical demographic. In fact, in what I consider to be one of his best ever pieces of newsletter writing, Freddie sees the sound and fury of “dragging” somebody on the Internet as a whimpering plea for meaning that most people of a certain age (=my age) do not experience.
Freddie observes that canceling someone online virtually never dispenses any material good to anyone. In this sense, canceling somebody is not “justice,” because there is literally no justice to be done on behalf of any victim, real or imagined. The point is not to make up for something, it’s to make someone go away. Freddie’s point here raises the very compelling possibility that cancel culture is fueled by a particular attitude toward responding to grievance, an attitude that doesn’t look for reparation from the guilty party but for validation from onlookers who will believe your grievance and then punish the person or institution who grieved you with their words and opinions.
The point, Freddie concludes, is that the kind of outrage mobs we see online are embassies of cynicism, populated by people who have despaired of any meaningful change or transformation and instead can only feel the vaporous warmth of hearing their peers affirm their frustrations. Here’s Freddie’s final paragraph:
I am convinced that the recent spasm of enraged but directionless moralism within our aspirational classes is connected to some greater lack of meaning. They live lives that are not the ones they imagined and they grind for goals they can’t define and don’t particular want to achieve. They have grown up into a chaos of meaning and are compelled by communal decree to ironize all values and ridicule all sincerity. All they can cling to now is their desperate sense that everything is wrong and that someone, somewhere, must pay. What they never seem to grasp is that they are the ones they are most angry with, their own social culture the poisoned tree that bears the fruit that burns them inside.
“Everything is wrong, and someone, somewhere must pay.” As much as anything I’ve read in the past several years, that sentence seems to summarize the mood of the emerging generation of Americans.
What I think has happened is that many, perhaps most, of Americans under the age of 50 have accepted that the most any of them can hope for from life is some kind of peace of mind, some kind of perpetually undisturbed, non-inconvenienced existence. This is what’s left after religious meaning, political optimism, and community solidarity have been undermined by both philosophy and technology. Most people are just trying to make it to the weekend without having to go too far out of their way, and then just trying to make it to retirement without any awkward conversations, and then just trying to…well, not sure, but at least without any truly stressful demands on their attention.
The Internet has both aided this desire and also cultivated it. The shape of the internet appears to offer all of the consumptive enjoyment of modern life without any of the embodied risk. Thus, asking to speak to the manager is an unacceptably awkward and tense stressor on one’s day, even though such a conversation would likely accomplish much more for the sake of yourself and other customers (if you’ve really been treated unfairly, there’s a solid chance someone else has to). If you ask to speak to the manager, you are a “Karen,” which is what the Internet calls someone who is ridiculous and overbearing.
But in real life, often times it is the most cringe, most apparently overbearing responses that actually do achieve meaningful redress. By contrast, the contemporary spirit is to get revenge on the people and places that offend you by working remotely for their destruction. Don’t actually speak to them, don’t actually complain, don’t actually risk your sense of self in the (misplaced) hope that they will fix it. Speak about them, complain to others, make the solution both obvious and unworkable, and bask in the affirmation of your peers.
A while back ago I saw a former student of a particular seminary go viral with a series of Tweets about abusive behavior he had experienced at the school. Part of the story he told involved meeting one of the administrative leaders at the school and expressing concerns. According to the student, the administrative leader dismissed all his concerns and rebuked him for having them. Despite the student’s patient attempt to raise concerns, the school just didn’t care about him…and others deserved to know.
The administrative leader in this story is an acquaintance of mine. Not long after this tweet thread went viral, I learned the other side of the story: The leader said he had indeed met with the student, but the student had listened to the leader’s explanations, nodded thoughtfully, and at the end of their meeting expressed relief and gratitude that the situations were sorted out. The leader had no reason to think after that meeting that the student was still angry or felt aggrieved.
He only found that out when he saw himself described in the tweets.
I have no idea which side of this story is accurate. I wasn’t there, and contrary to the spirit of the age, partisan alliances are not enough to discern truth. But here’s one thing I do know: The image of this student, nodding along and assuring the leader of his seminary that everything was hunky dory while mentally planning to bring this guy and his school to their knees is an image that’s painfully plausible today.
When strivings for justice lose hope, they do not become stronger, they become weaker. They settle for destruction instead of restoration. They seek symbolic victories instead of material gains. They construct shibboleths instead of coalitions. And at the end of the day, the winners of this poorly waged war are neither the vulnerable nor the powerful, but the invisible: the ones rich enough and online enough to disappear into the ether, to let others do the work they won’t.