Book review: “Complaint” by Julian Baggini


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Julian Baggini’s book ‘Complaint’ is part of the Big Ideas series published by Profile Books. Baggini’s titular stable-mates include ‘Violence’, ‘Moral relativism’, Democracy’ and ‘Identity’ offer a clear signal that this is no ordinary book on complaint.

Baggini is on a mission to restore complaint as a form of personal action that unerpins social change. “I want to reclaim complaint from the forces of progress and wrestle it from the hands of lawyers who see it simply as a means to personal gain”. This is most definitely not a book that validates the moans and whinges of customers who can’t be bothered to read instruction manuals.

Baggini writes about complaint and religion: “Complaint is a secular, humanist act. It is resistance about the idea… that suffering is our ordained lot;” and about complaint and social progress which “has been achieved because people have complained about contemporary injustice”, though much contemporary complaint that positions itself as remedying social injustice is truly more about the promotion of self-interest.

Not all complaint is with merit. Baggini brands this wrong complaint. Wrong complaint focuses on things that cannot be changed and should not be changed, and is often a substitute for inaction. Why complain about a rainy day or popular music? Complaining may be cathartic but it changes nothing. Compare that to complaint about slavery, paedophilia or famine. This is right complaint with a noble goal, and an energizing intention.

So, what qualifies Baggini to write about complaint? Baggini completed a PhD in philosophy at University College, London, in 1996. Since then he’s written a number of academic papers and books that make philosophical ideas accessible to general audiences. He claims to be a more of a writer about philosophy than a philosopher.

It’s clear that Baggini has thought more deeply about complaint than most authors, me included, who focus on the quotidian world of customer complaints. It is equally clear that when Baggini strays into my world, he is much less comfortable. A significant chunk of the book is given over to an analysis of survey data generated through a website linked to Baggini’s book. This is the sort of survey that makes a Cosmo magazine life-style survey seem reputable. To be fair to Baggini, he realizes it is non-scientific and unreliable. But why include it? It undermines the thoughtful integrity of the rest of the book. Crap is still crap, whether produced by a writer/philosopher or a magazine journo.

That cavil aside, the book is well written, astute, provocative and mercifully short. It does what it sets out to do – it counters the perception that complaint is negative, trivial and largely pointless with the idea that it can be a positive, constructive force, springing from the essence of what makes us human.

It’s worth reading.

Francis Buttle
Dr. Francis Buttle founded the consultancy that bears his name back in 1979. He has over 40 years of international experience in consulting, training, researching, educating, and writing about a broad range of marketing and customer management matters. He is author of 15 books, has been a full professor of Marketing, Customer Relationship Management, Relationship Marketing, and Management.


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