First of all, it is not called whining. There are several respectable terms for it. It is also, imprecisely but usually with good intentions, called outrage. When it is conducted on behalf of inferior people, who are of course not overtly recognized as inferior, it is “compassion”. Yet at its core it is whining. Sometimes a defamed word is the most precise.
The benefits of whining are many. As it is an expression of powerlessness, it attracts victims and everyone then begins to repeat the grouses, thereby corroborating and establishing the problem as real. The social whining of a group helps others who do not know they have a problem to discover or invent one, thus deepening their sense of belonging. The public repetition of grouses also confuses the strong who would otherwise be very certain that they are innately, racially or sexually, better than the others. But somewhere along the way whining itself has become a social disease. Highly infectious, especially among the youth, its true lethality is in fooling the hosts into believing that they are conscientious while they are only whiners.
In an age where everything is amplified because of technology, there are ever finer slivers of grievances to carp about. Among the intellectual middle class that believes in transforming society through compassion rather than brute economic force, there is the ceaseless griping about the wealth of those richer than them; pollution; the destruction of secularism, as though it ever existed; the rise of the shrewd nationalists; the shrinking of freedoms; the many problems of women, of Dalits, of farmers, of migrants.
Lament is beyond the norm in the arts; it has in fact become proof of moral compass and seriousness. Among the beloved things social lament has stolen and ruined is modern literature. We have lost it to activism. Historically, you can say, at the heart of all literature, was the whine of the underdog. It is after all a powerful literary device. Literature is often a tribute to the weak. But when whining becomes an infestation, it changes the very character of literature. In India, for instance, the establishment and the huddles of literary referees have set up reward systems that encourage the righteous “social message”, which is rated higher than style, playfulness and storytelling.
Commercial novels are luckier because they are regulated by market forces, but substantial novels are at the mercy of the system of whiners. Activism in literature has naturally become the refuge for bores, who need to only have wounds and issues to claim to be novelists. The fellowship of lamenters then promotes its own and the cabal grows. The readers, meanwhile, stop reading most of such books because they find them dull. Writers then sit in panel discussions and call such readers stupid, and they whine more about how “nobody is reading”, how “the world is getting dumb”.
The white savants of fine whining in advanced economies are among the great corrupters of literature in many parts of the world. They have expectations of special whines from every poor and quaint region of the world and they set up powerful reward systems. Developing world writers then consciously or unconsciously set out to achieve those rewards, which are also known as recognition.
This is more evident in the type of Indian cinema or films about India that are celebrated in the West. India’s Oscar entries in recent times too have often been an attempt to pander to the system that equates lament with art. There have, of course, been some beloved films like Peepli Live, and aberrations likeBarfi!,but the Indian Oscar entry is mostly a reward for lament, not storytelling.
The gigantic whining of the liberals that co-opts and encourages the grouses of the socially backward, is even more destructive outside the arts.
Every time a Dalit humanities student kills himself or appears to have killed himself, the liberals hold their ideological foes responsible. In the absence of a suicide note or if the note is ambiguous, the Facebook posts of the deceased are then used to construct a story of tragic discrimination. Thousands of Dalit students are constantly fed the notion that it is reasonable for them to kill themselves. They would be better served if they were instead told that there is no glory in suicide, and that when human beings kill themselves, the real reason is usually a dangerous and poorly understood psychological state.
But the intellectuals never mention the hard truths about the society they have created. Instead, they encourage the Dalits to live and feel like social victims, egg them on to live out their youth lamenting their plight. For the clinically depressed among them, passing through the ceaseless negativity of the activist lament that permeates the humanities would be nothing short of a minefield of suicidal triggers.
The other kind of suicide that liberal whining has promoted with the help of unquestioning developmental journalism is the myth of farmer suicide, where an agricultural worker who kills himself is portrayed as a “farmer” who has taken his life for purely financial reasons, a contentious hypothesis that suits the political interests of those who fan it. Encouraged by the intellectual endorsement of such suicides, a group of farmers arrived in Delhi a few days ago bearing the skulls of farmers who had killed themselves in the past. They wanted financial help. At least they wished to live, though of course they implied that they would kill themselves if they did not receive it. But most of them would not take their own lives. That is how it goes. But some who are psychologically prone might. They would then be added to the statistical charts of “farmer suicides”.
The other victims of the urban Indian lament network are Kashmir’s youth, who have been reassured that they are right to thwart all attempts by India at economic progress because a sovereign Islamic Republic of Kashmir, however improbable and unstable, is more important.
What is the opposite of the Indian right wing has a reasonable answer today: whining. It appears nothing else is afoot, and a whole generation of youth is in the wasting sway of whining, mistaking it for grander things.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of The Illicit Happiness Of Other People.