Quality of mercy strained by culture of complaint

Today in The Australian

Arriving in Australia many decades ago, the first thing I learned was that real Australians never complain. In this country, outrageous fortune seemed to be wasting her time: the cruellest slings and arrows were met with a stoicism that made Seneca look like a whingeing Pom.

About Henry Ergas

Henry Ergas AO is a columnist for The Australian. From 2009 to 2015 he was Senior Economic Adviser to Deloitte Australia and from 2009 to 2017 was Professor of Infrastructure Economics at the University of Wollongong’s SMART Infrastructure Facility. He joined SMART and Deloitte after working as a consultant economist at NECG, CRA International and Concept Economics. Prior to that, he was an economist at the OECD in Paris from the late 1970s until the early 1990s. At the OECD, he headed the Secretary-General’s Task Force on Structural Adjustment (1984-1987), which concentrated on improving the efficiency of government policies in a wide range of areas, and was subsequently Counsellor for Structural Policy in the Economics Department. He has taught at a range of universities, undertaken a number of government inquiries and served as a Lay Member of the New Zealand High Court. In 2016, he was made an Officer in the Order of Australia.
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19 Responses to Quality of mercy strained by culture of complaint

  1. A Lurker

    Just a tip – for those of us who do not subscribe to the Australian, it would be useful to copy/paste the column here in full otherwise we are left guessing as to the relevance of the paragraph.

    And no, the link doesn’t work, it just takes a non-subscriber to the subscription page.

  2. Tom

    Lurker, Google Quality of mercy strained by culture of complaint.

  3. A Lurker

    Lurker, Google Quality of mercy strained by culture of complaint.

    Sorry, I tried that trick already, my search engine still takes me to the subscription page. Any chance of a copy/paste of the column or at least part of it?

  4. sfw

    It was like that, now most people under 40 are soft as warm butter when it comes to bearing up under adverse circumstances, most can’t even take a little criticism much less being berated when it’s needed. It doesn’t help that the government wants to make them safe and knows what’s best for them.

    Has anyone noticed that the new puritans are looking to substantially increase the price of alcohol, especially cheap alcohol (wine casks etc) because it will stop the lower orders from engaging in what they see as risky behavior. I heard one on talk radio the other day saying how the price must rise until people can’t afford to buy more than a couple of drinks a week. He agreed that this wouldn’t affect wealthy people so much but that was ok because in genera it’s the poorer less educated people who drink too much. I don’t want to live in this country anymore but there’s no where for me to go.

  5. Tom

    HENRY ERGAS:

    Arriving in Australia many decades ago, the first thing I learned was that real Australians never complain. In this country, outrageous fortune seemed to be wasting her time: the cruellest slings and arrows were met with a stoicism that made Seneca look like a whingeing Pom.

    This was a hard lesson to absorb, especially coming from a culture that viewed lamentation as an art form, and in which “How are you?” was interpreted not as a routine salutation but as an open-ended invitation to report on the fluctuating, yet always troubling, condition of one’s inner organs.

    Gradually, however, I understood that it could scarcely have been otherwise. The national imagination had been forged by the land’s pitiless harshness. From Barcroft Boake’s “wastes of the Never Never … where the dead men lie” to the madness of Patrick White’s Voss, who is “humbled” by the desert for believing himself invulnerable, the “haunting presence of death and desolation” the explorer Cecil Madigan felt in the outback had fashioned a character that was emotionally sparse and proudly laconic.

    Moreover, despite the fact that if Australians risked dying of thirst, it was mainly because the pubs closed at six o’clock, that character (or at least its ideal) had somehow survived in a highly urbanised society, as had the sardonic, stripped-down humour that accompanied it.

    Little did I realise those survivals were on their last legs. Just as the lamington succumbed to avocado toast, so “such is life” was supplanted by a chorus of complaint as raucous as an army of cane toads on the march. And with consternation replacing conversation as the dominant mode of social interchange, public life descended into a steam-bath of emotions as long on anger as it was short on clarity of purpose.

    Seen in narrowly commercial terms, this was yet another of life’s missed opportunities. After all, if bemoaning one’s fate was to become the national pastime, a vast market could have been cultivated for lessons in Yiddish, with its 19 words that convey shades of disparagement, minutely graded from mild disapproval to outright revulsion. That was not to be. But the puzzle remained: why had the world-weary shrug of the shoulders given way to the incessant demand for sympathy?

    No doubt, long-term forces were at work. More than a century ago, the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that the deepening division of labour that marked the transition from traditional to modern society generated a process of “individuation”, reducing the degree to which society envelops the individual and elevating the self to the centre of social life. As that happened, individual emotions acquired new prominence and came to be accepted as legitimate matters of concern. However, neither Durkheim nor his leading disciples expected “emoting” to burst on to the public stage.

    On the contrary, Norbert Elias, the German pioneer of the history of manners, thought the greater the freedom individuals were granted to develop their innermost feelings, the greater would be the social pressures to manage them carefully. When Miss Manners said “Whining … is banned from social events … Whining is properly directed only at one’s intimates”, she was channelling Elias’s prediction of the ever rising importance of “affect control”.

    It is this affect control that seems to have crumbled. But it is not just any emotions its collapse has unleashed: rather, it is the sense of victimhood and the cry for compensation.

    Sympathy used to be reserved for searing tragedies; now, passing misfortunes are expected to trigger outpourings of grief.

    In its own way, that is hardly mysterious. As American social theorist Candace Clark put it, to demand sympathy is to stage a morality play in which one is the undisputed star, with a plot framed to invoke broadly accepted notions of justice and injustice, hardship and desert. In a world in which more and more of life is played out in the public gaze, there is no surer way to claim a place, however fleeting, in the ruthless competition for attention.

    But that not only cheapens the quality of mercy; it also paints our lives as much grimmer than they are. Consider the Christmas Price Index, which every yuletide plots the cost in the US and Australia of purchasing the basket of goods and services specified in The Twelve Days of Christmas.

    In the US, 90 per cent of the increase in its labour cost components since 2010 has come from gains by the ladies dancing and lords a-leaping; in Australia, on the other hand, the aristocrats’ real income has fallen by about 4 per cent a year, while “working people” — the maids a-milking, pipers piping and drummers drumming — have recorded average annual gains of 3 per cent, lifting their real income this decade by more than a third.

    For sure, this country has its problems, ranging from lunatic energy policies to union thuggery. But it is equally undeniable that ever greater numbers of Australians enjoy levels of wellbeing the laconic Maluka of Mrs Aeneas Gunn’s We of the Never Never could scarcely have imagined when he promised the sweltering stockmen that the Christmas table at Elsey Station would groan with real ham and chicken, and hop-beer to boot.

    There is, in other words, plenty to be grateful for — and gratitude, as Durkheim’s contemporary, Georg Simmel, so evocatively wrote, is “the moral memory of mankind”, the life-affirming reckoning that reminds us how much we receive and have left to give.

    In these grudging times, may your Christmas be infused not with whinges and complaints but with the sense of thanks, and with the prospect, as often renewed as it is imperilled, of peace and prosperity, health and happiness, for all people of goodwill.

  6. stackja

    Then came Lionel Murphy followed by MB/S&G.

  7. Bruce

    So, what has been “achieved” is a “Culture of Complaint”, in which an enormous industry of complaint “consultants, shapers and exploiters” has formed, at the expense, as usual, of the peasants.

    What happens to folk who have had enough of the play-acting of the parliaments, courts and fourth estate?

    What penalties (will) apply for going off the reservation?

  8. struth

    ; in Australia, on the other hand, the aristocrats’ real income has fallen by about 4 per cent a year, while “working people” — the maids a-milking, pipers piping and drummers drumming — have recorded average annual gains of 3 per cent, lifting their real income this decade by more than a third.

    I’ve got a complaint to make.
    This is bullshit.

    On so many levels.
    This guy just needs to give it away.
    Cockhead mustn’t pay power bills and,……… ah don’t get me started.

    The problem is the wrong people are doing all the complaining and that Australian character of not complaining is only practiced by those that should right now, be screaming the bloody house down.

  9. Titch

    The Australian habit of not complaining and just getting on with it is now in decline. You can see it in the older generations, but the influence of school and university teaching is now very much infecting all levels of society. Another thing, it makes it easy for people who come from cultures where whining, nagging, complaining you are hard done by, are standard survival tactics to then get what they want. And they are fast learners, and have soon realized that doing so in Australia guarantees you will get your way. Australians hate naggers, and eventually say, “Oh alright, have it”, to get peace of mind so they can get on with their lives. And we are starting to see the results of these two disparate mindsets in full technicolor on our tv screens every night.

  10. Mundi

    The take away from this article is:

    Your living standards are still increasing, therefore don’t complain about government.

  11. Megan

    The take away from this article is:

    Your living standards are still increasing, therefore don’t complain about government.

    You need to improve your comprehension. The Government is a complete basket case and Australian soticism has virtually disappeared but you can still find things to be grateful for.

  12. Habib

    Not any more, Australians make Poms look like pikers in the whining stakes.

  13. Dr Fred Lenin

    Anyone who believes Aussies don’t complain has ever worked in the building trade.its full of the greatest mob of petty whinging bastards you will ever find ,they make the legendary whingeing Pom look like a learner. Building workers will strike at the slightest perceived wrong,that’s why the criminal gangsters run the unions and the idiots vote alp . Also have you ever had anything to do with Aussie farmers? They are just as bad as the building workers , The open “said Hanrahan” says it all..
    P S ,WATCH OUT in Melbourne streets ,lot of mentally ill homicidal welfare migrants about ,rather have a whingeing Aussie,they are not as dangerous as welfare migrants .

  14. Howard Hill

    These snowflake articles give me the shits. So rich we can mass murder people with newish SUV’s. This bloke is on drugs and mentally ill, don’t let him anywhere near a vehicle!

  15. MPH

    It’s not just the complaining, it’s the sense of entitlement in Australia that blows me away. Where once people came to the new world to make their own fortune, now they pilfer the proceeds of others’ hard work.

  16. David Bidstrup

    Over the past 40 years we have changed from a society that valued and rewarded socially valuable work and had a sense of humour to one that is consumed by the vacuity, narcissism and crushing banality of “social media”.

    We are now led by fools who are advised by charlatans, and we are too intellectually lazy to try some critical thinking. We have become a sort of “cargo cult” that expects to lie back and have peeled grapes popped into our mouths.

    This has been encouraged by leaders who try to sell us their version of the Harbour Bridge every 3 or 4 years, lazy journalism that parrots the rubbish fed to them and a “national broadcaster” that is filled with vacuous lefty/greenie ratbags.

    Evolution seems to have decided the BS detector is no longer required.

    God help this generation when the lights finally go out. There will be no one left who knows an armpit from a hole in the ground and they will not be able to “google” it as their phones will be flat.

  17. Habib

    I was reluctantly in a “cafe”* last weekend, and the two flibbertigibbets at the next table were snorking on about how property adjacent to them had sold for obscene and ridiculous prices.

    Their stunning ignorance of the concept of ponzi schemes/economic bubbles was risible.

    I’ve been steadily stashing earnings into US$ and salting away from some time- my feasting on the entrails of these cretins will be schadenfraude on crystal meth.

    *Yes, an edifice that had “smashed avocado” rather than a truckies breakfast that was a challenge.

  18. Oh come on

    Over the past 40 years we have changed from a society that valued and rewarded socially valuable work and had a sense of humour to one that is consumed by the vacuity, narcissism and crushing banality of “social media”.

    Boomer values have infected and ruined everything.

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