Prof. Dina Al-Kassim explores the evolution of a complaint culture
From lukewarm lattes to political manifestos, UBC professor Dina Al-Kassim explores what people complain about – and what public griping can tell us about society.
A specialist in the rants of historical figures, she has watched the rise of online culture with great interest, as – for better or worse – more people take to digital platforms to voice their kudos and kvetches.
In her book On Pain of Speech, Al-Kassim, a professor in UBC’s Dept. of English, explores a series of famous literary rants, a form she characterizes as complaint, in its most extreme form.
This style has evolved into a darker, more toxic form, thanks to the powerful influence of polarizing personalities like Rush Limbaugh.
“A literary rant is not a genre – it is an event,” says Al-Kassim. “It’s a text or speech that captures the moment of crisis when an individual’s desire to express himself fails under the extreme weight of society’s injustice,” she says. “And these moments of last resort can reveal the inequality and hypocrisy in our society.”
Oscar Wilde’s letter among top literary rants
The most famous of the rants she explores in her book is by Oscar Wilde after he was thrown in jail for “perverting youth” (his boyfriend was 25). Al-Kassim calls Wilde’s epic 120-page letter a gold standard of rants, possessing many of the qualities we see copied and reworked in new ways online today.
The style of Wilde’s letter – impassioned, on the edge of control, almost possessed – is a hallmark of online rants, she says. But this style has evolved into a darker, more toxic form, thanks to the powerful influence of polarizing personalities like Rush Limbaugh.
Today’s rants are darker, more toxic
“Before Internet trolls and online bullies, we had right-wing radio hosts provoking people,” says Al-Kassim, a 2013 Peter Wall Early Career Scholar who joined UBC from UC Irvine. “It is unsurprising how well this style – the exploding moral outrage and calculated provocation – has carried over to online culture. Clearly, it taps into an elemental anger that resonates deeply with some people when provided the opportunity to speak undercover of anonymity.”
On the opposite spectrum is Rick Mercer, arguably Canada’s most famous purveyor of the rant. “He calls it a rant, but really what he’s doing is old-fashioned satire,” she says. “He uses comedy and irony – not to mention the platform of a powerful broadcaster – to make people laugh and raise issues.”
Al-Kassim is fascinated by the role of anonymity online. “Anyone who reads anonymous comments online knows it can bring out the worst aspects,” she says. “As researchers, we need to understand why the computer, or writing anonymously, can enable this type of perverse pleasure. Perhaps it’s a form of imaginary independence – a petty sovereignty, surely, but sovereignty nonetheless.”
As social media grows as a marketplace, online complaints increasingly come with the possibility of material gain. “People who complain online know businesses are watching, and know there are freebies and compensations to be had,” she says. “If a movie star’s Twitter rant appears suspiciously close to her new movie, chances are it’s more than coincidence. There’s often more self-interest online than meets the eye.”
Complaints versus rants
The biggest difference between online complaints and the literary rants in her book is one of severity. “People complain online about everything today, from brutal injustices to the utterly trivial,” she says, citing the use of social media during the Arab Spring as an important positive example. “So the scale of complaints – and the attention they receive – varies widely. That’s a natural byproduct of so many people able to publish their thoughts instantly.”
Al-Kassim calls “venting” a misleading metaphor. “At first, it seems perfect: our mouths open like valves and the words rush out beyond control,” she says. “But the image starts to break down when you consider the time and care people spend composing even the sloppiest tweets. With complaints, there’s usually an element of performance.”
Asked if she ever goes online to air any of her annoyances, she laughs and says: “I never participate in the symptoms that I study.”
Working in Arabic, English and French with a special emphasis on the public sphere in colonial and postcolonial cultures, Al-Kassim studies politics and literature in Africa, Europe and the Middle East. Listen to Al-Kassim discuss her ranting research on UBC CiTR radio’s Arts on Air.