Op-Ed

Why the weasel word 'problematic' should be banned

For the last few years, reasonable people of various ideological leanings have been lamenting the scourge that is the word “problematic.” Cropping up particularly in online discussions about social justice and unacknowledged privilege, “problematic” is sort of like “utilize” for the Smuggy McSanctipants set. It’s an unnecessary expansion on a better, simpler word, a piece of linguistic overreach favored by those who are trying to sound smarter and more sure of themselves than they are. For instance, the augmented-reality game “Pokemon Go” has been attacked for a lot of sins, such as excluding people with limited mobility and inserting itself into inappropriate locations. For those who can’t come up with such specifics but still think the game portends the end of the world, “problematic” covers a lot of bases.

Urban Dictionary, that indispensable compendium of vernacular terms and usages, defines “problematic” as “a corporate-academic weasel word used mainly by people who sense that something may be oppressive, but don’t want to do any actual thinking about what the problem is or why it exists.”

That may be a little harsh, because these days a great number of people are doing a great deal of useful thinking about all manner of oppression. But it’s hard not to agree with the definition's essence: “Problematic" is a weasel word. 

What’s more, as I’ve observed it, “problematic” tends to get used in inverse proportion to the seriousness of the offense.

We don’t hear “problematic” applied to police shootings of unarmed black men or to legislation preventing transgender people from using certain bathrooms. (The operative description of those issues would be, respectively, “actual problem” and “stupid.”) We certainly don’t hear it when the topic is international finance or the NFL because most people who use “problematic” can’t be bothered to follow such things. In the last few months the word has been applied, with some fanfare, to Calvin Trillin, who published a poem about Chinese food in the New Yorker that was deemed racist, and to Taylor Swift’s new boyfriend, whom fans are unhappy about because  ... I have no idea.

“Problematic” as the rallying cry of sanctimonious posturing is nothing new. In 2013, Gawker named it one of the worst words of the year. The satirical Tumblr site, everythingsaproblem, hilariously sends up “call out culture” with pitch-perfect deconstructions of identity politics that require “problematic.”  Example: According to everythingsaproblem, the type of cuddling known as spooning, which one culture critic called a “fundamentally sexist arrangement,” represents the “deeply problematic way that power structures propagate themselves.”   

Until recently, my problem with “problematic” mostly had to do with the moralizing, condescending and reliably humorless people using it. But when I thought more about it (and, yes, I recognize that sitting around thinking about  “problematic” might itself be called problematic), I realized what we really need to do is look at so-called problematic things through a different lens: not as something we've labeled and figured out but as the exact opposite. 

Think about it: Much of what is deemed problematic is really just complicated, it's interesting. In a less fragile and reactionary culture we might call these things “worthy of discussion.” But discussion — you know, where people take turns talking and listening — has gone out of style.

Instead of talk we have the indignant tweet, the Tumblr account filled with reaction gifs of celebrities rolling their eyes and, of course, the mic drop, which signals that whatever was just said is the final word on the matter and no one need respond or dissent. With so many pre-packaged, automated responses to choose from, there scarcely seems any need to go to the trouble of having an actual conversation.

Except that actual conversations can be fun. Crafting cogent arguments is generally more stimulating than just lobbing the “problematic” grenade and calling it a day. As powerful as any one word can be, it could be even more powerful when it’s connected to others to form sentences.  “Problematic” isn’t an idea. It’s a mask for a sad lack of ideas. 

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com 

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