According to an essay written by a Dartmouth student, the word “problematic” is actually in itself kind of problematic or something.
“The word problematic . . . gives people a way out, easing the burden of identifying exactly what about the state of the word gives people unease,” Steven Chun writes in an essay titled, “The Problem with ‘Problematic’” for the school’s newspaper, The Dartmouth.
Chun explains that although he does not think that people who use the word “problematic” are necessarily “in the wrong,” and although the word “captures so many of the ills that plague us: racism, ableism, twisted power dynamics, ignorance, discrimination, injustice, and the intersection of every one of those evils,” it is still “vague and incomplete.”
“It doesn’t tell us which injustice has taken place,” Chun writes. “In fact, it allows us to ignore the details completely.”
“Problematic means you know it’s wrong and that’s enough,” he continues.
According to Chun, however, simply knowing that something is wrong is not enough. Rather, you still need to know the answers to questions such as “Where does the injustice lie and what societal values has it violated?” and “Is it disrespectful to a culture or peoples? If so, are historical power dynamics at play?”
“These are the questions we must ask ourselves if we are to know how and where to respond to injustice,” he writes.
Chun advises that, instead of using the word “problematic,” people should stay silent until they have more specific words to describe what’s wrong before speaking.
“Let that pause linger,” he writes. “Let it hang in the air until you either have decided on the crime committed or are brave enough to admit that you’re not quite sure how the wrong has been wrought — that is a brave act and the start of what is likely an incredibly valuable conversation.”
“Treating actions as binary — acceptable or not — does a disservice to the fights to improve the way we treat each other at Dartmouth,” he continues.
Now, I’ll be the first one to say that I don’t particularly enjoy the word “problematic.” For me, I find that it’s all too often uttered by overzealous social-justice warriors who are looking for an issue where there really isn’t one. Indeed, I’ve written about everything from checking your white privilege to the fact that there are small chairs in preschools to the show Hot Wings being described as “problematic” by these sorts of people. Still, one thing I can’t understand is not liking it because it’s “vague.”
We have many different types of words in the English language. Some are less specific than others. For example: We have the word “bad,” which means “not good.” A whole host of things — from missing a flight to getting dumped to the band Journey — can be described as “bad.” Sure, using it doesn’t give the most specific description of the situation, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a useful word. Sometimes, it’s a good word to use if you want to group several unfortunate things together without getting specific. For example: Say you missed your alarm, were late to work, got splashed with rainwater on the way to work, got fired when you got there, got a text on your way home from your girlfriend saying that she didn’t love you anymore, and then got home to find that your dog was dead. If, after all that, you started crying (and you probably would start crying) and someone asked you what was wrong, you could use the word “bad” to simply tell them, “I had a bad day” rather than getting into the specifics.
Having both specific and vague words is just how our language works, and the less specific ones can be helpful. The word “problematic,” as Chun himself acknowledges, can be useful because it groups things such as racism, sexism, and ableism together. Those things are all similar, and so it is good that we have a word to use that allows us to group them together. It can be useful in sentences where you’re speaking generally, e.g., “Problematic phrases hurt people.” Without it, that sentence would have to be, “Sexist, racist, ableist, weight-ist, attractive-ist, classist, anti-Christian, anti-semitic, and Islamaophobic phrases hurt people” and it still wouldn’t cover everything. Big-umbrella words are useful — because sometimes you just need a big umbrella.