Chun: The Problem with ‘Problematic’

The word allows an escape from identifying and confronting issues.

by Steven Chun | 9/18/18 2:15am

 “Yeah, I can’t believe they did that. It’s so…”

There’s a pause before it comes, an interminable breath where the speaker contemplates the identification of the issue at hand. Then it gushes forth, bringing relief from weltschmerz.

“…problematic.”

That pause is everything. It is the start of a long and difficult process of reckoning with exactly why something about the world is wrong. The word problematic cuts that process short and gives people a way out, easing the burden of identifying exactly what about the state of the word gives people unease.

This is not to say that those who declare things problematic are in the wrong, simply that its prevailing usage dulls people’s ability to discern why exactly things are wrong. Problematic captures so many of the ills that plague us: racism, sexism, ableism, twisted power dynamics, ignorance, discrimination, injustice and the intersection of every one of those evils. But it is vague and incomplete. It doesn’t tell us which injustice has taken place. In fact, it allows us to ignore the details completely. Problematic means you know it’s wrong and that’s enough.

But it’s not enough. Knowing that something is wrong with the world is barely a start if you don’t know how it is wrong. Where does the injustice lie and what societal values has it violated? Is it discrimination on the basis of race or sex? 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.

When we don’t ask ourselves these questions, when we don’t identify out loud acts of sexism or discrimination against the LGTBQ+ community, we give into the insidious notion that we should accept a general campus belief of what is acceptable and what is not without understanding why. Sometimes saying problematic means, “I know many of my friends would find this unacceptable, but I can’t quite put my finger on the issue.” To rely on that old friend problematic here is dishonest. It is fleeing from an opportunity to understand the nature of what gives one unease and by extension, refusing to confront the complicated, thorny issues at hand.

Let that pause linger. 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. Bettering our campus requires a clear declaration of the values we hold and how they are violated. Problematic does neither. It’s a meager substitute for truly understanding injustice. It’s a way for everyone to nod their heads in sagely agreement without stepping on any toes. We have the vocabulary to identify the ways the world is wrong — we just need to care enough to use it.

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