Why the weasel word ‘problematic’ should be banned

From The Los Angeles Times:

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.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Times

5 thoughts on “Why the weasel word ‘problematic’ should be banned”

    • Agreed.
      The problem isn’t the word–it is very useful in STEM to describe challenges with an easy technical solution but politically incorrect. The problem is the people.

      Keep the word, excess the weasels.

      • I think you mean “excise the weasels.” “Excess weasels” would be problematic.

        “Problematic” is a perfectly useful word, a perfectly meaningful word, until a political or commercial spin doctor gets ahold of it. Then it becomes a euphemism — one remarks upon an ally’s “problematic” policy/character/conduct when one can’t afford to be direct and say “douchebaggish” because that might prove offensive, or open one to retaliation. Remember: Spin doctors don’t tend to be working for the better angels of even Dan Snyder‘s nature (if he has any).

        • No, I meant excess.
          (As in no room left for them or their antics.)
          Gotta put those outlet malls to use. Say, for soylent green. 😀

      • In Programming we tend to use it the other way around.

        To solve this issue we just need to change these 10 areas. You put a programmer on it and you can be reasonably comfortable the issue will be solved.

        What is problematic is those 10 areas might affect 100’s or 1000’s of functions. Each of which will need to be tested.

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