Lazy choice of words can hurt social justice causesLouis Ashworth

In universities all over the country, but particularly in Cambridge, the word ‘problematic’ has become standard fare. For the many people who use it second-hand – the people who have picked it up here – it means that an element or the implication of an idea or practice has the potential to be offensive, generally invoking issues relating to identity politics such as racism and sexism. However, the term itself is not used unthinkingly; it is used precisely to avoid having to think about whether the specific case in question is ‘problematic’ or not.

Problematic how? It causes a problem? It is the problem? It is a discussion that is problematic to have? It is an issue that has been ‘problematised’ by some outside force? It isn’t clear. I’d go further, it’s often deliberately unclear.

Problematic is a word that implies a whole set of assumptions and yet invites no ability for those assumptions to be questioned

If one says that something is ‘problematic’, one does not have to engage with how, or whether, it really is. To denounce something instantly as homophobic or racist will often be both more accurate but also more abrasive. People would, on the whole, rather not tell their friends they are being racist or homophobic. So we have found a conveniently vague word – a word which means we sidestep the whole discussion with a mild presumption of guilt.

On the surface of things that’s a quite admirable position. Isn’t it? But if the word ‘problematic’ is being used because people simply don’t have the courage to call out their friends, then there’s a problem.

Now I don’t mind saying “there’s a problem” in the way I just have because I am going to identify what the problem is, as I see it, and then you can tell me that I’m wrong, or indeed right, about it. But if I say to a friend that they are being ‘problematic’ and do not specify how, I’ve just let it sit; the real root of the problem has not been challenged. Nobody can disprove your claim because it is too broad, too nebulous to be seriously examined.

Now, sometimes how something is problematic is obvious. The word problematic is a litotic understatement. But too often how something is problematic is only apparently obvious, if one were to delve a little deeper one might wonder whether something really is causing or indeed part of a problem. Too often people instinctively label something problematic either to dismiss discussing how it is problematic, or when they haven’t yet checked whether something really is problematic. They just have a niggling concern that something in what has been said or thought or written or seen has something a little bit off about it somehow.


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This kind of mental footnoting is unhelpful and self-indulgent. It is important to discuss how certain phrases carry implicit racist or homophobic connotations if we really are concerned about how they will affect society. It is important to discuss exactly how and when language is gendered, what its effects are and how to counter-act it. It is not, however, important to prove that you are ‘woke’ or aware of a problem by putting in brackets your vague concerns about things with a verbal abbreviation. Problematic is a word that implies a whole set of assumptions and yet invites no ability for those assumptions to be questioned – it is the conclusion of a debate rather than an argument in itself.

Most people have caught this word from others. Some people, though, are pushers – some people see branding things as problematic to shut down debate as a victory rather than a defeat. A whole newspeak has developed of which problematic is but one word, a newspeak designed to indicate the in-crowd and the outsiders. To be an insider is to be newly awake to the woes of the world, to have an insight not granted to the rest – they are the elect and we are the damned. Problematic is the staple word of a brand of student politics that does not want to listen to most students.

Let’s confine this word to the scrapheap. When there’s a genuine problem, it obfuscates and we don’t find the solution. When the problem is barely there, then why punish our friends for trying to be interesting or funny?

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