Last week, my friends and I were discussing Internet lingo. I noted that every time I try to use a term ironically, it slips inevitably into my daily vocabulary, usually lasting as a fixture in my speech for a maximum of three weeks. “Hunty” was once a featured guest, and “iconic” has never left. The word I once wanted to master sardonically suddenly gains mastery. It’s a pernicious cycle.
My inability to use phrases ironically reflects a larger trend that plagues all words. Once overused, their value tends to evaporate. More precisely, value re-centers itself. “Iconic” is no longer about superior iconography or Byzantine portraits of the Madonna; I use it to nebulously describe everything that’s fabulous in the world. The same is true of “problematic.”
As I understand it, “problematic” arose as a way to discuss limitations in methodology. A use of a certain author forgets to mention his racist background; someone studying a foreign culture might make a silly assumption that makes their writing sound like a Rudyard Kipling poem; or perhaps someone discussing low-income families draws a sexist conclusion about the role of working mothers. “Problematic” could even be positive: new evidence complicates previous assumptions and understandings. Each of these situations would give rise to problems as people tried to construct meaningful discourse. “Problematic,” dictionaries tell me, describes that which presents a difficulty.
A brief Google search also reveals that the use of “problematic” has increased drastically within the past decade or so. With the word’s increased frequency has come its much eroded meaning. I’m not sure I can truly explain to you what “problematic” means today. I’m not sure anyone could, and the definition I’ve produced above relates to such a small sliver population that it might as well be moot.
More than anything else, “problematic” seems like a response to deeper cultural attitudes. It’s always been in vogue to keep a pulse on the actions of celebrities. Now, our attention to what celebrities say and do is just as much about their social currency as it is about ours. Words have a certain cachet, which is why “unctuous” sounds better than “oily,” “lugubrious” more interesting than “sad.” Calling out Madonna or Macklemore—stars who are a dime-a-dozen, in the culture of “Your Fave is Problematic—is ultimately more about style than it is about activism. If “problematic” might recognize that everything is political, its risk might very well be the extent to which its use is political as well.
The problem with problematic extends beyond the people who use it, though. More often than not, the word obscures the horrible, unethical content of whatever it sticks to. Problematic finds its way to white people who slur the n-word towards black people just as quickly as it describes someone who attempts to police someone else’s body. Neither of these people is problematic. One of them is a racist, the other a shames bodies. The culture of “Your Fave Is Problematic” tends to erase these specificities. Moreover, where’s the seriousness in claiming that everyone is problematic? The blanketing claim it makes allows us to throw our hands up in resignation. “Problematic” facilitates laziness.
What we conceived originally as a descriptive tool has wrought damage of its own. This is often the case where the Internet intersects with social justice discourses. Talk around cultural appropriation is at risk for falling devoid of meaning. Checking one’s privilege, for example, has been turned into a barometer of the problem it once identified. . I think we’ve reached a similar breaking point with “problematic.” Moving forward, the solution, to my mind, is more precision. Developing richer dialogues about race, class, gender and bodies means expanding the way they’re discussed. Using a word that consistently impedes that development produces more difficulty than discourse. That, if anything, is problematic.