Why I hate the word “Problematic”

I can get pretty passionate about words, but I admit, it’s not always for a good reason. For example, I hated the snot out of the word proactive for years, but in retrospect, it’s not such a bad word. It means that you’re in favor of being active, and well, that serves a purpose, right? I think I really just hated it because it was so often used in job listings, where it would always be part of the phrase Successful candidates must be proactive and prepared to work in a dynamic, success-oriented environment— presumably as opposed to all of those stagnant, failure-oriented environments. Those are no fun.

So in the end, I think I just had a bad association with good ol’ proactive. It was used as part of a lot of really pompous, disingenuous language, but that wasn’t proactive’s fault. My bad, word.

With problematic though, that’s a different kettle of fish. I hate it for actual reasons and I seem to hate it more with every passing day, which shouldn’t even be possible because I thought I was at my maximum hatred level for it about six months ago, but no. I hate problematic because it is actively making our conversations worse, and in some cases, stopping them from happening at all.

This may be counterintuitive, but to explain why I hate problematic so much, I’m going to talk about some other, superior words first. Let’s look at words like racist, sexist, classist and homophobic. These are all words that mean specific things– not hyper-specific, since there’s a whole bunch of different ways something can display any of these traits, but specific enough that when someone uses one of these words, we have some idea of what the problem is.

If someone says “I find this show sexist,” there’s an implicit burden of proof on the speaker there; they’ve asserted something specific, and most reasonably intelligent people realize they have to be prepared to back that assertion up if they want to convince others who disagree. In the case of someone making such an assertion, I can say the following: “Really? That’s interesting, because I find the portrayal of woman on this show to be nuanced and interesting. Why do you think it’s sexist?” Then we can discuss it; maybe I’ll learn something and maybe I won’t, but either way we’ve engaged in a valid discussion about the work in question.

Now let’s look at the same situation, only instead of sexist, the person says “I find this show problematic.” What have they asserted? That there is something wrong with the show from some kind of social justice-based perspective. It could be sexist, racist, classist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-semetic, and so on. It could appear to the speaker to promulgate a kind of ideology– be it economic, social or otherwise– that the show may or may not actually communicate. The palette of options for what this person’s specific issue (or issues) with it is so staggeringly broad that labeling something as problematic tells me absolutely nothing.

Despite my hatred of the word, I’m not trying to make this issue sound worse than it is; after all, we can still have a conversation. I can still say, “Hey, I don’t have an issue with the show myself; can you please tell me what you find problematic about it?” and we can continue along our merry way. But in that case, we’re starting from somewhere less specific, less interesting, just plain less good than if the person in question had asserted the actual nature of their criticism. I don’t think that the speaker feels the same burden of proof that they do when they use specific terms like “sexist” or “racist” either, because they haven’t asserted anything specific; why feel a need to back up what you say, when you haven’t actually said anything?

“Hey, wait a minute!”* some readers may be thinking right now. “What is it with this ‘burden of proof’ business? If I find something problematic, that’s my right to feel that way and I don’t have to prove anything to anyone!”

Very true. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone– unless, of course, you’re talking to someone who has a different opinion and you’d like to convince them that your view makes more sense. In that case, the burden of proof is something you should probably care about. Of course, if you’re talking to people who already agree with you (and plan to talk only to people who already agree with you in the future), then you don’t have to worry about backing up your opinion in any meaningful way. You can say that the show is problematic, and they can agree with you that it is quite clearly and dangerously problematic, and you can all further agree that the world would be a better place if people would stop making such problematic things all the time. Really, people’s insistence on being problematic is becoming increasingly problematic, don’t you agree?

This is a word best used in an echo chamber, where its lack of specificity doesn’t matter because you aren’t engaging in a conversation with any actual substance. That’s my main issue with it, but not the only one. A related one– and I freely admit, part of this is me trying to nail down the vapor of subtext and nuance in a way that’s completely opinionated– is the fact that I feel like it’s very snooty. There’s a sense that things that are problematic should be self-evident; that it’s a vague criticism because of course, everyone realizes why the thing in question is problematic, and if someone doesn’t realize it, they’re clearly a horrible backwards person who isn’t worth talking to anyway. I mean, why does it matter if another person doesn’t necessarily know WHY you think something is problematic? If they can’t see for themselves what’s so clearly, innately problematic about it, are they really worth talking to anyway?

I believe intelligent people can disagree over whether or not a given piece of media is promoting harmful ideas or not. I believe that you can think something is racist while I do not or I can find something sexist that you do not, because we all have different ways of processing the oodles of contextual information that inform these concerns. I think we can, and should, discuss these things. The word problematic kills discussion by conflating a bunch of very diverse issues together, and subtextually, communicates a “them or us” mentality; either you get why the thing in question is problematic, or you’re a bad person who’s against the cause of achieving a greater social justice. Subtext is always subjective, so you may not agree with me there, and that’s fine; what’s not really debatable is that problematic is generally less useful than the words it tends to replace. Even if you don’t find the term snooty or divisive at all, the fact that it’s super-vague can’t really be denied.

“Aha!” you might be saying. “But what if something is both sexist and racist, therefore a problem on more than one level, therefore problematic? That’s useful, right?” I don’t know. I guess if you find something to be sexist, racist, classist, etc., it may be convenient to be able to call it problematic rather than spelling out all of those concerns individually. But you know what? If you’re interested, again, in talking to people who don’t necessarily agree with you, you’re better off spelling out those concerns individually. Because let’s say I completely agree with your criticism that the media in question is guilty of classism, but I find your claims that it’s also sexist and racist less convincing. Lumping all of that together into a y/n question, “Is this problematic or not?” is missing the point entirely.

I mean, of course whatever we’re talking about is bound to be problematic; how could it not be? What’s out there that couldn’t be better attuned with the ideas that will lead to achieving greater social justice on some level? There is no piece of media that isn’t potentially problematic on some level; in fact, trying too hard not to make something problematic is problematic, because a lot of the different things you would need to do to avoid making something problematic in any way are mutually exclusive. What, exactly, is the point of using the word problematic when there is literally nothing that isn’t?


* I try to anticipate criticisms people will have of my points and respond to them, but I’m aware that doing so in the form of having an imaginary person ask me a question may seem like propping up a strawman and then knocking it down, and that’s not my intention. Honestly, it just seems like the most expedient way to illustrate that yes, I have thought of that angle, and if you’ve got a better idea as to how to communicate that, I’m all ears.

10 thoughts on “Why I hate the word “Problematic””

  1. Part of the issue I have with the word problematic is that it replaces words that are already fairly ambiguous. Ask 3 people to define sexism and you will have soon have 12 different opinions on what is and isn’t sexist. I don’t think everyone using the world problematic is trying to be dismissive, but I do think it fails to express what someone is actually upset about. Like you said, everything is potentially problematic. What is or isn’t sexist is defined very different from one person to the next for example. I imagine that you and I would probably define it differently even and I think we probably agree on this topic for the most part. So what happens when we take a word that ambiguously defines terms that are already somewhat ambiguous? I’ve seen people arguing about entirely different things in the same conversations without even realizing it.

    I have seen plenty of people use the term problematic in a dismissive way by the context of how it is used. Those same people are often fighting for social justice and creating enemies out of “bad guys”. The argument over “problematic media” is interesting to watch when it becomes something that is basically attempting to segregate people into the good people who care and the bad people who don’t. I’ve been told on several occasions that I am a bad person for opinions I hold by someone who is not even willing to hear me out. It’s sad to see social justice for the sake of fighting discrimination become discrimination itself. That is something important for anyone to understand if they want to take the fight for equality seriously I think. It should be obvious that you can’t fight discrimination with more discrimination, but I guess in practice that isn’t always the case.

    Thanks for writing this up. I’ve been feeling the same way about this word as I’ve told you on twitter. It’s frustrating to see arguments that should be resolvable hijacked by ambiguous words.

    1. Those are the types that are the most difficult to engage with at any capacity. Sometimes the discussion just ends with agreeing to disagreeing, and you kind of just have to leave it at that. But even as the discussion narrows in on the topic, some people just stay their soundproof room in their mind, and I just have to walk away.

    2. It’s really disheartening when the conversation becomes “This is problematic and if you can’t see it than you’re just a bad person and you should be ashamed of yourself,” and it very often does become that. It also puts me at something of a loss because while I generally think that having dialogue is the way forward, having conversations like that just feels like banging your head against the wall.

  2. Maybe I should be thanking my lucky stars that I never come across these “problematic” words on my network feeds! :p

    I can definitely see why this can make anyone grit their teeth. It’s intellectually lazy and at worst it actually becomes a disservice to a topic that really demands some serious attention.

    Like I mentioned earlier, I don’t notice these habits anywhere on my daily rummages, so I looked to see what are some examples out there. There was one thread in the Tropes board about anime sexism that was WAY lost on the word; even lost in the points they were trying to make. There was also this article: http://geeksdreamgirl.com/2012/11/12/how-to-tell-and-be-told-that-a-fandom-is-problematic/ The author uses it in a broad way that throws the bad net over on social issues, which I can understand, but “problematic” shows up at a whooping fifteen times! And that was supposed to be a guide about taking the high road on confrontations in the “geek” fandom…

    I think if you’re really engaged in the topic you show interest and knowledge in, you should be able to communicate in way that not only you can be understood, but also understand others in a way you can tell if they’re making sound points or not. A lot of people who throw in their two cents in “social justice” issues are the equivalent of TV news stations who grab any Joe schmoes on the street, who clearly have no strong claims on the topic being reported on, and getting their opinions asked in front of the camera just to get a five second soundbite. Why even bother?

    1. That article, in addition to the “How to Like Problematic Things” article that she links to kind of bugs me because it makes it sounds like you have to respect everyone’s opinion all the time. I get that it’s important that people know that they’re being heard, even if you disagree, but honestly…sometimes people have wacky opinions. Sometimes they’re projecting, sometimes they’re seeing what they want to see, and sometimes they’re just plain crazy, but you can respect their right to have an opinion without being obligated to respect the content of their opinion.

      I mean, I am generally an advocate of not being an asshole and would never tell someone “your opinion is stupid,” or what have you, but these calls for respecting everyone’s opinion 100% of the time just ring a little false for me. That’s just not life. Sometimes you’ll agree, sometimes you’ll disagree but at least see where the other person is coming from, and sometimes you will think the person is dead wrong– and it’s okay to think that someone is wrong. The fact that they have feelings, as we all do, or they may feel very strongly about it, doesn’t mean they can’t be wrong.

      TL;DR I’m wary of the “Respect everyone’s opinion about stuff all the time because FEELINGS” angle.

  3. Thank you, I thought I was alone in my pet peeve for that word. The way it gets used lately, I can’t help but envision a whiny 15 year-old whenever I hear it. It just sounds really bitchy and obnoxious.

    I hadn’t considered the points you were making, though, about the vagueness and the fact that in using the word, you’ve made your criticism less impactful because of its vagueness. I’m with you though, those are all true points. So, props to you for actually going into it, rather than just dismissing it as “it sounds annoying” like I did, haha

    1. Thanks. I did see Mr. Friedersdorf’s article, and it was generous of him to quote me when I’m just a blogger not a affiliated with any larger entity. I got a lot of traffic for about two days, lol:)

  4. I hate the incorrect use of the word problematic. I actually love the word for its intended correct use. It is used incorrectly by nearly everybody it seems including you. EEEK!!! It is not a synonym for or refernce to specific “problem(s)”!!!! I quote your original article Karen:
    “Now let’s look at the same situation, only instead of sexist, the person says “I find this show problematic.” What have they asserted? That there is something wrong with the show from some kind of social justice-based perspective. ”
    Thats the wrong use! You are referring to problems within the show. “PROBLEMATIC” means iffy, not definite or settled, open to question or debate. Correct usage might be: Whether humankind can ever completely eradicate all hate is”PROBLEMATIC”! And that does not mean that the goal of eradicating all hate is and will be chock full of problems. Of course the task to eradicate all hate will be chock full of problems but that is not the role of the word “PROBLEMATIC” to make a glancing short-hand reference to them.
    Any definition for “PROBLEMATIC” that means some given situation or thing may contain items which you find to be problems is completely wrong! This example sentence expresses the correct definition: Its still “PROBLEMATIC” if Isaiah Thomas will be fully recovered from a hip injury when the playoffs start.

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