“Words have power, Donald. I should know, I was a f—ing English teacher,” says Mr. X to Donald in the play Piss and Vinegar by Camille Wood ‘17, part of the Senior Performance Series. After the performances had run, I listened to conversations about them, their themes, and, of course, their problematic aspects. This got me thinking – yes, about the plays, but also about that word: “problematic.”
It pops up in conversations, Facebook posts, and indeed in Index articles. It attaches itself to situations, people, and ideas. I’ve even heard it take on verb form as “problematize” – which sounds like it means “to make problematic.” It actually means to point out something problematic. Yet, is that all that “problematic” does? What does it mean when we say something is “problematic?”
Whenever I first get into a discussion, I like to nail down terminology to avoid the equally frustrating and unproductive debates centered more around mismatched syntax than around mismatched ideas. Merriam-Webster defines “problematic” as meaning: a) posing a problem, b) not definite or settled, and c) open to question or debate.
All these definitions seem to indicate is that the root word for “problematic” is “problem”. So, what does “problem” mean? Again, Merriam-Webster delivers: 1) a question raised for inquiry, consideration, or solution or 2) an intricate or unsettled question. That’s more like it. Whew.
Both these definitions imply solvability; like a math problem, there is an answer (perhaps in the back of the book). However, for a problem to be solved, it needs to be understood. If you’ve ever watched someone try to figure out why a baby is crying, you’ve witnessed first-hand the struggle of knowing there is a problem, but not knowing what it is.
“Hashtag activism” has become a plague in today’s social-media dominated discourse; entire issues are condensed down to a few short words and “spreading awareness” is treated like it carries the same weight as direct action. Not to knock awareness, of course. If I didn’t make drivers turning left on to Stadium from Lovell aware of me crossing the street by frantically waving my flashlight around, I probably wouldn’t be writing this article.
This doesn’t change the fact that saying something is “problematic” but not defining how is a lot like dialing 911, saying there’s a fire without saying where, and then hanging up. All that will do is distress and confuse someone else (i.e. just creating another problem). Unfortunately, people too often attach “problematic”, without explanation, to something that irks them or makes them uncomfortable.
Allow me to pause and say that I don’t want to delegitimize the complaints or feelings of people who use “problematic”. There are plenty of valid reasons to feel uncomfortable or not like something: damp socks, microaggressions, stereotypes, etc. However, we must ask ourselves: if a problem isn’t known and understood, how can it be solved?
I know it’s a daunting task. It’s difficult to find the words to effectively describe all the things we may find problematic. Don’t worry if you fail or your description isn’t perfect, it will provide a starting point for others to understand and explain the problem better, at which point everyone will forget your failure. A great place to start is catching yourself whenever you say or want to say “problematic” and to think of more specific, relevant, and meaningful words to address the issue.
I understand that there’s something inherently problematic about a white, cis man telling other people how to structure their discourse, so take everything I’ve said with a grain of salt. I do hope that I promote conversations about how we discuss the issues we face on campus and beyond and that if something problematic does arise out of it, you’ll take the time to specifically and meaningfully describing it in an opinion article for The Index.