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The problematic use of ‘problematic’ to close down folks with whom we disagree

by Robin Abcarian

My first disagreeable encounter with the present which means of the phrase “problematic” occurred a few years in the past.

I used to be mingling with some 20- and 30-somethings at an out of doors party in San Francisco. It was a bit chilly, as San Francisco often is, however a definite and fairly totally different chill fell over my little dialog group as we started to debate Ben Stiller’s “Tropic Thunder,” the hilarious (for my part) film that spoofed Hollywood careerism and conflict films.

I don’t keep in mind why, precisely, we have been speaking a few movie that got here out in 2008. However all these years later, I mentioned, I used to be nonetheless laughing at Tom’s Cruise shocking position as fat-fingered, balding studio boss Les Grossman, a filthy-mouthed bully who — it was rumored — was based mostly on the producer Scott Rudin and/or Harvey Weinstein, legendary business monsters who each occur to be Jewish.

One lady checked out me and mentioned, “That position was problematic.”

“Nevertheless it was satire,” I replied. “It was humorous.”

“It was nonetheless problematic,” she mentioned. “He was channeling Jewish stereotypes.”

At that time, I believed it finest to not point out one of many film’s different stars, Robert Downey Jr., who performed a white Australian actor enjoying a Black American Vietnam conflict vet. In blackface.

Feeling wrongfully admonished, I modified the topic.

However ever since, I’ve puzzled how the phrase “problematic,” so imprecise, had develop into such an efficient insult and shorthand for somebody’s (properly, my) ethical failure or insensitivity.

I plugged the phrase “problematic” into the Google Ngram Viewer, a web site that exhibits patterns of phrase utilization in English-language literature, and found that its use has soared in the previous few many years and exhibits no indicators of slowing.

However why?

In a 2021 Atlantic essay, Oxford political concept professor Teresa M. Bejan supplied a attainable reply:

“Lecturers like me love to explain issues as ‘problematic.’ However what will we imply? We’re not saying that the factor in query is unsolvable and even tough. We’re saying — or implying — that it’s objectionable indirectly, that it rests uneasily with our prior ethical or political commitments. … It depends on a delicate kind of bullying instead of mutual justification. It excludes, moderately than explains.”


I might recommend that the phrase “problematic” has advanced to its present charged utilization as a result of the phrase “politically incorrect,” as soon as used satirically by smug leftists, was hijacked by smug conservatives to indicate inflexible left-wing ideological conformity. In keeping with the Ngram Viewer, using “politically appropriate” and “politically incorrect” has fallen dramatically within the final a number of years after surging within the years between 1980 and 1997. (That type of cancellation is just about what occurred to the phrase “liberal,” when the late MAGA Republican Rush Limbaugh turned it into his favourite epithet.)

Again in 2016, when former President Trump was first working, Slate revealed an essay concerning the bother with “problematic” and its tendency to obscure what’s actually being mentioned.

“You don’t typically hear folks saying that Donald Trump’s newest rants about immigrants or ladies are problematic,” wrote Haley Swenson. “As a substitute, his phrases are known as racist, sexist, and harmful. However in relation to conversations about tradition and illustration, we apparently really feel the necessity to undercut, obscure, and distance ourselves from our personal arguments.”

A number of years earlier than Trump started his political ascent, a highschool pupil named Liat Kaplan began an nameless Tumblr web page known as “Your Fave is Problematic,” a much less direct means of highlighting the issue with “problematic.”

As Kaplan defined it years later within the New York Instances, “The posts contained lengthy lists of celebrities’ regrettable (racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ethnophobic, ableist and so forth) statements and actions — the stuff that will get folks canceled as of late.”

With satisfaction, I’ve observed at the least the start of a backlash has been brewing towards “problematic,” and its snotty little cousin “deeply problematic.”

The essayist Jill Filipovic mentioned as a lot earlier this month when she confessed within the Atlantic that she regretted embracing the idea of “set off warnings.”

“Again then,” she wrote, “I used to be satisfied that such warnings have been generally essential to convey the seriousness of the subjects at hand (the time period deeply problematic seems a mortifying variety of instances underneath my byline).”

The opposite day, I watched “Tropic Thunder” once more for the primary time in years.

It trades on and pokes enjoyable at stereotypes of Black folks, white folks, Asian folks, Jewish folks, actors, brokers, studio heads, conflict heroes. I ponder if it might get inexperienced lighted as we speak.

Personally, I discovered Cruise’s star flip as Grossman simply as hilarious and true as the primary time I noticed it, possibly much more so as a result of his alleged inspirations — Rudin and Weinstein — have gotten their karmic comeuppance within the wake of the MeToo motion.

Offensive? Maybe. Excessive? For certain. However problematic? Banish the thought.

Robin Abcarian is a columnist for the Los Angeles Instances.