The Problem With 'Problematic'


We're living in a post-truth world. Fake news and alternative facts could be shared on social media by any number of relatives once-removed who you can't un-friend because they'll yell at your mum and she'll yell at you. It's a battlefield of incorrectly sourced articles and misleading data from too-small sample sizes. You can't even mindlessly scroll the internet any more; everything is a true-or-false question you have to dissect and analyse. Along with this increased scrutiny has come the swift rise of the use of the word ‘problematic’.

Want to dismiss a YouTube star? Problematic. Don’t want to engage with what your boyfriend's friends have to say about the wage-gap? Problematic. Want to shut someone up because they are annoying you, but you don't know how to construct an argument? Problematic.

It has become the catch-all term for "I don't want to have to deal with this," with a side order of "figure out for yourself why this conversation is over." And that's because problematic doesn't really mean anything. Well, it does. But not what you think.

What does the dictionary say?

Problematic just means 'the nature of a problem', or 'questionable', 'uncertain'. When you call something problematic you're not actually making a statement about the thing, you're just saying that it's an issue that still needs an answer. Immigration can be problematic - something that needs a solution. Someone's set-in-stone opinions on immigration are trying (however poorly) to be a solution.

But actually…

But, language evolves: 'literally' now means 'figuratively' according to the dictionary people (and they're, like, really smart). It would be wrong of us to discuss a word without talking about it's actual, evolving usage. More recently people have been defining problematic as 'bad' and on tumblr it means something like, 'what you're saying adds to the toxic societal norms which suffocate us all each day'.

That is to say, 'problematic' is now more than just 'related to the problem' and is specifically used to mean 'is adding to the problem'.

urban dictionary coming through

Moving forward

Ok. Now that's all sorted. What's next? Is it acceptable for that statement to be treated as a conversation-ender? We don't think so.

If you want to change the world it's not a very productive thing to say. You don't get to dust off your hands after a full day of calling things bad with no further explanation.

Remember that arguing with someone on the internet isn't always about changing someone's mind. It is usually about not letting incorrect information float into the world untethered. It’s about giving uninitiated bystanders the opportunity to see both sides of the argument; balancing the scales as much as possible. Dismissing someone's wrong opinion doesn't stop that opinion from indoctrinating new people into their ideologies unless you also dismantle the inaccuracies it is built upon. If you don't make your arguments informative onlookers won't be able to make informed decisions and are left susceptible to believe the fake news.

BANGERS&MASH implores you: when you feel the need to call something problematic, go ahead, but add an explanation of why it's so bad. No one is ever gonna learn if you just scream the word “bad” at them. That’s why people get defensive and embolden their views.

But what if it’s a person?

Further to this, the problem with 'problematic' is that it has become a label. If you see a celebrity's name on a list of problematic faves are you going to investigate what was said, or just write them off? We all know what you say you would do. But there’es a new Netflix series out and, so, in the court of public opinion 'problematic' is a 25-to-life.

If people find out a celeb said one bad thing it doesn't matter how long ago it was or how much they've changed, they're fucked. We claim they "should've known better" and that "being a product of the times isn't an excuse", but where is the line drawn? At what age does someone grow out of being allowed to make stupid, hurtful jokes? Does someone deserve to loose their career because at 16 they said something horrible? What if they said it at 18? At 21? At 35?

There isn't a clear answer here and, of course, we are not excusing violence. We're not talking about #MeToo or Marky Mark's racially motivated gang violence. We're trying to address the idea that people's ill-informed opinions are exclusively their own fault. Vilifying individuals when they parrot opinions that they've heard on TV and from their parents their whole lives will never be enough to undo the cultural underpinning of harmful ideas.

Yes, that person should still be told off and held responsible, but the issues run deeper. 'Problematic' is stopping us from fixing the root, and is simply trimming the saplings. We need to let people make mistakes. We need to educate people when they make those mistakes, not just label them and write them off. We can't engender social change by being assholes to the people who didn't know better.

To Clarify:

Entitled white men who have decided to adopt fascism as a political belief system know better and their only desire is to create a system of white supremacy. The ideology doesn't deserve a debate and we are not advocating entering into a discussion about people's inherent humanity or worth. Fascists are inciting violence against underprivileged groups and they must be fought with violence. BANGERS&MASH advocates punching a nazi.

On compassion

When you become more enlightened have compassion for the people who are in the position you were mere moments ago. Realise that you only know things because someone taught them to you. You didn't become woke on your own. Some people have simply never been exposed to the experiences that you live every day. They don't understand that what they are saying is hurtful, and if they knew it they would stop. How are these people to educate themselves if we give them no language or concepts to even begin their research?

"The internet exists now, no one has an excuse any more!" What if we told you there was a new colour? But we've decided that it's not our job to tell you what that colour is or anything about it. Just google it, we say. How do you think you would fare? Would you be able to find the ‘right’ articles, and ignore the ones denying the existence of this new colour?

At the end of the day there has to be a more open dialogue surrounding people's mistakes, which stem from misinformation that they had no reason to believe was incorrect until you called them out on Twitter a minute ago. Not for the sake of converting or absolving the person you're arguing with, but for the sake of equal representation of ideas.

We can't keep treating everyone like they should know everything just because of the ease of access to the internet. It's not realistic that someone could take in all that information and, honestly, life would be so boring if everyone did know everything already. In realising that our differences are what make society work we need to accept that sometimes there will be differences that might be contrary to progress. We need to choose to educate those people rather than just write them off as 'problematic' because it's easier than thinking critically.

When it was you that was being problematic someone else took the time to educate you. You should afford the same compassion to others as well.

xx The Bangers

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