Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Problems with "Problematic" (and more.)

We’re just over a month into the new year and I’ve now come up with my list of the three words or phrases I’d like to hear less of. At the risk of boring everyone to death with my opinions, they are:  

  1. Problematic
  2. My Truth (or, alternatively, Your Truth)
  3. President Donald Trump

My aim in writing this isn’t to air a curmudgeonly gripe about how the darned kids are speaking these days, but rather to make a case against the usage of these phrases for reasons of lucidity and effectiveness. I hope that after reading this, people who commonly fall back on the use of these phrases will reconsider them, and seek out better and clearer words for formulating arguments or expressing their feelings or opinions. In some cases I think these phrases can be pernicious, especially politically, but the degree to which that is true varies with case and context.

Taking the first two phrases above, I’ll concede that popularity or trendiness alone isn’t sufficient reason to dismiss their use out of hand. However, I do think that a noticeable increase in the use of any word or phrase is reason enough to at least question or consider one’s use of it. Overused phrases or cliches suggest common or unoriginal thinking. By using trendy words, the author places her writing within not only a particular point in time, but allies it - whether intentionally or not - with schools or methods of thought or other writers that use that same highly-specific language. 

Even a single use of a phrase in a writer’s work, if commonplace or trendy or popular enough, can render the reader skeptical of an author’s originality. Having seen the term “problematic” used so much recently, I am now predisposed to take arguments using the word less seriously, because I suspect the thinking behind them of being less original. This may be unfair of me, but it’s a very real tendency among readers and something a writer should consider if they want their argument to be effective. Overuse can exhaust a reader, and they may miss or dismiss a point because of the tedious or cliched way in which it is expressed (here’s hoping this essay isn’t too guilty of that.) 

Such a use of trendy terms can be useful if the author wants to signify her belonging to a particular intellectual or ideological group. When someone uses “problematic,” for example, my experience of the common usage of that word suggests to me that the author is probably educated and liberal. If someone else were to then accuse that same author using the equally trendy term “virtue signaling,” I would suspect the accuser of, if not alt-right or conservative sympathies, at least an anti-politically correct feeling. I contend that this kind of easy linguistic not-so-secret handshaking within ideological groups dilutes and muddies the expressions of an independent mind. 

There are more important problems with these first two terms that are specific to their usage and meaning, aside from their overuse or popularity in writing and speech today. Some of these problems apply to both phrases, others to just one. 

Beginning with “problematic,” my first and most basic argument against its use is that it is imprecise. Problematic in the way it is used today is a vague term, usually used when someone means anything from “bad” to “troubling” to “wrong” to “offensive” to “unjust” to “immoral” to “distasteful,” or any number of other negatives. These manifold meanings aren’t exactly synonymous with the original meaning of the word, which my OED defines as “of the nature of a problem; constituting or presenting a problem; difficult of solution or decision; doubtful, uncertain, questionable.”

That definition has doubt and uncertainty sewn right into it, and consideration will show that it is not precisely the same as the common usage of the word today. When someone refers to something as “problematic” these days, they usually aren’t saying that it’s difficult to solve or filled with uncertainty - instead they’re making a negative value judgement, whether moral, cultural, etc… Those who contend that white people wearing Indian headdresses is “problematic” are not typically saying that this is a difficult or ambiguous or doubtful matter that merely presents a problem. They usually mean that they find it offensive and stupid, and I think they’d be much better served by expressing that outright and honestly. This kind of meaning-creep happens all the time, especially when words become popular. “Brutalized” is now usually meant to refer to being beaten up rather than its other more nuanced and interesting meaning of someone being made brutal or desensitized. “Empowered” in common non-legal use today tends to describe “self-empowerment” rather than its more technical meaning of being given or awarded powers. 

One issue with “problematic” being used rather than “bad” or “immoral” or “wrong,” is that it has a vaguely academic or scientific sheen that can disguise an expression of opinion as a matter of fact. If someone were to say “The Washington Redskins name is offensive/ distasteful/insensitive,” we would have a better idea of their true opinion and be better equipped to discuss it. “The Washington Redskins name is problematic,” is simultaneously vaguely non-committal (because “problematic,” can mean such a wide range of things,) and uncompromising (because “problematic” sounds more objective than “offensive.”) This is the kind of language that stifles conversation rather than enables it.

Probably more worrying is the second phrase: “my truth,” (or indeed “your” or “his” or “her” truth.) The principle objection to this one should be obvious: it directly contradicts the idea of “the truth” or any single truth. This is a more benign-seeming example of the classic totalitarian method of perverting language to shape the ruled’s thoughts and reality to the “truth” of the ruler. In this sense, saying “my truth” sounds no less ridiculous and only slightly less sinister than saying “alternative facts.”

Even more so than “problematic,” this can be a conversation-stopper, which is always a dangerous thing. Raising the banner of “my truth” erects an impregnable battlement around a person’s own argument. If “my truth” and “your truth” can coexist, then there’s simply no need to discuss the possibility of “the truth.” “My truth” is the stubborn tantrum of the unchangeable mind; “because I said so,” for grown-ups. 

By delegitimizing the idea of a single truth or “the truth” as something to be pursued however imperfectly yet never conclusively, “my truth” is an intellectual forfeit. The pursuit of “the truth” is the foundation of wisdom, knowledge, science, and philosophy. The pursuit of “your truth,” is the self-obsessive territory of gurus and motivational speakers. 

There’s an important distinction which mustn’t be missed. While I am arguing that the truth is neither subjective nor relative, that doesn’t mean that we all have to agree on what the truth is. In fact, it’s necessary that humans be free to think and speak and follow their conscience and reason wherever it leads them in order that we may all edge ever closer, however incrementally, to some idea of the truth (with many smashed idols and once firmly-held dogmas left by the roadside.) This will necessary mean disagreements on the nature of everything; disagreements about the truth of things. These disagreements are fundamental and crucial in order to foster inquiry, debate, experimentation. But even though we all may disagree radically on what the truth is at any given time or how to discover it, it’s necessary to agree that the truth is something that exists and is objective in order to get closer to figuring it out through collaborative intellectual enterprise. 

The Catholic, the atheist, and the Muslim may all disagree on the nature of truth. But if they can agree on the existence of the truth, they may actually have a fruitful discussion about the what it might be. However, if they each agree to the equal validity of their own respective and contradictory truths, impermeable and unquestionable, what room is left for debate or inquiry? They each go their own way. It’s also important to note that the pursuit of “the truth” is by it’s nature endless and inconclusive. This is one of the foundations of scientific and liberal thought: that nobody has the final say and everything must necessarily remain open to discussion and criticism because humans are fallible and there’s always more to be learned. The opposite is dogma and infallibility: “the gospel” rather than the truth, or the “revealed” truth rather than the one sought by science and reason. It is the end of discussion. “My truth” is a more individualistic way of saying “I’ve already got it figured out.” 
On a more practical and literary level, “my truth,” like “problematic” suffers from being imprecise, vague, even dishonest. When most people say “my truth,” they really mean “my story” or “my version of events.” But by declaring it “my truth,” they seek to preemptively wall it off from criticism or analysis, in an even more uncompromising way than “problematic” seeks to make the subjective appear objective. 

This isn’t to say that subjective opinions or experiences aren’t important, but rather that in order to thrive and succeed they need to be presented honestly as such, not as foregone conclusions or gospel. This understandably isn’t a welcome thought for the many people who don’t want to subject their thoughts and ideas to criticism or have to defend them. Much easier instead to take the shortcut of declaring or even just suggesting that your opinion should be beyond debate. Yet in order for what begins as an opinion to achieve the status of fact or accepted wisdom (at least until something even closer to the truth knocks it off its perch,) it is necessary that it withstand the buffets and blows of criticism, skepticism, and open inquiry. 

Both “problematic” and “my truth” can be shortcuts, ways to avoid the heavy lifting of argument, evidence, and persuasion that gives the best ideas their strength. A careful mind and an honest writer should avoid them and favor instead words that express their clearest thoughts and meanings - and probably for good measure words that aren’t quite so trendy in general. 

As for the third phrase on my list, both it and what it describes have never sounded right to me. 

Update: I woke up this morning realizing that one correct response to a statement like "I found the film problematic," would be "what problems do you think it causes?" This returns to the original meaning of the world and encourages the first speaker to elaborate and be more specific. 

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