"Problematic"

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"Problematic"

Post by JP McBride on Tue Jun 09, 2015 10:39 pm

I read an interesting piece the other day about the word "problematic".

http://www.theawl.com/2014/09/the-problem-with-problems

If the appearance of “problematic” does not always follow the letter of academic English, it certainly follows the spirit, which is obscurantist. Academic English etiolates cause and effect. Nominalization and passive sentence construction both muddle academic writing’s waters, which is how “John Smith manages hazardous waste” becomes, through the lens of a professor, “hazardous waste is managed.” This is where “problematic” becomes really useful. “Problematic” will tell you what is problematic—usually race or gender—but it won’t tell you who did what, when; there are no finite verbs. Take this thinkpiece on #CancelColbert, from Salon: “To grow up in America is to receive racially problematic and stereotypical ideas about people of color almost by osmosis.” What is problematic? Ideas! About people of color! But cause and effect are abstruse, the author even casts her personal story in the infinitive, “to grow up in America.”

Personally, I don't find "problematic" has much use in my lexicon, so I agree with most of the points that the article makes. What do you guys think?

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Re: "Problematic"

Post by eselle28 on Tue Jun 09, 2015 10:57 pm

I think it can be a useless word when people use it constantly, with no elaboration as to why something might be inaccurate in its depiction or hurtful to others.

I think it can be a useful one in many others, precisely for one of the reasons that King-Slutzky objects to it. It's softer, which makes it  more appropriate when discussing things that are, for instance, sexist in ways that are more subtle than overt. It also tends to be more useful when attempting to discuss your critique of something with someone who enjoys that particular work or supports that particular public figure. People get bristly at the idea that things and people they like are "problematic," but they're even less willing to engage if you label their favorite TV show (and maybe them by extension?) "racist" or "heterosexist." This, of course, requires that an actual critique follows the use of the word.

I think this is a good thing, mostly because I think these conversations are a good thing. As much as these critiques are labeled whining, media seems to be improving a bit on the "problematic" scale, so it seems as if the dialog has some effect.
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Re: "Problematic"

Post by Enail on Tue Jun 09, 2015 11:03 pm

I agree that its neutrality, for lack of a better word, makes it useful at times, and it's also good for introducing the kind of rambling thought where you feel something is wrong and are trying to pick out what exactly it is that troubles you. Like many words, I think it's a word that should be chosen carefully rather than defaulted to, and that becomes less useful the more it is overused or used imprecisely.
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Re: "Problematic"

Post by BasedBuzzed on Wed Jun 10, 2015 4:49 am

The article is problematic because linguistical prescriptivism even in its weak form is ableist and classist. Use of the word is widespread, thus making it an accessible tool to discuss forms of oppression even to those who struggled to articulate such concepts before, and quibbling over its academic history ignores the effectiveness it has had in the field so far in favour to what it actually means to the uni elite. Moreover, in the quoted line from the Salon article she fails to mention that what precisely was problematic was mentioned in the preceding paragraph. It betrays her incredibly disingenous agendaism, especially when she's tone-policing WOC as a white woman in the Colbert example(yes, I know that the Salon article was not written directly by Park, but why specifically choose that example?).

I agree with eselle, though people are not always willing to talk about or can clearly explain what they find problematic.


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Re: "Problematic"

Post by reboot on Wed Jun 10, 2015 9:30 am

I know I use problematic with an audience that might take offense at "racist", "bigoted", "prejudiced ", etc and I need them not to get their backs up (e.g. Serving ham sandwiches at your Head Start program is a bit problematic since 13 of your 30 students cannot eat it due to religious dietary restrictions that are written on their registration forms and go home hungry those days*). It allows you to bring up a problem cause by ignorance or prejudice (serving ham to Muslim kids) and discuss it in a collaborative manner. Leading with a more loaded word can shut down dialogue. To a different audience in a different situation, I might use a different word.

* Outcome was some staff were trying to "Americanize" the kids so it was not simple ignorance and failure to read dietary restrictions in the file
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Re: "Problematic"

Post by Guest on Wed Jun 10, 2015 9:55 am

reboot wrote:* Outcome was some staff were trying to "Americanize" the kids so it was not simple ignorance and failure to read dietary restrictions in the file

I just literally made an outloud arrrggggnnngghhh sound when I got to that.  There are no words, just inarticulate rage sounds.

Edit: I cannot even -- the levels of grrrksssnnsng that this is WRONG on are just -- ARGH.

You broke me.

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Re: "Problematic"

Post by reboot on Thu Jun 11, 2015 12:32 am

ElizaJane wrote:
reboot wrote:* Outcome was some staff were trying to "Americanize" the kids so it was not simple ignorance and failure to read dietary restrictions in the file

I just literally made an outloud arrrggggnnngghhh sound when I got to that.  There are no words, just inarticulate rage sounds.

Edit: I cannot even -- the levels of grrrksssnnsng that this is WRONG on are just -- ARGH.

You broke me.

Welcome to Arizona! Where the only good immigrant is an assimilated one.

Yeah, 3 year olds went home hungry because they knew ham was a no no
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Re: "Problematic"

Post by Chickpea Sarada on Thu Jun 11, 2015 1:03 am

reboot wrote:
ElizaJane wrote:
reboot wrote:* Outcome was some staff were trying to "Americanize" the kids so it was not simple ignorance and failure to read dietary restrictions in the file

I just literally made an outloud arrrggggnnngghhh sound when I got to that.  There are no words, just inarticulate rage sounds.

Edit: I cannot even -- the levels of grrrksssnnsng that this is WRONG on are just -- ARGH.

You broke me.

Welcome to Arizona! Where the only good immigrant is an assimilated one.

Yeah, 3 year olds went home hungry because they knew ham was a no no

Shocked ...... :grrr: ...... :shout: !!!
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Re: "Problematic"

Post by PintsizeBro on Thu Jun 11, 2015 12:54 pm

Reboot, not only is that horrible, it doesn't even make sense. When I think of "stereotypical American child's lunch," I don't even think of ham, I think of PB&J. And, I mean, I hate PB&J, but I'm pretty sure it's halal.

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Re: "Problematic"

Post by Guest on Thu Jun 11, 2015 1:26 pm

Yeah, the "let's Americanize these kids" is awful. But I don't actually think it's even as awful to me as "vegetarians, those who keep kosher, and those who need halal food aren't American."

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Re: "Problematic"

Post by eselle28 on Thu Jun 11, 2015 1:28 pm

ElizaJane wrote:Yeah, the "let's Americanize these kids" is awful.  But I don't actually think it's even as awful to me as "vegetarians, those who keep kosher, and those who need halal food aren't American."

Yeah, and I can't imagine that the kids aren't getting the message that they have to choose between following their religion and being American - especially at three years old.
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Re: "Problematic"

Post by Guest on Thu Jun 11, 2015 2:13 pm

eselle28 wrote:Yeah, and I can't imagine that the kids aren't getting the message that they have to choose between following their religion and being American - especially at three years old.

Yes! And, ironically, I would imagine this will make them LESS likely to Americanize, if "American" is defined as "not doing a thing that has significance for you."

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Re: "Problematic"

Post by JP McBride on Thu Jun 11, 2015 3:32 pm

eselle28 wrote:I think it can be a useless word when people use it constantly, with no elaboration as to why something might be inaccurate in its depiction or hurtful to others.

I think it can be a useful one in many others, precisely for one of the reasons that King-Slutzky objects to it. It's softer, which makes it  more appropriate when discussing things that are, for instance, sexist in ways that are more subtle than overt. It also tends to be more useful when attempting to discuss your critique of something with someone who enjoys that particular work or supports that particular public figure. People get bristly at the idea that things and people they like are "problematic," but they're even less willing to engage if you label their favorite TV show (and maybe them by extension?) "racist" or "heterosexist." This, of course, requires that an actual critique follows the use of the word.

I think this is a good thing, mostly because I think these conversations are a good thing. As much as these critiques are labeled whining, media seems to be improving a bit on the "problematic" scale, so it seems as if the dialog has some effect.

For me, I don't see much point in the critiques that it enables. I had a coworker who told me he loves the Big Bang Theory. I thought about explaining to him why I thought it was problematic, but I didn't because it just seemed dickish.

reboot wrote:I know I use problematic with an audience that might take offense at "racist", "bigoted", "prejudiced ", etc and I need them not to get their backs up (e.g. Serving ham sandwiches at your Head Start program is a bit problematic since 13 of your 30 students cannot eat it due to religious dietary restrictions that are written on their registration forms and go home hungry those days*). It allows you to bring up a problem cause by ignorance or prejudice (serving ham to Muslim kids) and discuss it in a collaborative manner. Leading with a more loaded word can shut down dialogue. To a different audience in a different situation, I might use a different word.

How did people higher up react to it? My Mom used to be a principal and this sort of thing would send her right to DEFCON 1.

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Re: "Problematic"

Post by Guest on Thu Jun 11, 2015 3:38 pm

JP McBride wrote:For me, I don't see much point in the critiques that it enables. I had a coworker who told me he loves the Big Bang Theory. I thought about explaining to him why I thought it was problematic, but I didn't because it just seemed dickish.

I see a distinction between "you like this thing, let me tell you why it's problematic" and "I like this thing, but I acknowledge that it's problematic." In the first case (the one you describe), it feels like you're trying to tell the coworker that he shouldn't like the thing, or that he's bad for liking it. In the second case -- let's take an example, "I like the podcast 'Critical Hit,' but I sometimes find the way they talk about women problematic" -- it gives me language to engage with a thing I enjoy. I like a thing, but that doesn't mean it's perfect, and I should have a way to discuss my issues.

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Re: "Problematic"

Post by eselle28 on Thu Jun 11, 2015 3:49 pm

JP McBride wrote:
For me, I don't see much point in the critiques that it enables. I had a coworker who told me he loves the Big Bang Theory. I thought about explaining to him why I thought it was problematic, but I didn't because it just seemed dickish.

In that situation, that's probably a good choice. When people I'm not very close to make positive statements about things they like during in person conversations, I tend to leave it be as well.

There are other kinds of situations, though. My boyfriend really wanted to watch Sucker Punch together last week, and I don't think it would have gone over well to tell him that I disliked the movie too much to ever watch it again and that he'd have to enjoy it when I wasn't around if I hadn't given him some hint why I disliked it, but at the same time I didn't want to use overly harsh language about something he obviously enjoyed. People in the Game of Thrones thread sometimes discuss whether the show is problematic, though I'm not sure the word has been used. Everyone there seems to find the conversation interesting, and they can easily opt out if they don't.

Also, as the author of the piece points out, the word tends to be used a lot in written discussions of media, where labeling something "racist" or "sexist" can seem a bit overblown. Granted, the author seems to disapprove of think pieces (even though he's written one!), but some people enjoy reading them. I also think they do have a point. Like I said in my last post, it seems to me that media is slowly changing in response to these critiques. That may not matter to everyone and may actively annoy some people, but I like having more things I enjoy and fewer things that I have to roll my eyes and turn off when they hit points that disgust me.
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Re: "Problematic"

Post by JP McBride on Sat Jun 13, 2015 4:09 pm

eselle28 wrote:There are other kinds of situations, though. My boyfriend really wanted to watch Sucker Punch together last week, and I don't think it would have gone over well to tell him that I disliked the movie too much to ever watch it again and that he'd have to enjoy it when I wasn't around if I hadn't given him some hint why I disliked it, but at the same time I didn't want to use overly harsh language about something he obviously enjoyed. People in the Game of Thrones thread sometimes discuss whether the show is problematic, though I'm not sure the word has been used. Everyone there seems to find the conversation interesting, and they can easily opt out if they don't.

Eh, I stayed out of that discussion because it seemed like an outrage circlejerk. If that's the sort of discussion that 'problematic' enables, then I still have a dim view of it. Game of Thrones is a complicated and subtle show, and no on in that thread seemed to treat it as such.

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Re: "Problematic"

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