If you’ve spent any time within the realm of social justice twitter or tumblr, I’m sure you’re familiar with the term “problematic.” You’ve probably been deemed problematic, our favorite celebrities have been dismissed as problematic at one point or another, and holy shit have I been utterly damned as problematic time and time again. But what does that vague insult really mean?
Problematic has replaced words like racist, sexist, homophobic, islamophobic, xenophobic, etc. etc. It is the new all-encompassing moniker for anyone who is socially unaware, or at least perceived to be socially unaware by the person doing the “you’re problematic neener-neener” finger-pointing. Indeed, “problematic” is in the eye of the beholder.
It’s the go-to put-down for those who see internet activism as a competition for the title of Most Woke 2k15. Problematic is the perfect insult to use when you’re too lazy to go into the specifics of how someone is perpetuating oppressive ideologies; it’s the catchall label that you can easily slap onto someone and just as easily run away – presumably to collect your woke points. The thing is, this sort of vague name calling doesn’t do anything to inform the offender of what they did wrong so they can be better in the future. The term problematic also waters down the offense, as it carries much less weight and political relevance than racist/sexist/etc.
Plus, the term is too often used as a substitute for a real counter argument. Usually when someone calls another problematic, they’re really doing it because they disagree with that person’s viewpoint and would rather dismiss it entirely than debate it. The accusation brings every social justice discussion to a full stop. The term is especially used to shut down critical discussions of gender and the sex industry, two untouchable topics in the social justice twittersphere.
Problematic has become the social justice equivalent to “witch,” and once you’ve been labeled problematic you are reviled and not to be associated with. Anyone who refuses to condemn your problematic ass becomes an accessory to your crime. This witch hunt manifests in the almost comical phenomenon of twitter and tumblr users publishing lists of problematic people as a warning to all. Like modern day McCarthyists, these blacklists are usually used to condemn public figures, a.k.a. the “problematic favs” of the world.
And before someone else says it, I admit I have played a part in the social justice witch hunt. But, I have seen the error of my ways and am removing the term “problematic” from my vocabulary from here on out.
Everyone, no matter how woke they are or pretend to be, is a little “problematic.” We’re all unlearning the bullshit that’s been force-fed to us by the heteronormative, capitalist, white supremacist patriarchy. Some of us have more bullshit to unlearn than others, but we’re all in this steaming pile of bullshit together. It’s kind of beautiful.
If we as feminists on twitter truly call people out in order to educate them rather than to show off how woke we are or because we can’t come up with a better argument, calling someone problematic will not open up the discussion. It’s vague, dismissive, and frankly, it’s juvenile. If someone’s being racist, tell them they’re being racist. Same with someone who’s being homophobic or sexist or what have you. Identify the problem and try to solve it if the person is open minded. Don’t just slap the “problematic” label on someone, and then skip away in the opposite direction.