So you're having one of those deceptively intellectual conversations that all Twentysomethings engage in on occasion, in which everyone feels obligated to say that they like (or have even read) Foucault and indulge in charmingly obscure pockets of intellectualism. And, as you bask in the righteousness of your knowledge as a citizen of the world (thank God you read those in-depth articles on BuzzFeed in between looking at gifs of cats dancing), the conversation begins to stray toward current events that revolve around issues concerning race, gender, class, sexuality, and political beliefs.
"What do you think about Ferguson, by the way?"
Everyone tenses up (particularly if you're the only Black person in the conversation, which happens more frequently than you would think), and the time has come for each individual to make a critical decision: Do I argue uncompromisingly against bigotry and injustice and risk either offending someone or sounding like a crazy "radical"? Or do I moderate my responses to the point of being ineffectual, but still maintain my friendships and my pseudo-intellectual clout? And if I did moderate my responses, what word could I possibly use to sidestep verbal land mines like "racism," "misogyny," "homophobia," and "classism"?
"I think the whole situation in Ferguson is entirely too problematic to condense into one argument."
There. You've said it. You sit back in your chair and cross your arms, hoping that you look meditative and wise, and everyone else nods in feigned understanding because you've given them the golden opportunity to circumvent the looming possibility that race could still be an issue in the year 2015.
And after that, "problematic" becomes the word of the hour, weaving itself neatly into seemingly sophisticated arguments that are heavy with idealized promise, but lack any internal structure or significance. But your conversation continues, everyone giddy with the unsubstantial fluff of their own watery convictions. Here's how it goes:
What you say: " I think Charlie Hebdo's publication history is a bit problematic."
What you mean: "Charlie Hebdo has consistently produced islamophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic magazine covers and articles for years, and free speech and hate speech never have and never will be synonymous."
What you say: "I think the way the media perceives Nicki Minaj and Miley Cyrus' sexuality is kind of problematic."
What you mean: "Miley Cyrus is a cultural appropriator who objectifies women of color and little people, and the media only condemns Nicki Minaj's sexuality because of historical fears of Black female sexuality linked to the Jezebel trope."
What you say: "I think that the practice of victim-blaming in rape cases is really problematic."
What you mean: "Blaming rape victims is a direct manifestation of misogyny in our culture and our prioritization of the male ego over the physical and mental health of women."
Engaging in conversations that encroach upon sensitive social topics is kind of like playing a game of Monopoly, and the use of the word "problematic" is roughly equivalent to playing the "Get Out of Jail Free" card. "Problematic" is an innocuous, quick, and intelligent-sounding solution to damaging cultural structures that are mired in decades (and sometimes centuries) of oppression. The actual definition of "problematic" merely states that a problem or difficulty is being presented. Noticeably absent from that definition is any suggestion of a possible solution. Saying that something is "problematic" allows us merely to acknowledge the inherent flaws of a situation or a school of thought without having to unpack and examine the broader significance of what those flaws actually represent or worse, whether or not we as individuals are guilty of possessing those same flaws that we wish to so easily condemn or deny.
Yet, in order to deconstruct and ultimately eliminate racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, and religion-specific discriminatory attitudes and systems that persist in our society, these issues must be confronted head-on without the comfort of verbal panaceas like "problematic." And, admittedly, this directness will result in quite a few uncomfortable situations that require us to recognize our individual relative privilege, as well as our occasional ignorance of the unique struggles of other social groups.
Similarly, the phrase "problematic fave," which is typically used to refer to a celebrity who repeatedly makes offensive remarks with little signs of remorse, is another term that is used to excuse an individual's insensitivity or cultural ignorance simply because they are famous or a close friend. Giving someone a pass to be racist, sexist, classist, or homophobic simply because you like them, or worse, trying to justify their bigotry ("they didn't actually mean it that way," "the reporter just asked the wrong question," etc) is dangerous not only because it allows systems of oppression to perpetuate themselves on a wider scale, but also because you are then vulnerable to falling into that same vein of antiquated, biased thinking. Choosing to distance yourself from or totally boycott a celebrity who unabashedly makes offensive remarks is not a matter of believing in moral absolutism (and let's not even get into the "slaveowners were people too!" arguments). Rather, it is a conscious decision to refuse to support the further integration of bigoted ideas into all aspects of our social structure.