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‘Problematic,’ Privilege and the Importance of Getting Things Wrong

'Problematic,' Privilege and the Importance of Getting Things Wrong

If you spend a significant portion of your day reading essays about contemporary culture on the internet, you probably encounter the word “problematic” with a frequency once reserved for adorable pictures of cats. If there’s something you love, there’s someone else who has a problem with it. “Mad Men”? Problematic. “Orange Is the New Black”? Problematic. “Avengers: Age of Ultron”? So problematic.

As Johannah King-Slutzky wrote at the Awl, the internet has a problem with “problematic.” Although the word goes back nearly a hundred years and has been common currency, especially in left-leaning intellectual circles, since the 1960s, its use in publications like the Washington Post and the New York Times spikes dramatically around 2007, which is around when social media began to supplant search results as the primary driver of Internet traffic. (BuzzFeed was founded in 2006.) It wouldn’t take a tremendous amount of effort to spend all day every day scrolling through think pieces about why this or that aspect of this or that cultural product is misguided, offensive, or outright dangerous. As Ijeoma Oluo put in in an essay for Medium, “your fave is problematic.” There’s also a Tumblr devoted to the same proposition.

As a descriptor, “problematic” can be oddly passive-aggressive. It says there’s a problem with a work of art or an argument, but not what that problem might be, or indeed, who is having said problem. It converts a personal claim into an objective quality and shifts the burden of proof to the accused; if someone says that, say, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” is problematic with regard to race, you can’t really say “No it isn’t” and leave it at that.

But “problematic” doesn’t have to be a bad thing. A lot of great art — maybe most of it — is “problematic,” and the problems it poses are integral to what makes it great. It’s a word you can embrace, as critic and programmer Michael Sicinski did in a Twitter mini-essay yesterday. Sicisnksi, who writes for Cinema Scope and maintains the Academic Hack blog, jumps into the middle of the debate by relating the personal history of how he learned to speak carefully, and when to shut up and listen. It involves some names that may not be familiar to those outside the Academy, but you can glean the relevant information from context. It seems particularly relevant in a week when Joss Whedon, who, like Sicinski (and me), is a white man, has been criticized for the sexism in “Age of Ultron,” and those who criticized him have been criticized in turn for crossing the line of civil discourse and driving Whedon off Twitter. (That last part is definitively untrue, but the idea is bound to linger anyway.) In essence, Sicinski proposes a world where all criticisms are welcome, but we never lose sight of the idea that they’re meant to be turned to the end of improving at least the discourse in general if not the specific person they’re aimed at. (Not everyone can be saved.) If you say something stupid or offensive on the internet, you can expect to hear about it sooner rather than later. Getting called on it is one of the most efficient ways to learn — if not one of the most painless. Of course, that exchange works best if both caller and callee are working towards the same goal, and remember that pointing out others’ errors is not an end in itself. Try to be right, know that you will be wrong, and remember that the people you’re correcting might have something to teach you as well.

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