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Problematic Editorial Thinking

A dictionary entry for the word "problematic"

It’s in headlines, on social media, and is a normal word in everyday conversations. But have you seriously ever thought about the word “problematic” as the opposite of consciousness towards representation and identity, in its own right?

And rare is the piece of pop culture or political discourse to escape it entirely. Mixed-ish? Problematic. Disney+? Problematic. Black Panther? Deeply problematic.

The popularity of the word itself is actually pretty new: Google Trends shows that its usage has increased nearly 400 percent since 2013, the year when “your fave is problematic” was launched on Tumblr as a blog, bringing what was then an academic term into the mainstream.

Since then, if you live on a liberal arts campus or near anyone under 30, it’s inescapable.

It makes sense that the term would soar in popularity as the use of “racist” and “sexist” has remained relatively consistent at a time when belief in intersectionality as a main plank of social justice is now commonplace. Perhaps ironically, a singular term can encompass deeply specific identities more accurately than older, more traditionally precise, but less comprehensive words.

This nebulousness can sometimes have its faults; a single phrase that people use to encompass directors who have committed unspeakable acts and now-uncomfortable sequences from old TV shows alike might be seen to trivialize the former.

And by definition, the fact that what’s problematic depends on who you are talking to (in more ways than one).

Whether you use the word or not, you surely find many things problematic, even within this article. I’m sure all of us have our guilty favorites among the books and movies described by some writer or another for a Gen Z-focused digital media outlet.

But what are people using the word “problematic” actually defending? Since the 1980s, there have been reactions against every move towards cultural acceptance, portraying it as a force for tyranny. Excesses have certainly occurred; the “science wars” and extreme postmodernism in the 1990s weren’t the moves towards progress which their proponents expected.

In all though, is anyone really hurt by the decision to move away from outdated terminology when discussing people of color or LGBTQ people? Or towards greater cultural understanding when making movies and television shows?

It’s hard to see how Prince Andrew’s widely-denounced dealings with convicted pedophile Jeffery Epstein or blackface can be defended. Similarly, the fact that machine learning AI can replicate discriminatory or bigoted behavior and incorporate it merely by gathering data from articles makes problematic content not as harmless as you might think.

No matter what grumbles you might have about how widely it is applied and if your favorite shows or practices get caught in its web, wider awareness of what language and forms of representation might be offensive are ultimately a sign of a laudable trend towards greater understanding and a sense of social responsibility.

The word problematic is based on a premise that we want to live in a society without oppression. And aside from clickbait headline writers and status-seeking bad-faith types who would use any word dishonestly, that’s the intention of those using it, even if this occasionally manifests in zealotry which can cut through those intentions.

Although political and economic globalization are at an ebb, cultural diversity, spread over the internet and on Temple’s campus through international students and study abroad programs, isn’t going away.

Look at concern over what’s problematic as a simple attempt to respect others, and its recent popularity becomes clear.