Let’s begin with a word. This one might be my least favourite: problematic.
I once had a MacBook with a built-in dictionary widget that defined “problematic” as a purely academic term–and not in a positive way. I was an academic at the time, and I agreed; there’s nothing in the term, content-wise, that couldn’t already be said with “troubling”–except that “troubling” is too emotional, too personal. “Problematic” has an emotionally detached and definitively reasoned air to it.
As such, it makes sense that “problematic” would be one of a few words (and discipline-specific philosophers’ last names) that students quickly incorporate into their performance of academese. What is problematic? Well, some might develop a more nuanced understanding of the term, given time, but for most “problematic,” on a semiotic level, is simply a red flag that you stick to a given text under scrutiny, to show that you aren’t accepting its arguments wholesale; that you recognize some aspect of the subject-matter to be fundamentally unsound.
From a quick Google Scholar search of 2020 articles with the term in the title:
“The digital divide: Risk and protective factors and the differences in problematic use of digital devices among Hungarian youth”
“A problematic dismissal of forensic age estimation”
“The good, the bot, and the ugly: problematic information and critical media literacy in the postdigital era”
But “problematic” is worse than just being a more highfalutin way of saying “troubling,” because its core noun, problem, can also be thought of as the beginning of inquiry towards a solution. Except… that’s not how it’s used in problematic. Here, it’s a negative end-result, a fixed state; and the only hope for any work labelled “problematic” is to be “reclaimed” (another bit of jargon) by future scholars attempting a different spin on the core text.
Worse, problematic is an end-result that humanities scholars are also taught to seek out, by “problematizing” a given text: looking at it, that is, with the express intention of identifying red flags.
(NB: Some of you might be thinking by now, uh oh, is this essay about THE TYRANNY OF LIB’RULL CAMPUSES!? Hello new readers! No, not at all. I have written elsewhere about how profoundly small-c conservative academia so often is, and this much more tidily fits within that core thesis.)
Now, the act of “problematizing” a text could be useful for teaching students to think critically, without automatically accepting every premise handed to them… except that the very notion of something being “problematic” tends to go unquestioned itself.
What are the consequences of seeing the world as a series of objects that can and should be problematized?
What are the consequences, furthermore, of seeing people and texts as problematic?
Red Flag Hunting
Imagine, if you will, a young mentee who adores a much older male mentor, both of whom operate in the same academic environment, and more or less use the same academic jargon, too. They are of this moment, and the mentor is as interested in learning about current social-justice discourse from the mentee as he is in guiding her through historical precedent. Everything’s completely above-board–they’ve got a perfectly healthy academic relationship–but one day the older mentor tells the young mentee a story about a transformative moment in his past, around when he was her age.
To tell the story properly, he tells her about the context he inhabited then–a very different, far more restrictive and reductive social context than the one they live in now–and as he tells this story, some of the jargon and simplistic fixations from that long-ago context slip in. By the time he’s finished his story, he’s relived the exhilarating memory of how he’d broken from that reductive context, and begun the process of genuine self-discovery that would earn him his very accomplished career.
But as the young mentee listens to this story, she finds herself hugely discomfited by the way her mentor is presenting himself as having been when he was her age. How like a backwater brute he was! What bizarre things he believed! How incomprehensible, that he could have swum in so reductive a context for so long without realizing how toxic that water was! She, after all, could never imagine herself having lived like that… thought like that… talked like that… What kind of decent person ever would?
And in that moment, a flicker of doubt overwhelms her. Can she really trust anything her mentor’s ever taught her, when he comes from such unenlightened roots and took so very long to break from them? He has a problematic past. How can she be sure aspects of it don’t yet remain to be identified, confronted, and if needed condemned in the present?
Some folks term this phenomenon the search for “ideological purity,” and we’re still struggling with how much that search should inform our decision to pay attention to one person in lieu of another. Yes, on a philosophical level it’s absurd and downright fallacious to suggest that any given idea is truer because of who says it–there are decent Hitler quotes, for instance–but in practice, media literacy involves recognizing that the context of any given unit of speech, any given performance of an idea, also contributes significant meaning to the overall message.
The trouble with “ideological purity” as a phrase, though, is that it tends to be applied solely to “leftists” and “liberals,” when it’s universal to the human condition, and can be found in abundance on the “right” of the political spectrum, too. One recent example was the attempt by both Republicans and right-of-centre U.S. media to accuse Elizabeth Warren of flip-flopping after the death of Qasem Soleimani, simply because she used three different descriptors for the incident. From Rolling Stone:
McCain isn’t the only media member to try to claim Warren has waffled in her response to Soleimani’s assassination. CNN’s Chris Cillizza made a similarly nonsensical argument about Warren changing her position on Soleimani’s death, arguing, as McCain did, that Warren first called Soleimani a “murderer,” then said he was “assassinated,” then described him as a “government official, a high-ranking military official” — all of which are true and in no way contradictory.
Here Warren fails the ideological purity test for some because she didn’t simply say that he was a terrorist. Holding different ideas in tension isn’t easy for a lot of people, across the spectrum, and we’re especially suspicious of others attempting the same. “Flip-flopping,” in particular, is a political term so overused that it suggests the ideal candidate will have emerged from the womb with the same opinions on foreign and domestic policy that they will espouse on the campaign trail sixty years later.
(NB: Strikingly, the idea of a candidate listening and learning from past errors is often also seen as repugnant because broadcasting the fact of this moral growth can be read as the candidate gaining further benefits in the present from having once been a lousier person–ergo, profiting even more from the past harm they did others. Warren’s later, stronger centring of indigenous issues in her campaign, as evidenced on her website, is one such damned-if-you-do-ism–with U.S. indigenous persons rightfully frustrated by how white persons often point to those reparative efforts as signs of amazing progress, without checking to see if the indigenous community itself is satisfied with her growth on the issue.
This has been another episode of “Canadians Sportscasting the U.S. Presidential Election.”)
Likewise, though many small-c conservative artists and activists express unease about a cultural shift in left-leaning art as in community-organizing, toward trying to centre non-white, non-male, non-heteronormative figures in the discourse… the “right” also has its own #ownvoices movement. Sure, the Republican Party doesn’t use the hashtag when it claims to want to re-centre the neglected rural blue-collar (white) worker, the forgotten (white) veteran, the overlooked (white) seniors made economically precarious in their retirement… but it’s the exact same principle, appealing to the exact same conviction that marginalized demographics need to be better heard from in popular culture, and better represented in all levels of government.
Likewise, “problematizing” isn’t just an academic practice, because online infotainment relies on the same principle (i.e. that anything can be deemed “problematic”) to guide everything from film criticism, to hot takes on the slightest political incident, to analysis of what a given public figure’s prominence “means” for the state of the discourse or culture on whole. And again, none of this is solely a “leftist” phenomenon, either; conservative pundits are just as interested in identifying the moral failings of [X] subject as any secular gender-and-family-studies-graduate with an op-ed column.
The vocabulary around this phenomenon has simply been aligned with the left side of the sociopolitical spectrum, by both sides, to the detriment of humanity’s ability to understand and to reconcile the underlying group behaviours.
How to Weaponize Anything by Making It “Problematic”
And yes–now that I’ve picked on academics and politicians, let’s also admit that we atheists, especially the ones who have engaged in biblical argument, are very good at “problematizing” texts. We can point to literally hundreds of red flags in the Christian Bible–and often should, when dealing with people who have decided to read their bible in a single, rigid way that invites the public-sphere oppression of others. If someone wants to cite rules for the Levites, which have been translated into English imprecisely at best, to argue that the Bible is explicitly against homosexuality and not just pederasty, and therefore society should be, too… well, yes, that’s a good time to challenge the Christian’s ideological purity by pointing to the specific biblical rules and contexts in which it is acceptable to rape, murder, and enslave.
But outside that discursive context, is it necessary? Or is it part of the same cultural training that many among us point and laugh at when it emerges in academic institutions, or film analysis, or liberal policy debates?
Are we not all living in a cultural moment (however long it might have been in process) wherein a significant pre-occupation, across the sociopolitical spectrum, involves identifying the weakest aspects of any prominent figure, text, or argument, and using those weakest aspects to negate the person, text, or argument on whole?
Have we forgotten how to establish discourse less around where texts and people fall short, and more around that to which they–and we–are aspiring?
Or are we just so afraid of being on the “wrong” side when someone else discovers a new flaw in [X] person or text, that we prefer to find that red flag first? To turn against “our own,” if need be, lest we be accused of endorsing anything “problematic” down the line?
…And How Not To
On a biblical level, for example, as much as I can get c r a n k y about the character of Christ being treated as impeccably moral in the New Testament, I also have a soft spot, an admiring spot, for what books in the Old Testament were trying to do. Not Deuteronomy, and other texts contrived to justify war–but Genesis, for instance, and Psalms, both of which reflect intellectual curiosity on the part of their writers. In sections from both, you can see how people from an era lacking the knowledge we have today still looked at the stars and wondered; and looked at the vastness of languages and species on Earth and wondered; and tried to make sense of why terrible things happened in their communities; and tried to create continuity between the generations–historically, and judicially.
Interestingly, too, I’ve had much better luck in encouraging intellectual curiosity among Biblical literalists today, when highlighting the intellectual curiosity also evident in the Old Testament. Instead of just saying, ha ha, what idiots, those ancient writers; they thought animal breeding involved taking their herds to watering holes with the right patterns in surrounding foliage (Genesis 30:39)… I take a different tack. Isn’t it amazing, I say instead, how hard those ancient writers worked to try to explain their world with the minimal intel they had around them? How moved do you think they might have been, if they could have seen all the natural knowledge we have today?
Aristotle, as you will recall, believed in the four humours.
And Leonardi da Vinci believed that the world was a macrocosmic representation of the human body, such that all human systems could be found in the world at large. (A common medieval belief, wherein the whole of the cosmos was framed around man as man was framed around his creator.)
And Newton spent twenty years on alchemy to try to accommodate for the mechanical universe his physics described.
We can look anywhere in history, that is, and find prominent figures with wrongheaded views, many of which informed completely reprehensible actions. And most certainly, when those reprehensible actions involved trauma with ongoing consequences–when a past political leader’s genocide of the indigenous or screeds against non-white persons are hard facts in evidence–we have a responsibility to recognize that this legacy affects the impact of their continued cultural prominence in the discourse, too.
But for a secular world supposedly more “emancipated” from religious doctrine than ever… we still have an annoying proclivity toward treating people as “ruined” rather than merely “flawed,” and toward looking for their ruination, too.
The Take-Away: Taking “Problematic” as a Given
So let’s reframe the issue, shall we? Because “problematic” might be an academic term, but it and the quest for “ideological purity” are not by any stretch of the imagination the sole provenance of left-leaning thinkers, either in politics or in art.
Rather, the struggle to hold competing ideas in tension, and to see human beings as flawed (without leaping either to the glorification of those now trying to do better, or else to the complete repudiation of the person behind them), is The Human Condition 101.
As such, when we humanists encounter a person or text with contradictory elements that unsettle us, we’re probably going to feel an urge to think something decisive about that person or text. We might especially feel the need to identify that person or text’s wrongness before we can allow any aspect of them to also be “right.”
I don’t think that urge is going to go away. I don’t think the culture’s desire to find and root out fault in everything will, either.
But we can sit longer with that sense of being unsettled.
We can ask ourselves, what upsets me about this person’s or text’s existence, really?
What am I afraid will happen if that person or text goes unproblematized?
And is problematizing that person or text the only option available to me?
Will that act of criticism–on its own, or at all–bring me closer to the world I want to see?