The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 17 No. 1 (Spring 2015)

Signifiers

Problematic

Matthew Schmitz

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 17.1 (Spring 2015). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2015

(Volume 17 | Issue 1)

It’s become one of the indispensable words of our time, a catch-all for any celebrity misstep or media mishap that could be seen as having sexist, racist, or hegemonic implications. In recent months, we’ve learned that love and loyalty, dresses and shirts, Taylor Swift and Beyoncé are all problematic. Having found its way into rap lyrics and government reports, it’s now become a rallying cry for conservatives complaining about bad language on television. The word has broad, bipartisan, and seemingly irresistible appeal.

But there’s something problematic about problematic. By allowing its users to identify huge evils lurking behind every error, the word makes the slightest offense an occasion for outrage. An act need not be intentionally cruel to be problematic; it need not cause any direct harm at all. The only thing that’s required is for it to reflect certain unexamined assumptions with which we disagree. Thus, every human blunder is made the occasion for a full-blown culture war.

How did we get here? When the term first appeared in English, it looked unlikely to win any popularity contests. The 1609 play Every Woman in Her Humour (author unknown) speaks of “problematique mines, Obscurde enigmas…and incognite language.” Charlotte Brontë used the word, as did Coleridge, but it wasn’t until the end of the nineteenth century that it came into its own.

Working as a theater critic in London, George Bernard Shaw observed the rise of the new genre of the “problem play.” These dramas sought to encapsulate a larger social issue within an individual drama. They were morality plays for a new moral order, with temperance, reform, and progress standing in for the old visions of heaven.

Shaw came to feel that the dramatic “problems” of his day were so simple they hardly counted as problems at all: “These so-called problem plays invariably depended for their dramatic interest on foregone conclusions of the most heartwearying conventionality…. The authors had no problematic views: All they wanted was to capture some of the fascination of Ibsen.”

So it is today. We rush to discuss what’s problematic about cases that present very simple problems, if they present any problems at all. Take comet scientist Matt Taylor, who appeared at a November press event in a bowling shirt printed with half-naked women. In another age, his shirt would simply have been deemed tasteless, juvenile, even ungentlemanly. Instead, publications like Verge, Scientific American, and Vice rushed to discuss why it was “problematic.”

Taylor offered a tearful apology, only to learn that for such offenses apologies hardly matter. Saying a person did something problematic allows us to turn him into an effigy for an -ism (in Taylor’s case, sexism). The point is not to correct the error of an individual but to expose the edifice of oppression and incorrect thought.

But who gets to decide what counts? Those guilty of doing problematic things tend to come from communities that aren’t attuned to the ever-evolving standards of acceptable conversation among people holding four-year liberal-arts degrees. Someone not up on the latest modulations of political correctness might be able to decide whether an action is adult or childish, honorable or dishonorable. But problematic? Good luck trying to figure that one out without a diploma and a Twitter account.

In her 1970 book Natural Symbols, the anthropologist Mary Douglas contrasted the ways more and less educated families talk about behavior. She described how working-class families (and some aristocratic families) talk more in terms of proper roles based on sex, age, and kinship, whereas middle-class families speak in an “elaborated” language where right and wrong are explained in terms of feelings and consequences.

In the first kind of family, a child might ask why she can’t go out to play and be told “Because I said so” or “Because you’re a girl.” In the second, the child will be told, “Because those older boys play rough, and if you get hurt, I’ll be very sad.” As the British sociologist Basil Bernstein observed, one system appeals to roles, the other to feelings: “Daddy will be pleased, hurt, disappointed, angry, ecstatic if you go on doing this.”

This is how we now talk in public. We condemn things not for being ungentlemanly or childish, but for being offensive, hurtful, or outrageous—in short, for being problematic. As Douglas saw, this means we are “freed from a system of rigid positions but made a prisoner of a system of feelings and abstract principles.”

Meanwhile, life is reduced to a matter of obvious problems and simple solutions. When we talk about what’s problematic, we are not discussing what it means to live in a world touched by loss, betrayal, and death. We are discussing why wearing a shirt covered with pin-up girls to a press conference might not be a good idea.

Problematic is only going to become more problematic as more people are unwittingly caught in its net. The only ones who can ultimately avoid it are those who wield it. For them, it is a way to enforce moral norms without seeming moralistic. For everybody else, it is an impossible trap.

What we need is a moral vocabulary that works for everyone—not just for those who move to Brooklyn, but also for those who are born there. Which means we will need some other terms. Words like ungentlemanly, juvenile, and shameful may sound stodgy, but they are also words that can be understood by anyone—and thus help build a more decent public space for everyone.

Matthew Schmitz is deputy editor of First Things.

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