The Word “Problematic” Is Vague and Insincere

Ever since I became a college student in 2019, I’ve noticed a word being thrown around rather frequently: problematic. I’m now hearing it used by professors, students, social media personalities and even politicians on a regular basis. Obviously, I’ve known of the word’s existence for some time (I’ve used it, too). But lately, I’ve witnessed it take on a different meaning, and I’m not sure I approve of where it’s headed. At first, I wasn’t certain if I was the only one who thought about this, but I spoke with family members (one of whom attends a different college of a similar level) who had a similar reaction.

So what is it about this word that has become so vexing? To the untrained ear it sounds pretty, well, unproblematic. But recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that “problematic” has become the latest of a growing array of “weasel words.” In academic and political circles, “problematic” is used interchangeably with terms such as “racist,” “sexist” and “homophobic.” All of these words carry huge stigmas. Accusations of racism, for example, are treated very seriously, and rightfully so. Those who are accused of it will generally want to respond with forceful rebuttals.

The issue with “problematic,” though, is that it tends to be thrown around far more lightly than these words. And for that reason, it’s significantly harder for people to argue against it. It merely insinuates a very serious accusation, instead of confronting the person with it outright.

What I’m asking of you, the reader, is simple. Stop beating around the bush with weasel words like “problematic.” If you have a problem with someone or something, just say what it is outright. Otherwise, your claim has become loaded with insincerity. If you’re not willing to spell out what the alleged problem is, then you’re clearly not serious about defending your position. And if you decide you aren’t comfortable making an accusation as serious as racism or sexism, you probably need to question whether the facts behind your argument are correct in the first place.

To conclude, the term “problematic” has become something of a loaded word. At the very least, I hope these criticisms have led some of you to view claims that someone is “problematic” with a more skeptical eye. I hope that by writing this article, I have, in some small way, lessened the impact of the word. By ceasing to throw this term around, you too can aid in this effort.