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The Orwellian dimensions of ‘problematic’

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‘Actually, that’s really problematic’. We’ve likely all heard this – especially if we spend most of our waking hours on a university campus. It has become a catch-all word to describe speech, views and practices which are considered beyond the pale: taken out of the realm of ideas we have to engage with, and put into that reeking trashcan of ‘bad stuff’. The recipient of this comment will usually startle, turn red in the face and apologise when they realise that they have just been problematised.

Ideas are much easier to defeat when we can tell ourselves that they are just bad. We don’t have to go through the tedious business of engaging with them, pulling them apart and debunking them. We would understandably rather avoid that lengthy business of explaining to people why they are wrong, rather than just assigning to their views a smug label that throws them out of Overton’s window. But we need to understand that we have not defeated those ideas; we have suppressed them, in an action not dissimilar to kicking the can down the road.

In an effort to deny them air we have pushed them down somewhere deeper and darker. The populist earthquake of recent years is at least partly explained by the revolt of these hitherto suppressed ideas.

Let us be clear: there are indeed some ideas that we can’t engage with. We should all be able to agree that some ideas- like white supremacy- are not valid viewpoints, and should not be treated as such. That doesn’t mean white supremacists should be locked up- but we’d rightly be outraged to see them on the panel of Question Time.

Crucially however, we need to have the self-awareness to realise two things about this fact. Firstly, it is in all our interests to keep that category as narrow as possible. An eagerness to enlarge this category is rightly seen as totalitarian. You don’t have to be too clever to work out that this is a tool that can be used much more ruthlessly by the other side (not least because at the moment and for the foreseeable future, they actually have political power).

Indeed it has been utilised by some of the worst figures and regimes of history. Arguably, the health of a liberal democracy relies upon an instinctive reluctance to enlarge this category any further than is strictly necessary.

Secondly, the line isn’t as hard and fast as we might think: it changes all the time. And it changes according to much broader cultural movements that span decades and continents. There might be a smug self-satisfaction to be reaped from imagining ourselves to be at the vanguard of this change, but there is also an immense arrogance in individuals -especially those not even belonging to the various marginalised groups they are seeking to protect- assigning to themselves the right to set the pace.

Nobody is served by a competitive scramble to be the ‘wokest’ in the room: such an attempt is nearly always related to a smug form of social signalling.

This links to a broader lack of self-awareness among the left on university campuses. There is a chronic inability to recognise that the values which are hegemonic amongst our friends, tutors and ourselves are nowhere near as dominant in the wider world. The cultural dividing line in the West now centres chiefly around education, as our Brexit debacle has made so painfully clear.

The use of the word ‘problematic’ has, I fear, come to represent all that is wrong with the modern left. Chiefly, it reflects our insecurity. Failure at the polls and an inability to win the broader political battle encourages us to retreat into our own little cultural worlds in which we can feel safe; which we can police vigilantly, enforcing a strict definition of ‘acceptable opinion’ that shuts out vast swathes of the population from engaging in our conversation.

It is often a stand-in term for something like racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist or transphobic; but we are rightly more careful in our use of these words. Problematic therefore has come to fill the function of suggesting that something carries hints of one of the above, but we can’t conclusively assign it to any one of these categories.

And so in a heady combination of anxiety and self-righteousness, out of an earnest desire to be on the right side of history, we call it ‘problematic’. There is something timid and yet bullying in this approach. We must decide to either be more focused, forceful and conclusive in our criticisms or to withhold judgement altogether. Perhaps the strongest argument against the over-liberal use of this word is that it’s really a cop-out: sometimes much more strident language is needed.

Of course, this was not always what ‘problematic’ meant. In its original academic context it is a much more benign and even useful word. Sources and methodologies can be (forgive me) unproblematically problematic.

This means that there is something in their utility and function that doesn’t help us. They raise issues or questions that need to be resolved. In any context outside of academia or irony, ‘problematic’ has at best naïve, or at worst Orwellian overtones. It has come to mean: ‘there is something vague and difficult to pin down about this thing, person or idea that I find politically disagreeable’.

We can do so much better than this.

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