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I was in a recitation for one of my English classes the other day, and we were discussing “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, a novel about slavery. One of my classmates raised her hand and spoke about how the novel had a certain effect on her, because she worked for many years at a slave plantation-turned-B&B in Louisiana. She told us how she became desensitized to the stories of the slaves’ gruesome deaths because she would have to retell them on tours of the house, and she felt uncomfortable that the owners were profiting off of such a horrific piece of history. The B&B patrons were essentially paying money to stay at a former plantation and be entertained with ghost stories about slaves being murdered. When she finished, another girl raised her hand and said, “Yea…that’s really problematic.”
“Problematic” is a word that has become extremely popular to use in discussions of social and political issues—I personally hear the word come up in conversation or class discussion multiple times every day, and I’m sure most other college students do as well. It’s a multi-purpose word that we tend to use when describing something that isn’t right, and often times the word is sufficient to convey the message, with no additional explanation necessary. For example, one might say that the recent Pepsi commercial with Kendall Jenner was problematic, and though it is possible to go into further detail as to why, the word standing alone is an appropriate way to comment on the issues with the commercial.
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However, since this word has become so universal, many people use it inappropriately and lazily. The definition of problematic is “of the nature of a problem; doubtful; uncertain; questionable.” Going back to the story about my English recitation, it is clear that “problematic” was not the appropriate word to describe the actions of that B&B in Louisiana. Is there anything uncertain or doubtful about using the stories of brutal slave murders for reasons of entertainment? No. Perhaps a more appropriate word might have been appalling, or horrendous. Miley Cyrus twerking at the VMAs is problematic. Donald Trump’s tweets are problematic. Using stories of real human suffering as entertainment? Turning the history of oppression and cruelty in America into a spectacle? A much more serious word is needed. The same can be said for many other topics as well. The next time you are about to use the word “problematic” in a discussion, pause and think about whether the word is really appropriate for what you are trying to describe, or whether the situation truly is “unsure.” You don’t want to mistakenly underplay an issue by getting lazy with your word choice.