Sita deconstructs (and ultimately trashes) the word “problematic” and its over usage in certain activist circles.  Check it out — I couldn’t agree more:

Last week, I was talking to a McGill student about upcoming elections for one of the student groups. She was concerned that the political gains she had ben working on would be lost if the group faced a coup d’etat by people she deemed to be “problematic.” This word seems to stand in as a bizarre synonym for another equally strange term: “oppressive.” In her mind, people were divided into two camps: oppressive and anti-oppressive; problematic and unproblematic; good and bad.

The whole conversation made me want to scream. Her perspective was so woefully simplistic, and an apt demonstration of the way in which the language of “anti-oppression,” in this particular social milieu, has replaced the usual youth vernacular. Put simply, you can’t call someone a bitch (that’s like totally oppressive and like, patriarchal, y’know?), but you can call them “problematic,” and essentially mean the same thing.


  1. I’ve been dubbed “problematic” more than a few times in my life. It’s a pain because it closes off what otherwise might be a genuine criticism of a person’s behaviors and does, as Tanya points out, banish a person. It can be a gulag button of sorts for lefty activists who simply want to get rid of a person from their circles, as opposed to dealing with that person (and their positions) as someone who might have a genuine contribution to make, but could also be doing things that are “problematic.”

    Oftentimes it is just a code for “I don’t like that person,” or “I want to portray myself as having better politics, but since I can’t really give an account of why my politics are better I’ll just make a vague attack against this person.”

  2. what about quoting foucault? is that problematic?

    ‘My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something to do. So my position leads not to apathy but to hyper- and pessimistic – activism.’

  3. Hmm, good point. But I think what’s particularly bad about this adjective is that it’s often used within activist circles that I’ve known to entirely dismiss people. If someone is problematic, they are pretty much exiled from the community.

    Is that a good enough defense?

  4. “Using ‘problematic’ is an easy, reductionist way to never have to explain or defend yourself.”

    Is this different from any other single adjective?

  5. I think you’re right about the tone of the post. My main concern is what you call “laziness.” That’s mostly what bothers me – using “problematic” is an easy, reductionist way to never have to explain or defend yourself. Certainly people’s impulse to use the word comes from a real place of experiences of oppression or phobia of some kind, but if we keep using these coded words, we will do two things:
    1.) forget what the hell we actually mean (which is bad when we have to defend our views in an argument)
    2.) alienate people who don’t (yet) talk the talk

    I will be the first to admit that I use the word (and other similarly vague words) myself.

    And yes, I am so glad you comment and I want this to be a space for discussion! As you know, I value your opinion like WOAH. So when’s your gender blog happeningz?

  6. hrm… i dunno.

    I agree that the there is a problem with reinforcing division through the weird cool kids vs. uncool kids dynamic. I’ve experienced doing and being on both sides of that coin… and, for sure, it’s not fun either way.

    But what I really read when I read this post is less a deconstruction of how and why these dynamics develop and more of a “dang, I am outside of this dichotomy, so I’m cooler.” (But then maybe it’s my “cool kid” defensiveness rearing its ugly-asshole head…? ;P)

    What is more helpful (maybe, ha) is an exploration of how these things develop as twisted survival strategies and/or reassertion power. Cuz, f’real, folks deal with some real shit from real people. And no matter how a person may be a “wonderful, generous, compassionate human being”, if they tell me to get out of their bathroom or racially profile me, imma probably react by saying that it’s “fucked up,” problematic, or maybe even oppressive. And while I maintain the importance of being able to name such things and have real reactions to them, I also do recognize that staying in that space of naming the oppressive effect or behavior is not so helpful either.

    And it’s lazy. It’s easier to deem someone problematic rather than explore and name a behavior that is racist, transphobic, ableist, etc. And it’s way harder to commit to building connection through a politic of love rather than exclusion through an acknowledgement of the other privileges that we all do maintain along with our oppressions.


    BTW… dontcha think simply deeming the assholes as assholes without really acknowledging why it may happen or understanding how these dynamics develop is kinda “problematic”?

    (As an aside though, I totally appreciate being able to talk about this shit. and HEARTS! <3)

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