Yes. Apparently, problematize is a word. I don’t like this word, and I like its meaning and implications even less, but I don’t choose words here solely on the basis of how they make me feel. The goal here, if I can manage it, is to learn something along the way. For those of you already familiar with the word, indulge me in my ignorance, and I hope the combination of my snark and enlightenment don’t bore you to death.
Before we get into the implications of the word and why the concept makes my head ache, we should define the term. So here goes, from the Oxford English dictionary:
Make into or regard as a problem requiring a solution.
Example: ‘he problematized the concept of history’
Maybe I’m over thinking this, but when I saw this word used, and gave a bit of thought to its implications, it occurred that our entire social fabric has been torn in pieces precisely because of this tendency. It has permeated every sector of our society and culture. We have problematized everything and the result has been disastrous.
Everything is a problem now. The names of our founding fathers on schools and government buildings has been problematized. Being white has been problematized. Being black is a problem, as is being a woman, a man or a child. Being a Christian is a major problem to a lot of people.
The Cambridge dictionary blog even discussed whether dictionaries, words, or indeed, language itself, is problematic:
However, English is the language of a culture that does often associate the colour white with things that are pure, with no dirt or no faults – with being “as white as snow.” And the culture also often associates the colour black with bad things, so there are many idiomatic expressions that use these positive and negative senses of the words white and black. (For example, white knight, someone who buys a company to save it, and black knight, someone who tries to take over a business when the owner doesn’t want to sell it.)
Since ancient times, many human cultures have associated day/light/white with perfection and goodness, and night/dark/black with danger and evil. That is not itself a racist thing. What is racist is taking this association of whiteness with purity and blackness with evil, and applying it to people – when people who happen to be paler see themselves as better than people who happen to be darker, and then use their power to treat darker people unfairly or cruelly.
The use of the words white and black to describe people’s skin (and yellow and red, which are offensive, and brown, which is often now used in a positive way to include Latinx people) developed independently from the use of colour words in idioms. But idioms that didn’t originally have anything to do with perceived race feel, to many people, as though they do – particularly the ones that associate a colour with either purity or evil. So it really doesn’t matter where an idiom came from: what matters is how it makes our fellow humans feel when they hear it. It is perfectly possible to find other words and phrases to express our ideas so that we avoid offending people. The language is rich enough.
Note that despite starting out with a relatively sane explanation of meanings and context and calling some common sense to this increasingly senseless hand wringing over nothing, they eventually capitulate. It doesn’t matter that these words and phrases are completely devoid of racial overtones. it only matters that some people feeeeel as if they do. And that, is a problem.
That’s the thing about problematizing things. Ever-shifting standards that reflect the whims and emotions of whomever, whenever, is a never ending source of angst and grief. We really need to get off of this merry go round.
Truly, there are plenty of genuine problems to solve without problematizing the benign because we’re too lazy, unimaginative, and entitled to make the hard choices required to actually change things for the better.
True change requires that we change as individuals, and most Americans are fully invested in the lie that things will get better if they can force you and I to change, to their benefit of course, while they contribute nothing but opinions, supervision and Twitter activism.