Dr Green's Dictionary


If someone identifies something you’ve said as problematic, they mean you are the problem

This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

It’s a deeply engrossing and occasionally brilliant film, but I found it problematic in that it seemed to veer too far into the territory of Islamophobia without enough criticism.”

These brave words were written by Daniel Dylan Wray for Vice magazine in 2015. The film, Les Cowboys, adapted the conventions of John Ford’s The Searchers to modern France: a wrathful father seeks to retrieve his daughter, a problem child who has absconded with her Arab boyfriend and may be dabbling in radical Islam. Wray detected “racist overtones” and an absence of self-criticism.

Problematic means “ideologically unacceptable” in the vocabulary of cancel culture. Problematic speech must be called out, to avoid giving the impression of complicity with whichever form of discrimination lurks in the speaker’s mind. Ideally, the speaker should be tarred and feathered as well as being no-platformed or, if platforming has already occurred, de-platformed. No one is said to be re-platformed, though they do sometimes survive by becoming free-speech zealots.

Problem comes via the medieval French problème from the Greek próblema, a “thing thrown forward”, from pro (forward) + ballein (to throw). The earliest references in English are to philosophical questions (1529) or propositions in mathematics and physics: a problem as the opposite of a proven theorem (1570).

The hypothetical nature of such problems encouraged the now-familiar gambit that the problem with someone else’s problematic (1609) is that it is wrong. The earliest negative usage appeared in 1588 with problematical. The problematist (1688) was preoccupied with problems , and a problemist (1615) could be both the student of problems and maker of complications.

Problematic returned to its hypothetical roots in the era of the two-pipe problem and the chess problem (1817). Hence, “a dialect of peculiar and problematical character” (1875) was not made up, but difficult to comprehend. As great-power competition went global, its problems included the Irish Question, the Schleswig-Holstein Question, the West Lothian Question and, notoriously,
the Jewish Question (Judenfrage), which mutated under Nazism into the Jewish Problem and the Final Solution.

The new problem is the old question, and the only correct answer is the politically correct one. American scholars will problematize their problematics which really means the wheeling up of critical artillery, the better to blast the problematic out of existence.

The problematic is an intellectual target for destruction. If someone identifies something you’ve said as problematic, brace yourself. You are the problem. All that remains is to implement the solution.

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