The problem with problematic: A worrying discursive trend?

Comment University/Local Issues

Image description: The Bodleain Library, Oxford University.

It is well documented that Oxford University is privy to a myriad of discomforting phenomenon. Indeed, highlighting the issues and problems associated with Oxford University has, in recent years, become a particularly popular pursuit of the British media. The University has been on the receiving end of criticism for a plethora of reasons; the continuing selection of a disproportionate number of students from specific public schools in the UK, its shockingly low levels of diversity and its inability to sufficiently provide for disability access- to name but a few. While some feel as though the negative attention received by the University has become a disinteresting and overly repetitive feature of British media, others encourage the trend on the basis that the University is finally facing enough criticism that change might actually occur.

Are the British media really the best positioned to inspire change in the University, however, or ought the impetus for change come from within, from the student body? There is no doubt that, in the past, with movements like Rhodes Must Fall and Why is My Curriculum White, the student body has possessed the political will to speak out against some of the more controversial traditions of the University (although these issues in particular arguably remain insignificantly addressed). How well, then, are the current student body of the University positioned to speak truth to power today?

It might be easy to call something out as problematic, but it is neither powerful, nor enough.

Today, many of Oxford University’s current students have fallen victim to a trend that threatens discursive paralysis. Worryingly, this trend is highly contagious; it spreads from one person to another simply by word of mouth. Moreover, this trend does not discriminate; it has spread throughout campus expediently, percolating into the vocabulary of students and professors of all disciplines, at all levels. The exact form of this radial contagion? A pseudo-intellectual trend involving the use, and indeed overuse, of the word “problematic”.

Upon arrival to Oxford, I was intrigued and confused by how many times I heard issues being described as problematic. The lack of diversity was problematic. The disproportionate number of private school undergrads was problematic. Toasting the Queen at dinner- problematic. Scouts? Problematic. The dearth of black professors throughout the University? Problematic. History? Problematic. Politics? Problematic. Life at Oxford University? Definitely problematic. And, of course, it is not untrue to say that these issues are problematic; many of them are deeply distressing and uncomfortable features of life at the University. However, it is simply not enough to say just that. Individually and collectively, these issues are deserved of a lot more attention and discussion than the reductionist exercise of dubbing them “problematic” allows.

Too many Oxford students, myself included, have fallen victim to this politically paralysing pseudo-intellectual trend. Of course, it is tempting to use a word that, in essence, means you are never wrong. But, in my opinion, to use the word “problematic” is more cowardly than it is convincing. Of course, it is important to acknowledge problems in society. However, it is more important, I think, to explain why you think the lack of diversity, for example, in an educational institution is a problem, rather than to simply say it is one. Likewise, it is more impactful to explain why you feel uncomfortable with toasting a royal, if it is the case that you do, rather than to simply say that it is “problematic” to do so.

If current Oxford students want to be the ones to stimulate and inspire change in the University, then we are going to have to free ourselves from the shackles of this ubiquitous pseudo-intellectual trend, symptomatic of wider patterns of behaviour, and actually decide where we sit at the metaphorical political table. If you think systematic racism is an issue, which I hope most of us do, articulate yourself properly and explain exactly why it is, and why particularly so at the University- don’t succumb to the temptation of a pseudo-intellectual trend that, in reality, serves to do little more than satisfy your own ego— it might be easy to call something out as problematic, but it is neither powerful, nor enough.

Image credit: U.S. Department of State