Columns

Krishnamurthy ’19: Problematizing the path of least resistance

By
Staff Columnist
Thursday, October 6, 2016

Every time I hear the word problematic, a little part of my soul breaks away and dissolves into nothingness. Believe me, I’m no hater ­— I dislike problems just as much as the next guy. But there is something particularly infuriating about that term and how recklessly those on the left deploy it to advance their causes. Rather than facilitating rigorous analyses of important issues, words like problematic often serve as the starting point of a convenient route to the moral high ground, an easy means of rejecting entrenched narratives and challenging long-standing traditions without entangling the user in the messy business of actually doing something about them. Indeed, it’s more than a little disappointing to see the language of social justice ­— theoretically devoted not only to the enumeration of problems, but also to their evisceration — become the preferred tool of armchair activists, so eager to diagnose societal ills, yet so inconsistent in devising serious treatments for them.

It is obviously critical to identify a problem before we begin to repair it. But the work of progress is not merely glorious defiance; it often requires the attenuation of our own convictions and the self-awareness to navigate — not neglect — the subtleties of complicated issues. If used as I describe it above, problematization is less a world-serving practice than it is a self-serving one: a way to indulge our own designs of service, of making a contribution, without meaningfully confronting tough truths or forging compromise. In the end, no single motto or op-ed — I’m guilty of this too — will ever be enough.

The folly of problematization becomes fully apparent with regard to discourse on the Israel-Palestine conflict. At Brown and at lots of other postsecondary institutions, it’s in vogue to describe Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as a resurrection of apartheid, as a deliberate program of genocidal evil. Sure, what’s happening in this part of the world is worthy of criticism. Israel is responsible for perpetrating various abuses, and it’s reasonable for peace-minded college students to demand enduring stability in the region.

On the other hand, while this diagnosis is fair, one of the solutions most frequently proposed to address the conflict is bafflingly inappropriate and demonstrative of a strangely selective conception of history. I fail to see how criminalizing any financial association with the people of Israel — as the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement suggests — will make daily life better for ordinary Palestinians. Furthermore, that these actions against people with ties to Jewish organizations — even if remote — are widely entertained in leftist circles indicates a callous disregard for the fact that Israelis, too, have been the targets of terror, and that Jews more broadly have been victims of some of history’s worst atrocities.

In the long run, sloganeering, denouncing, tweeting — and the insufficiently thought-out solutions they amplify — are all painless answers to painful conundrums. Do these strategies actually solve anything? Are the geopolitical nuances of the Israel-Palestine conflict elucidated? Do disparate communities discover common ground, a source of unity, and come to together to find a fix? No. None of these things happen. In fact, the exact opposite occurs: Israel is portrayed as a racist state with no legitimate existential claim; Jews around the world, and on our campus, feel marginalized in the face of uncontrolled, myopic passions; Palestinians experience no measurable gains in their standard of living; nothing gets done.

In other words, problematizing is constructive — it is an invaluable precursor to change and a central foundation of social justice. But problematization must be followed by actionable solutions, and those solutions must be rigorously fashioned, with significant attention paid to how their details will play out in reality and affect various stakeholders. After all, the ultimate aim of defining something as problematic is not simply to make a viral statement, but to rally people with diverse aspirations and competing interests to act in solidarity, for the common good. The main problem with the current vocabulary of problematization, then, is that it cultivates radical discourse on broad, nebulous subjects like oppression and inequality and then fails to channel that radical spirit toward pragmatic and thoughtful breakthroughs. Unfortunately, the real problems of the 21st century can’t just be dissected with broad strokes of passion; reality is always more granular.

Anuj Krishnamurthy ’19 can be reached at anuj_krishnamurthy@brown.edu. Please send responses to this op-ed to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.