“My mother taught me this trick. If you repeat something over and over again, it loses its meaning. For example, homework. Homework, homework, homework, homework, homework, homework, homework, homework…See? Nothing.” — Phil Kaye, “Repetition”
After a comedy show, my friend tells me which jokes were “problematic.” Problematic. His mouth holds the word the same way a seasoned cellist holds a note, muscle memory guiding fingertips to their exact position on a string. It’s a routine: hear something, match it to an established system of prejudice or intolerance, then give it a label. Problematic. There’s comfort in defaulting to the same language over and over: Saying “ratchet” is problematic. Lena Dunham is problematic. Opening a Soul Cycle in Southeast D.C. is problematic. Problematic, problematic, problematic.
The language of left-wing, social advocacy is repetitive. These are ordinary words; words like dialogue, space, culture, bodies, safe or identity. They often come in packages: toxic and masculinity, reproductive and justice, Spongebob and Squarepants.
That said, exploiting patterns of behavior attached to a movement or ideology is one of the simplest forms of mockery. Think of how Stephen Colbert lampooned conservative talk show hosts in The Colbert Report, or how Saturday Night Live picks on, well, everyone; the ridicule comes from the repeated behaviors, which are amplified by the satirist until the behavior looks inherently ridiculous, like a caricature.
It’s no surprise that the Redditesque users of the internet label this language pejoratively as SJW (an internet abbreviation for “social justice warrior”) speak. It’s just so easy to do so. A small, coded source of language is reliable, but it’s also heavily mockable. The comfort of this language backfires. Not only does the repetition leave room for mockery, but the dependence on this language — often language that can productively take complex and thorny ideas and make them more digestible and accessible — becomes a crutch for the user.
Problematic, problematic, problematic. Applying the word is like washing your favorite pair of jeans. Problematic, problematic, problematic. Each wash, each use, makes them worn out more and more, until they lose their gusto but still cover up what you want them to. At this point, you wear them not because they’re fly as hell, but because they’re still comfortable. (I write this as all of my jeans are falling apart. I had to order two new pairs online. I’ve worn exercise pants as normal pants an absurd number of times in the past two weeks.) I’m afraid of the overuse of this small linguistic repertoire. I’m afraid, because the dependence on the terminology and the immediacy of its use fray the connections between the words and their meanings. That’s the thing about muscle memory: you don’t have to think about it.
I rely on patterns of language just as much as the next guy (provided that the next guy relies on these patterns a lot), which is probably something a reader can gauge just from reading this column. I fear making a normative argument about these patterns, because they’re useful. They’re mockable, but they’re accessible. They’re worn-out, but they’re efficient. I guess you could say they’re just a little problematic.
Pegah Moradi is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. All Jokes Aside appears alternate Mondays this semester.