September 7, 2014


Issues (Wilfred M. McClay,  Summer 2014, The Hedgehog Review)

[N]ow, when I hear the word "issues" substituted for a more informative, descriptive, or precise term, I think of the psychiatric phrase "not otherwise specified," which is used often in the supposedly authoritative (but constantly being revised) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In other words, the person of whom we say that he "has issues" is likely to be someone of whom we strongly disapprove, but for reasons "not otherwise specified," perhaps because we lack the knowledge, the energy, or the time to render the specifics--and perhaps because we just want a patina of pseudo-expertise to conceal the raw fact that we viscerally dislike him, or that he stands in the way of something we want. 

Not every usage of "issues" is this loaded, but the possibility of such loading is always there in the background. To "have issues with" someone or "about" something is to be found guilty of an irrational, even pathological, aversion, to have what used to be called a "hang-up" about that thing or person--as, for example, when it is said that today's young men "have issues with commitment." This doesn't mean that they wish to get into a serious discussion of the subject with Howard K. Smith. It means something closer to the opposite. It means--although it doesn't say directly--that they are not capable of such a discussion. It means that they are too immature to be willing to assume the responsibilities of grown men, and are too immature to have this fact explained to them. 

So pervasive is this usage that one can find it employed reflexively, as when the hip-hop artist Kool Keith recently pronounced the following upon his artistic rival, the performance artist Eminem: "It seems like he has a lot of issues with himself." Whatever else can be said of such an enigmatic statement, it was clearly not a compliment, and certainly not a ringing affirmation of Eminem's mental health. But then maybe it was a tribute to the roiled inner life of the authentic artist who operates outside the guardrails of life, the po├Ęte maudit. Maybe. Maybe not. 

But with "issues," we usually have to guess at the precise nature of the difficulty. Of course, any person using the term "issues" in this way is also showing that he or she cannot be bothered to state with openness and precision the real source of the trouble. To do so would not only require a real effort of understanding, but it would also mean risking the appearance of a moral judgment, a sin that has to be avoided at all costs. Even the similarly used word "problem," for all its faults--chief among them being the false implication that every conflict in life can be "solved"--is less evasive than the non-directive "issues," since it at least implies that one could analyze the situation and clarify the lines of responsibility. 

How much lazier and easier and safer to declare that "He has issues with his mother," than to state what those issues might be, what is to be done about them, and to venture to guess whether he or his mother might be the more culpable party. The word "issues" becomes a fog over the proceedings, enveloping them in a deliberately impenetrable pea soup of moral indeterminacy. It is the perfect word for our postmodern times. Like the language of diplomacy, it is meant to say what it does not say, and not to say what it says, and to preserve the possibility of deniability and retreat at all times. 

Too many people fear using normative language lest they be judged politically-incorrect.
Posted by at September 7, 2014 7:43 AM

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