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The Issue Problem 

 

     What collective state of mind drives nearly everyone these days to doll up their once simple “problems” as gauzy and vaguely Freudian “issues”.

Issues are everywhere.  Traffic and weather reports are filled with them.  You no doubt have one or more health issues.

Item: a handwritten sign on an entrance at a local Ivy League university reads: “This door has issues; please use the other one”.

     What is one to make of that?  Even granting the academic penchant for fancy talking, one is left with a very strange conceit here, a weirdly animistic drama in which a steel and glass thing is somehow in conflict over its willingness to open and close.

Does life have to be this complicated, this pointlessly metaphorical?  Could not our scholar have simply scribbled “This door is broken”?  Or is the phrasing subconsciously meant to put us at ease?  As in, “Don’t worry. The broken door is not your fault.  The door, you see, has issues, the details of which we cannot disclose because of HIPAA regulations”.

     In the many dictionary definitions of “issue”, none of them recommends, or even meekly suggests, that it would make a swell synonym for “problem”.  The closest one gets is “a point of debate or controversy”.  Right off the bat, though, you have put yourself into a messier world: discussion of a given issue assumes a host of other issues, which we have chosen for the moment not to discuss.

      An election campaign may have, properly speaking, several issues. Under the general rubric of your health you may have separate issues.  But when you talk of your “arthritis issue”, for example, you are citing the singular but inferring the plural. You’ve got a whole list,  as in “Oy-don’t-get-me-started”.

     Is this sudden shower of issues, then, the diction of despair, the linguistic flowering of a subliminal pessimism?  Houston only had a problem but we have issues and they are myriad! 

     One hopes it is less dire than that.  It could merely be simple pomposity at work, a more or less contented wallow in the culture of complaint.  Here the stark and forthright problem is ennobled by abstraction, coddled by syllables. Perhaps somehow the sophisticated are more comfortable thinking about their orthopedic issues than their sore hip.

It is hard not to suspect that this issue meme began in the field of mental health.  “Anger issues” is a recurring favorite. People used to just have a "bad temper” but society embraced the more complicated plural form, with its odor of pathology and mysterious and multiple causes.  The usage may be apt in psychology but it is a wonder how “issue” could leap from the mysteries of personality where there really are myriad issues to, say, some athlete’s sprained ankle where there is only a sprained ankle.

     It would be comforting to think that we have resorted to this fuzzy and inaccurate word choice with tongue in cheek.  That is, that we are puffing up our simple problems ironically, using this fanciful jargon in order to dilute them. But redeeming irony seems nowhere to be found.  It may have started as a whimsical quip, but the drollery and accompanying winks are long gone.  It is now simply and regrettably mindless.

     Someone once said that a problem well stated is a problem half solved.  If this is so, things do not bode well. When all one has to work with is a society that tends to complicate, complain and lean to the gloomy side, then suddenly every problem begins to look like an issue.


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