The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 2 (Summer 2014)
Wilfred M. McClay
Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.2 (Summer 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.
What on earth has happened to the word “issues,” that lowly, dutiful, and colorless bureaucrat of a noun? How did such a businesslike and antiseptically neutral word, the semantic equivalent of the man in the grey flannel suit, become transformed into one of our era’s most favored and most versatile euphemisms—a politely opaque nugget of soothing and pseudo-insightful psychobabble, liberally used by talk-show hosts and social-services types, a word whose reticent and clinically rational demeanor artfully conceals the ungenerous and often highly judgmental spirit in which it is so often offered?
For make no mistake. To be identified as someone who “has issues” is to stand accused, albeit with the utmost delicacy, indirection, and subtlety, of psychological unfitness or moral failing. The charge may be leveled ever so sweetly, ever so compassionately. But suggesting that someone “has issues” is our way in these sweet and compassionate times of saying that that person cannot be taken entirely seriously as a rational being. The carefully nondescript quality of the word “issues” is meant to suggest that there might be some kind of undisclosed further information to be had about the subject, information of which the speaker is in possession but is unwilling to disclose, whether out of charity or discretion.
“He has …(pause for dramatic effect) issues.” But the lack of specificity makes it hard to tell whether the speaker is being generous or cruel, whether this studied opacity (the uttering of “issues” after a stagey pause often being an essential part of the usage) is the knowing reserve of a considerate person, or a form of insidious suggestiveness in the service of character assassination, in which one hints at the existence of unspecified psychological difficulties as a way of softly mauling the opposition.
I associate my first exposure to the word “issues” with my youthful watching of the ABC network’s Sunday television show Issues and Answers, predecessor in the ’60s and ’70s to today’s This Week. It was an exceptionally dry and serious “public affairs” show whose relentless earnestness was leavened only a bit by the folksy manner of its co-anchor Howard K. Smith, a Louisiana-born journalist and jack of several trades whose speech featured hints of a honeyed drawl. Otherwise, it was all business, conducted in sedate and respectable grey. In the context of that program, the word “issues” stood for all that was factual and substantive, for well-formed questions and rational debate conducted in calm tones by civil, accountable parties. “Issues” was not a term of vagueness and evasion. It was a term of clarity and responsibility.
But now, 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 poète 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.
And how ironic that is. In its original usage, going back to its Latin sources, “issue” referred to something being externalized, “something that flows out,” an “exit,” a “discharge of blood or other fluid from the body” or “offsummer” (the child of a king is described as “royal issue”), or the “outcome of an action,” the last of which usage points toward the emergence of an essentially legal meaning for the word, of open and rational contestation in a formalized legal or public environment. That meaning of “issue” is the true antecedent of Howard K. Smith’s thoughtful television show. The usage we see in our day is anything but externalized, anything but rational, anything but open, anything but responsible, and anything but thoughtful. Speaking only for myself, I have some issues with that development.