Jewish World Review July 28, 2004 / 10 Menachem-Av, 5764

Froma Harrop

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Consumer Reports

The problem with 'issues' | "Vigorex helps men conquer sexual issues," the radio ad said. This writer had no idea whether Vigorex was indeed an effective alternative to Viagra, the impotency drug. She was struck, however, by the use of the word "issue" as a replacement for the word "problem."

Everyone nowadays has issues. Drug addicts have "substance-abuse issues." Schizophrenics have "mental-health issues." Battling husbands and wives have "marital issues." Obese people have "weight issues."

Why do people prefer to have issues over old-fashioned problems? Here's a guess. In law, "issue" means a point in question. This can be reassuring to the burdened individual. Calling behavior that many would consider a personal flaw an "issue" leaves its badness subject to debate. The drunk carried to the police station's dry-out cell can say: "Officer, I am a good person. I just have an issue with vodka."

This newer usage for "issue" comes to us by way of our mental-health professionals. They are in the business of helping people move out of bad situations. And one way of doing that is to make the solutions seem less daunting. An "issue" sounds like something lawyers can work out.

Patients may also find their situations less awful if they are made to appear less personal. A sexist pig sounds pretty hopeless next to a man with "gender issues." Where the problem is potentially embarrassing, turning it into an issue moves the spotlight off the afflicted person. It may be less painful for a real-estate developer to say, "I have money issues with the lender" than to admit "the bank thinks I'm a deadbeat."

Some problems may be well suited to an "issues" approach. That's because the word "issue" allows for a complex set of causes. For example, overweight is caused by eating too much, but other factors can encourage the behavior — lack of information about nutrition, depression, a social life revolving around big meals.

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"Issue" also permits fuzzy definitions: Whether someone is actually overweight could be a point in question. Young women are especially vulnerable to thinking themselves overweight when they are not. And undeniably obese people sometimes argue that their weight is not a real problem. Consider the support groups for fat people: They contend that corpulent individuals need only to accept themselves as they are.

On the other hand, framing certain problems as "issues" can seem unfair. Much is written about "issues of loss," which cover suffering after a divorce or the death of a loved one. Of course, turning raw grief into a "grief issue" can place a comforting cushion of rationality between the harsh reality and the sorrow being felt. But unlike overweight or excess debt, the underlying cause of pain cannot be changed. The bereaved must just endure the loss until time softens the rough edges.

"Issues of loss" often come paired with talk of "empowerment." Empowerment is another helping-profession term that leads the hurting person to believe that he or she can do something useful — even though the source of the pain cannot be changed. A Website dedicated to the families of people killed in the crash of Swissair Flight 111 talked of "grief issues" and of "providing advocacy and empowerment to those affected by the crash."

Some therapies refuse to sugarcoat the underlying problem by labeling it an "issue." The highly successful Alcoholics Anonymous program makes a creed of avoiding indirection. One does not get up at an AA meeting and say, "Hi, my name is Bob, and I have an issue with alcohol." Rather you say, "Hi, my name is Bob, and I'm an alcoholic." Furthermore, Bob must admit to being powerless over alcohol. Only this straightforward approach can end the alcoholic's denial — the delusion that alcoholics can stop drinking when they choose.

The use of "issue" as a substitute for "problem" has spread beyond mental-health matters, often with funny results. For example, there are frequent references to celebrities with "hair issues" — that is, bad hair.

During a flood in Rhode Island, an official speculated on the whereabouts of some missing sandbags. He said that they might have been taken by people who have "water issues in their basement." Now isn't it nicer to have an issue in your basement than a foot of water?

Froma Harrop is a columnist for The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


07/26/04: Bad Rx for bad system — Mega Meds lot's obscene sense
07/21/04: South being invaded again — and the losses are mounting

© 2004, The Providence Journal Co. Syndicated by Creators Syndicate, Inc.