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I've Got Issues, You've Got Issues...

How the political became personal

Sometime in the late 1990s, I noticed that many of my Master's-level clinical social work students were describing their clients as having "issues" of one kind or another. I was familiar enough with popular culture to know that '"issue" was fast becoming the vernacular for "problem," but my pen didn't hover very long over the pages of these papers before it came to rest on “issues,” crossed it out, substituted "problems," or wrote “vague” above it. This went on for a few years, during the course of which I kept trying to explain to my students why I didn't like the term "issues." Some students stopped using the word in their papers, even self-consciously searching for a replacement when they realized they were about to say "issues" aloud in class. It occurred to me more than once the that students were merely appeasing what they perceived as a curmudgeonly fancy of mine, and I began to question why I had staked out this territory in the first place. Wasn't "problem" as vague as "issues"? Why was I fighting the cultural tide? What was MY issue?

Many of us born forty or more years ago can remember when "issue" represented a particular problem or topic under consideration, and when "taking issue" with something under discussion generally indicated that a substantive argument against it would follow. But somehow these uses of the term have been overtaken by the idea of "issues" as quite personal--that is, that they are emotional and/or psychological. If you say a friend “has issues,” this can refer to anything from a personality quirk to a severe mental health problem. Issues can be remarked upon but don’t necessarily cry out for solutions.

I don't think that when we were calling problems "problems" instead of "issues," everyone was said to have them, but these days everyone "has their issues" (or, actually "his or her issues, if you'll forgive the emergence of my inner crabby grammarian). "Issues” has become a blandly democratic term. Even Democrats (viz Anthony Weiner) have issues.

Is it an accident that "issue" has taken on an increasingly personal meaning at a time when our political system seems blanketed in permafrost, and big-ticket social and political issues like income inequality appear virtually insoluble? I think I'm beginning to understand why "issues" has been sticking in my craw. For one thing, I find the inexorable march from the political to the personal really troublesome. But there's another problem (yes, I did say problem): if everyone has issues, then nobody’s got issues. And I take issue with that.