The Dawn of the ‘Issues’ Issue

Today the Economist’s Johnson blog posted a story Issues with “issues” that looks at how the word “issue” has become the replacement word of choice for “problem.”

The post’s author R.L.G. (AKA “Johnson”) writes:

A problem is a type of issue, of course: in politics we talk about the Iranian nuclear issue, the unemployment issue, the Israel-Palestinian issue. But an issue did not always need to be negative. The economy is an issue in boom times, too, even if a less salient one. 

And it annoys R.L.G. that people aren’t more precise, especially when you don’t have to wrack your brain for a more accurate word.

I enjoy Johnson in general, but this post has a particular resonance for me. After my sophomore year in college, I got a paid public relations internship at the company my dad ran[1], and the main speechwriter asked me to write a short article about the ethics of for-profit hospitals.

I wrote something like:

The problem lies in the notion that health care is an unalienable right like freedom of speech … [2]

The head of the department, a woman in her early 30s who wore pressed linen suits (well, it was summer), crossed out “problem” and replaced it with “issue.”

It’s less confrontational, so it gets our point across better. People are less likely to be on the defensive.

The speechwriter waved me over to his desk a few minutes later and said, “First rule in PR. There are no problems, only ‘issues.’”

The “problem/issue” swap bugs me still, 20-plus years later. Whenever I see the word “issue” used in this fashion[3], my brain balks. They really mean problem, I think.

I’m increasingly tweaked at how our language is taking on this more euphemistic tone (if I may extrapolate from this one example), while at the same time becoming more divisive.[4] It’s like we’ve become a nation of bitchy eighth-grade girls who say shitty things in coded language. Everyone gets to sidestep intent, and no one gets to the bottom of things.

And while I realize I had no say over the wording of that long-forgotten, inconsequential article (let alone how our national discourse has evolved), I still wish I had thought to protest it, even just a little, before it became the “issue” it is today…

  1. Oddly, I didn’t get this as a result of nepotism. The outgoing chairman and his much younger wife really liked me for some reason and hired me without consulting my dad, who would have at the very least not paid me an hourly rate that was double the minimum wage at the time.  ↩

  2. Obviously I was living in a world where 1) health care cost a fraction of what it does now; 2) I was 20-years-old and rarely sick; and 3) I wasn’t paying for my own health care. It’s easy to be a strict Libertarian when you’re young, financially secure and unwilling to acknowledge that people aren’t rational. But that’s a whole ’nother topic…  ↩

  3. Versus “the latest issue of The Economist is now on newsstands,” etc.  ↩

  4. Newt Gingrich: “We will run an American campaign, not a Republican one.” I mean, how bitchy can you get?  ↩

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