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The Vocabulary of Self-Delusion

In my post of May 9, 2009, “Issues ≠ Problems,” I broached the subject of a failure of thought associated with the substitution of the words issue and challenge for problem in contemporary speech. The nub of this failure is the elision of the semantic core of the word problem when using the other two. Mathematical and related uses aside, the word problem necessarily connotes SOMETHING WRONG, implying a need for rectification. By contrast, the words issue and challenge are non-committal as to wrongness, the former properly connoting something inviting discussion, the latter connoting a difficulty to be overcome. So that by substituting the latter two words for problem, when something is patently wrong, one is effectively deluding oneself (and possibly one’s interlocutors) into thinking either (1) that no problem sensu stricto exists; or (2) that whatever is wrong can always be rectified (or both). These are typically American instances of a blithely optimistic outlook underlain by a value system that eschews analytical rigor in speech and thought.

Such self-delusion can be dangerous, particularly in the political arena. It is favored, of course, by media language, whose practitioners work hand in glove with politicians and their minders in “crafting” messages that are meant to thwart thought. It is no surprise, then, to hear President Barack Obama constantly substituting challenge for problem, as in the catachrestic phrase “solving our fiscal challenge,” which he uttered in the course of his appearance on February 17, 2010, at the White House before an audience of small-business leaders (Andrea Seabrook, “Commission Charged With Controlling Federal Deficit,” NPR, Morning Edition, February 18, 2010; also reported by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Obama and Republicans Clash Over Stimulus Bill, One Year Later” The New York Times, National Edition, February 18, 2010, p. A16). Here is another instance of the substitution in the same issue of the newspaper, this time from the pen of a marriage and family therapist writing on the Op-Ed page: “This challenge is not as great as widespread preconceptions would suggest.” [referring in the preceding sentence to the damage suffered by children when their parents divorce] (Ruth Bettelheim, “No Fault of Their Own,” p. A 21).

This usage has been adopted not only by non-Americans but by non-native speakers of English as well––no surprise, of course, seeing as how American media language has come to be the main vehicle for the transmission of English throughout the world. Thus, again in the same issue of The New York Times, an Israeli identified as the director of the Center for International Communications at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Eytan Gilboa, is quoted as saying “This country’s main challenges are the false comparison people make with an apartheid state and the questioning of its right to exist” (Ethan Bronner, “Positive Views of Israel, Brought to You by Israelis” (p. A6). No example could be more strongly illustrative of the self-delusory nature of the substitution of challenges for problems.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

2 Responses to “The Vocabulary of Self-Delusion”

  • admin says:

    The ironic use of “challenges” and “issues” stems from an appreciation of the delusional nature of these substitutions. This is often heard in meetings and conversations where the participants have an appropriately low regard for political correctness. The chattering classes probably regard these speakers as “issues challenged.”

    • mshapiro says:

      Good point, Carol, about this whole matter coming under the compass of the “political correctness” debate. The contemporary (and productive) compounds with -“challenged” as the second constituent are certainly relevant here, as is the reluctance to call a spade a spade, which encompasses the tendency to avoid owning up to the fact that something is a problem.

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