Having a Problem With ‘Having a Problem With’

I have a problem with the expression have a problem with. It always tempts me to think the utterer is admitting to a personal difficulty. But although nothing technically blocks that literal meaning, the phrase has developed another completely idiomatic sense. The Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and Thesaurus says (in the entry you can see at Cambridge Dictionaries Online) that X has a problem with Y, in informal style, means “X finds Y annoying or offensive.” More briefly and vaguely, it entails (at a minimum) “X objects to Y.”

The original, literal meaning doesn’t even hint at this. “I’m afraid we have a problem with your shipment,” uttered by a supplier company, means the company is at fault and has been unable to ship your stuff. It doesn’t come near suggesting that they object to your shipment. Having a problem here means simply encountering a difficulty. But that is not the meaning the expression usually conveys today, in either British or American English.

Why Does Britain Have a Problem With Russia?,” the headline of a Pravda article, means “Why does Britain object to Russia?” (you can see that in Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey’s article); and when the Huffington Post says “Zachary Quinto Doesn’t Have a Problem With ‘Celebrity Queerbaiting,’” it means he doesn’t object to celebrity queerbaiting or regard it as wrong.

This ambiguity interfered with my understanding of a recent news story about Rozanne Duncan, a member of the District Council for the isolated and depressed coastal district of Thanet, at the northeastern tip of Kent in southern England. A BBC TV program aired last week caught her making statements that caused her to be immediately expelled from her party, the fringey and much-ridiculed United Kingdom Independence Party, for racism.

UKIP is dedicated to the proposition that the UK should quit the European Union and thus be free of Brussels bureaucracy and the otherwise unstemmable flow of immigrants from continental Europe. There is no logical reason for thinking that supporting UKIP should correlate with holding racist views (the migrational inflow UKIP wants to block consists mainly of the hundreds of thousands of white people coming to Britain from EU countries like Poland); but in practice a number of eccentric UKIP candidates have exposed the party to ridicule, and the party now unceremoniously boots out suspected racists and loonies (there’s a general election in May).

Ms. Duncan’s most widely reported remark was: “The only people I do have problems with are Negroes.” And at first I was charitable enough to think that she might truly mean that she had a problem, in the sense of a personal failing. She seemed to raise the question of what was wrong with her:

The only people I do have problems with are Negroes. And I don’t know why. I don’t know whether there is something in my psyche or whether it’s karma from a previous life or whether something happened to me as a very, very young person and I’ve drawn a veil over it – because that sometimes happens, doesn’t it? But I really do have a problem with people with Negroid features.

But further information dispels all unclarity. Although she is in denial about it (“I still honestly believe that what I said was never at any time racist or derogatory”), she really is a racist.

The term is not one that I throw around lightly. I take racism to be a contentful thesis presupposing inherent qualitative differences between biologically definable races that confer inherent properties on individual members, so that valid inferences or decisions about a person can be made simply on the basis of their race, without even meeting them.

Not all of the newspaper accounts reported enough of the program’s dialog to make it clear that at one point Ms. Duncan really gave the game away:

A friend of mine said “what would you do if I invited you to dinner and I put you next to one?”, and I said: “I wouldn’t be there, simple as that.”

Laudable candor; but that really does merit the label she rejects. Finding yourself disinclined to judge black faces as attractive might indicate merely a poverty of experience rather than any deep-seated thesis about races. (It is relevant here that Thanet is 95.4-percent white.) But refusing up front to attend any social gathering where you might find yourself next to someone black? This woman is a full 50 years behind the times if she imagines that this could be accepted today as a normal human sentiment.

Casual racism is still rife in Britain, but for years it has been utterly impossible to function in party politics once you are known to hold racist opinions. All parties, even UKIP, have a problem with that.

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