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It’s just “Problems” and “Context”

The phrase “first-world problems” is the Godwin’s Law of social discussion.

A “first-world problem” is a difficulty which is really only felt by the privileged in this world. First-world “problems” are, in theory, issues that any citizen of a second- or third-world country will never encounter due to rank poverty or other issues due to societal infrastructure. Complaining about a first-world problems is like complaining about how much tax you have to pay: it’s a problem you want to have.

There are no “first-world problems.” There are just “problems” and their contexts.

Its usage bugs the fuck out of me and I’m going to tell you why.

First, let’s talk about how the phrase is used and the implied meanings.

Consider this exchange:

Me: “It sucks that there’s a new Starbucks opening on the block! It’s going to put my local coffee shop out of business.”
You: “Isn’t that a first-world problem?”

What you are really saying this: “There are poor people in the world who don’t even have coffee shops, or even the dream of them, so shut the fuck up and quit whining! Don’t you feel guilty for being privileged enough to even have a coffee shop?”

If I describe an issue I’m having, and you respond with “that’s a first world problem,” you are not responding in any meaningful way to the statement. You are saying instead, “what you want to talk about is stupid and we should instead consider this other thing that I want to talk about.” It is a fundamentally selfish thing to say, slathered in self-righteousness.

I am being told to shut up. It takes my (possibly very real, possibly very serious) problem and removes it from its local context, and puts it up on a much bigger stage. Suddenly my problem isn’t that serious.

It is true that, when weighed against the Grand Scale of Human Suffering, a chain coffee shop’s opening does not move the needle. I will not argue this.

I will argue that such a comparison is irrelevant.

No matter how great the tragedy, a comparison to the Holocaust will make it seem minor. Consider the above conversation, only with the volume turned up:

Me: “230,000 people were killed in the 2004 Indonesian tsunami.”
You: “Yeah, well, over six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.”

Some day the heat death of the universe is going to happen. We don’t have conversations within the context that someday everything is going to end.

When compared to the millions of starving children or people in Syria being attacked with Sarin gas, the importance of nearly every problem shrinks. That doesn’t make these problems any less real or relevant.

When insurance doesn’t pay for your child’s occupational therapy, that’s a problem we only have in the first world. It’s still a problem. The context is localized. It isn’t productive to move it out of that context.

There is a more subtle and sinister effect to the use of the phrase. It happens when we self-deprecate our own statements and ultimately harms the overall issue of recognizing privilege.

When I say, “I know this is a first-world problem but I can’t decide if I want to buy the new XBox,” I am short-circuiting a conversation about my privilege. It’s a weak nod to the fact that my problem only exists because I have enough privilege for it to be a problem.

I believe conversations about privilege are important and we should definitely be having them more often and with greater sincerity and perspective. However, the power of such a discussion lies with it not becoming trivialized.

If I handwave an acknowledgement of my privilege, am I really recognizing it? I was born in the USA, I’m male, and I’m (by all appearances) white. All of my problems are “first-world;” there is no way around this. I recognize this and I’d like to think I’m doing what I can to flatten the privilege curve but the fact is that it exists.

If we are forced to recognize privilege with every conversation it becomes rote catechism – ultimately meaningless, exercised without empathy – which is the exact opposite of what should be happening.

So we should stop using the phrase. Just stop. The key to recognizing and remembering your privilege is to not make it trivial, which is what the phrase does.

(I want to point out that ranting about this is absolutely a first-world problem. I am fully aware of the irony. It does not, however, negate my point.)

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2 Responses

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  1. Steve Simitzis says

    There was a good pushback against this when the meme first popped up:

    I don’t like this expression “First World problems.” It is false and it is condescending. Yes, Nigerians struggle with floods or infant mortality. But these same Nigerians also deal with mundane and seemingly luxurious hassles. Connectivity issues on your BlackBerry, cost of car repair, how to sync your iPad, what brand of noodles to buy: Third World problems. All the silly stuff of life doesn’t disappear just because you’re black and live in a poorer country. People in the richer nations need a more robust sense of the lives being lived in the darker nations. Here’s a First World problem: the inability to see that others are as fully complex and as keen on technology and pleasure as you are.

    One event that illustrated the gap between the Africa of conjecture and the real Africa was the BlackBerry outage of a few weeks ago. Who would have thought Research In Motion’s technical issues would cause so much annoyance and inconvenience in a place like Lagos? But of course it did, because people don’t wake up with “poor African” pasted on their foreheads. They live as citizens of the modern world. None of this is to deny the existence of social stratification and elite structures here. There are lifestyles of the rich and famous, sure. But the interesting thing about modern technology is how socially mobile it is–quite literally. Everyone in Lagos has a phone.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. So-Called “First World Problems” and a Little Bit of Privilege | Girls Can't Resist linked to this post on June 17, 2013

    […] being said, I fully agree with this article. Essentially, the concept of “first-world problems” and usage of the phrase needs to […]

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