1. The Problem with 'First World Problems'

    Wednesday, October 26, 2011

    When I first heard someone chide 'first world problems' after a group of us had been moaning about essentially nothing, I thought it was awesome. It was definitely a funny thing to say, and I'm always in favor of people trying to achieve some humility regarding their relationship to power and privilege in the world.

    Now that the joke is everywhere (at least in the circles I run with), its overuse has drawn me to what I find increasingly bothersome about the phrase. I'll be standing in Starbucks and make some complaint about not being able to decide between two drinks, and there's a decent likelihood that someone will tell me this is a first world problem. No it ain't.

    There are Starbucks all over the world, even in many 'developing' countries like Chile and Guatemala. Lots of people choose between drinks every day, and lots of them probably moan about that choice. Furthermore, the root of this 'problem' isn't about Starbucks or specialty drinks - it's that I am complaining (however seriously) about having to make a decision regarding non-essential treat beverages, and this is even more universal.

    'Third World' and 'First World' are problematic terms not just because they fail to reflect the sufferings and poor conditions in 'First World' nations like the United States, but also because they sell short the realities and ambitions of billions of people worldwide. There are lots of ways my life is very different from many of the people in El Salvador. Whining about the choice between drinks is not one of them. People the world over hate making tough decisions when it comes to delicious goods.

    So when I hear people slinging 'first world problems' at so many situations, I can't help feeling that it's as much about dividing the world into ungrateful sweatshop-wearing yuppies and struggling impoverished have-nots and then feeling enlightened about having made that distinction, as it is about having any kind of real-world humility about the blessings we might be afforded.

    I don't want to hate too much. I think the root of this joke is a pretty funny place, and this one will probably move on soon. But if the point of humility lies in reminding yourself that you're not as special as you might think, calling out 'first world problems' seems to do just the opposite in a whole lot of cases.

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