What’s the Real Problem with “First World Problems” ?

According to urbandictionary.com, “first world problems” are defined as “[p]roblems from living in a wealthy, industrialized nation that third worlders would probably roll their eyes at.” There is even an entire website dedicated to highlighting the petty complaints and struggles faced by people in the first world.

The people I hear using this phrase are usually relatively socially conscious. I think the intentions behind this term are probably genuine and rooted in the desire to check their privilege. Still, this term is half-baked in its intentions, and I think we can do better in this realm of social consciousness. We need to examine the rhetoric involved in conversations surrounding privilege, the distribution of wealth, industrialized societies, and the global South. Specifically, I want to take this opportunity to consider the sorts of things that the phrase “first world problems” implies. As feminist and writer Laurie Penny recently wrote in her article, “Gender Neutral Language is Coming Here’s Why It Matters,” the terminology we use has a lot of power over the way we perceive the world around us. Here is a list breaking down the problematic nature of the term “first world problems.”

1. This phrase perpetuates the first-world/third-world hierarchy. Perhaps the most obvious aspect of what’s wrong with “first world problems” is that it utilizes first-world/third-world rhetoric. This soundbite leads us to look at the relationship between more developed and less developed countries as linear, rather than relational in terms of their levels of wealth and development. It reinforces the idea that supposedly third world countries are lagging behind first world ones in their trajectories for modernization and industrialization. This ideation assumes that third world countries’ ultimate aims politically, socially, and economically ought to be to end up just like the first world. Instead, we should be looking at third world countries in relation to first world countries at present, in terms of global distributions of wealth and power that have maintained uneven conditions between them. We have to spend more time asking why it is that we in the first world have the luxury of petty problems and material wealth while others have things worse than we do.

It’s really important that we examine the words we use surrounding topics that are a bit elusive to us. What actually makes a country third world? Who gets to be in the first world? Are these binary terms really doing anything for our understanding of the complexity of our world and its many cultures? No, binary language is obtuse.

The countries that fall into the “third world” category are not just a bunch of starving African people in a desert. I invite you to engage in conversations that acknowledge the nuances of the world in which we live. For the sake of not obscuring my points in this article, however, I’m still going to use these terms within this post.

2. “First world problems” serve to other & objectify those living in the third world. Before you continue reading, watch this video. I find that it encapsulates what many of us are probably imagining when we think about the third world in relation to ourselves. The video relies on using individuals who are decidedly members of the third world as tools for us to examine our own consciences. This is a form of objectification, that is to say, the reduction of a human being to object form. Objectification is done through mechanization of a person as a means rather than as an end. Objectification can also take the form of overriding someone’s subjective experience because the objectifier’s views supersede the views of others. I witnessed all of these things happening in this video.

These human beings’ lives, cultural expression, autonomy, and land should not only be made visible when they are enacting some form of servitude to members of the first world. Whether it manifests in them manufacturing the clothing you buy, as part of the cultural scenery when you go on a trip to one of their countries, or as a platform for examining your conscience, that is not what they — or their poverty and suffering — exist for.

When people residing in the third lose personhood through objectification, they become less relatable as humans. First-worlders turn them into social “others.” The people in the video are poor, their homes are tiny shacks, and their environment is arid. In actuality, people living in the third world are no different than people living in the “first world.” They laugh at (a lot of) the same things; they have thoughts and opinions as complex as yours; they are knowledgeable about things about which you have no clue. In fact, if you actually spent some time with people of the third world, you would probably feel a little bashful about some crazy assumptions about them that you’ve internalized by growing up in the first world.

3. Using “first world problems” establishes a false sense of superiority over the third world. Othering and objectifying people are concerning because the first world is constantly intervening in the third world on the premise that the people there are somehow lagging behind. We tend to explain this by claiming that their knowledge and practices are inferior to our own. When othering leads to a belief that our intervention is the necessary solution to these problems, it is evident that we feel a sense of superiority. This reinforces the idea that our intervention in and control over the development trajectories of other countries is justified in the same way as the white man’s burden during colonial times.

The first world in its process of development has eradicated most of the Earth’s indigenous peoples and their philosophies. The Western way of life is already not sustainable when only a fraction of the first world lives up to its glorified standards, so the idea of third world countries catching up to first world ones through development is actually an illusion.

When the first world feels entitled to controlling the development of the third world, the West’s neoliberal model of society leads to an erasure of culture. In eliminating the cultural richness of the world, we are also making it harder for the world to solve many of the problems that were actually created by the West. We have fewer ideas for organizing society left to draw from.

4. Many of the same conditions of poverty and suffering that are associated with the third world occur in the first world, too. The phrase “first world problems” can lead us to overlook many of the real and legitimate issues that our own industrialized society faces by reinforcing the illusion that our own middle to upper middle class reality is the reality for everyone in the first world. There are lots of people living in the first world that suffer from problems related to extreme poverty, which we so often assume only exists in the third world, and this rhetoric only perpetuates that. Today, millions of Americans experience childhood hunger and poverty, poor educational attainment, relatively high infant mortality, crumbling infrastructure, racial and gender inequality, state-induced violence, corruption, etc. The things in which we actually rank highest are our proportion of citizens in prison, military spending, and level of foreign intervention.

5. We really do have first world problems. Not only do millions experience issues that are commonly associated with the third world; we also have many issues that have risen out of our industrialized, first world model of society. Degenerative diseases like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease have replaced the communicable ones that are often more prevalent in the third world. Many in the first world are crippled by debt. People here experience higher rates of depression and other psychological illness. People constantly shortchange themselves with less leisure time for more work. There are a whole host of social issues related to increasingly unjust working conditions and labor exploitation. There is gentrification. Politicians are fighting to take away healthcare and family planning institutions. Millions of Americans suffer from obesity due to lack of access to nutritious and affordable food. We live in a society of state-induced surveillance, security overkill, and fear tactics.

6. First world problems divert us from recognizing that it’s our own consumption culture that makes us feel ungrateful and preoccupied with materialism. A lot of first world problems are linked to material desire. Whether it’s not having enough, having too much, or not having the right version of a certain commodity. Here are some examples:

“I don’t know which shoes to wear with this dress.”

“My iPhone isn’t the newest version anymore.”

“I’m overwhelmed with how many choices there are to order from on this menu!”

Using the third world as a means of noticing how lucky we are implies that value is in material things. It shifts focus from the fact that our own culture of consumption makes us not as good at counting our blessings as we should be. We are often so preoccupied with wanting more stuff and stressing over petty material things because our culture and our economy are so deeply intertwined with consumption. For a healthy economy, it is critical that we go on feeling this way. In citing “first world problems,” we focus instead on our relative luck over those living in some arbitrary “third world,” as defined in material terms. We are reinforcing the idea that there is inherent value in material stuff. To me, it sounds like we are suffering a case of idolatry

Meanwhile, we are also failing to acknowledge that it is the same system that brings us an unbalanced level of material wealth, which creates much of the poverty and exploitation for those living in poor countries. This is where we ought to put our focus. Having too much stuff to consume in our commercial culture is not psychologically healthy for anyone.

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When we complain about how putting frozen water into our water makes it too cold, we should check ourselves. It’s important to feel gratitude and to not sweat the small stuff in our lives, to be happy with what we have and to appreciate when our basic needs are consistently met. Yet we should not do so at the expense of other people.

What we are actually doing when we exclaim “first world problems” is projecting our white guilt onto people in the third world. Even defining first world problems as things “third worlders would probably roll their eyes at” is a projection. We are assuming this based on our own sense of guilt and Western ways of thinking. This is rather presumptuous because in actuality we have no idea how people residing in the third world would react to hearing our first world problems.

We need to question the very ways we define what is poor and what is third world. We need to stop equating “first” with industrial output and consumption. We must realize that these labels don’t fit. There are many poor people in the industrialized, first world and there are wealthy, intelligent, wise, talented, and complex individuals living the third world.

The opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the entire Tangents team.

Cover Photo: The now-iconic photo accompanying so many “First World Problem” memes. Sources: http://bit.ly/1WqUNxi, http://bit.ly/1iUpFbu. 

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