So there I was, bashing out a hot take on my MacBook Air on a sunny terrace, when I took a sip of my takeaway coffee and my heart sank. The barista had put milk in it. That ruined my whole morning. What a terrible world. But I know, right? First world problem!
The phrase “first world problem” is these days used as a comical apology for moaning about trivia. It is also an enjoyable internet meme, with a dedicated subreddit. (I particularly liked “The Wi-Fi at the luxury Greek villa my wife and I are staying at only supports 4 devices at a time”, and the rather subtle: “I want to order pizza, but it is too early and I don’t want to be judged by my doorman.”) But why do we speak of “first world problems”, exactly, and what might we unintentionally mean when we do?
For a start, the phrase is an anachronism, since we no longer talk about the “third world”. (The usual phrase is the optimistic “developing world”.) The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for “first world problem” is from 1979, though it was then meant seriously, to denote housing problems that were specific to the “first” world. The modern, exclusively ironic usage of “first world problems” did not get going until the mid-1990s. And yet search analytics show a big uptake only since 2011, long after we all learned to stop talking about the “third world”. That implies there might be something smug in the modern usage, as well as a hint of enjoyable transgression in using language that is not “politically correct”.
Like many things, “first world problems” has a different force depending on whether you are applying it to yourself or throwing it in someone else’s face. If, at the end of an irate tirade about how my Kenyan coffee beans were over-roasted by the artisanal torréfacteur, I append the phrase “first world problem” with some wry rearrangement of my face muscles, I signal that I know this is just one of the minor frustrations of a very fortunate life. To pre-emptively concede that my problem is just a first world one is to ostentatiously check my privilege before anyone else tells me to do so. At the same time, I remind myself and everyone in earshot that we are indeed living in the “first world”. So it is also a humblebrag.
Such privilege-checking becomes a more violent intervention when demanded by someone else. If, after listening to your pathetic account of how your Uber cab took a whole 10 minutes to arrive, I respond “first world problem”, then I am aggressively staking out the moral high ground and portraying myself (almost certainly dishonestly) as someone who only ever worries about the plight of starving children. Naturally, our powers of sympathy are limited and we all conduct psychic triage on the sufferings of others. But when “first world problem” is just a mealy mouthed way of saying “shut up”, it sounds distinctly compassion-free.
Whoever uses it, though, it’s arguable that the phrase “first world problems” is condescending and dehumanising to literally everyone on the planet. For a start, it patronises those outside the “first world” by implying that hunger, disease and war are not only prevalent among the global poor but in some way the sole conditions of their lives. It implicitly characterises the less fortunate majority of the world’s population as saintly idiots who would never dream of complaining about anything more trivial. In the guise of right-on sympathy, we condescendingly picture others as living lives of homogeneous horror while rhetorically rendering them invisible as people, denying the individuality of everyone’s various joys and sorrows.
At the same time, the phrase declares inadmissible the perfectly real suffering that can be endured by the globally well-off. As is well known, we all compare ourselves to others close by, and feel bad if we are relatively less fortunate. Of course, many problems faced by residents of the EU right now pale in comparison with those experienced by people fleeing Syria. But to conclude that Europeans therefore do not even have the right to complain about their own frustrations is inhumane.
Some may wish to retort that worrying about the political implications of the phrase “first world problem” when used by rich people is itself a first world problem. But repetition of language that implies an unspoken attitude to others will often help that attitude to harden within us. And that’s everyone’s problem.
Source: The Guardian