The Problem with #FirstWorldProblems

I’ve occasionally found First World Problems funny, but it always felt a little odd to me. When I came across Alexis Madrigal’s post “What’s Wrong With #FirstWorldProblems,” which links to Teju Cole’s analysis of the hashtag #firstworldproblems, it nicely articulated half of why I find the First World Problems website and hashtag #firstworldproblems problematic.

Regarding the first half of the issue, #firstworldproblems makes assumptions about everyone in so-called “Third World” countries. To quote Cole, “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.”

The other half of the problem (or rather, another side of the problem, as there are likely more than two) is that it makes sweeping assumptions about everyone living in “First World” countries. From what I hear, the hashtag is supposed to be ironic, but it frustrates me that it attributes such privileged sentiments to a range of countries’ populations, and they don’t apply to a vast majority of those countries’ residents.

Most people in the U.S. have far more pressing issues than what the #firstworldproblems hashtag might imply. These issues really don’t have much to do with the original meaning of the term “First World,” anyway (which I learned while I was in Guatemala, of all places, at the end of my senior year in high school).  I refreshed my memory with a quick perusal of Wikipedia and was reminded that the term “First World” was first used during the Cold War to refer to the U.S. and its (democratic, capitalistic) allies. The “Second World” referred to the Soviet Union, China, and their allies; the “Third World” referred to neutral countries. In other words, it had to do with political systems.

The problems described in by the #firstworldproblems hashtag are more about socio-economic privilege than they are about country, after all. I doubt that for those who are incarcerated — or those who are experiencing homelessness, those who are having trouble making ends meet, those who are occupying Wall Street and Oakland and everywhere else, those who are behind on paying their rent or mortgages, those who don’t know how they’re going to pay off their student loans or can’t find a decently paying job — issues like “Twitter updated its iPad app with a blue icon. Curses, Twitter, I have enough blue icons already!” are really the matters that are of most concern to them. For that matter, I don’t fall into any of the above categories, and I take exception to the idea that “my beach house isn’t close enough to the beach” is a typical problem that people in the U.S. face.

Perhaps these arguments are actually opposites — arguing, in some sense, that these problems both are issues faced by people in non-“First World” countries and issues not faced by people in “First World” countries. And maybe that goes to show what a wide variety of problems are considered “First World problems.” The main point, however, is that the problems — no matter how many people to whom they are applicable — aren’t actually tied to the “First World.”

Someone suggested that the hashtag #firstworldproblems be replaced with #privilegeproblems. I think that sounds, if not perfect (I haven’t thought too deeply on it), much better. I understand the idea behind wanting to both vent irritations and acknowledge that those issues are, in the grand scheme of things, trivial — for example, the first gas station at which I stopped last night was closed, and so I had to go to another gas station and pay six cents more per gallon. Was it frustrating? Yes. At the same time, it feels ridiculous to really complain about that when, on the other hand, there are problems like UC Davis police pepper-spraying non-violent students who were part of the Occupy Wall Street movement on campus, to name just one example.

Changing the focus of the problem from “First World” to “privilege” would, I think, make it more truthful and less problematic. The #firstworldproblems idea is good; the execution, less so.

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