Tuesday, April 05, 2016

First World Problems

I don't remember what got me thinking about this, but it was surely one of the many "first world problems" that so many of us whine about all the time. Whether it's because we have to make do with 2G service for a few miles between cities or the bakery only has 9 kinds of pies (and you wanted the 10th), we've gotten used to getting our own way. It is the consumer culture that we've become, for good or for ill.

The whole "first world problems" thing actually got started in 1979 (thanks wikipedia), but it took off on Twitter in 2005. It became a convenient way for people to complain, while also recognizing their social station and the relative triviality of the complaint. It's almost a social consciousness. (A similar meme was the incredulous-looking, presumably-impoverished kid who often got attached to every "first world problem," people wanted to mock.

While it does seem like progress for people to recognize the disparity between expectations in the West and those in most of the rest of the world, this sort of meme probably does more harm than good. It stems, likely, from a genuine place. We want to express real frustration, but at the same time feel guilty about the vast distance between "us" and "them." Moreover, there's a real avoidance of that distance because we feel so helpless to bridge it. "First world problems" is a tacit acceptance of injustice in the world.

But it becomes more than that - and does so quickly. While it might emerge from a real recognition of injustice, it also serves as a perpetuation of the same injustice. Having a meme out there to recognize inequality and the difference between the haves and have-nots, we somehow feel justified in making our complaints.

Well, it really stinks that 4 billion people in the world will never know the pain of having to reset their microwave clock due to a power outage, but it really, really stinks that I do. As much as we want to care about real issues, these memes just give us license to ignore them in favor of our own. It's like those commercials - starving children who can be saved for "just pennies a day," so we send off $20 and forget about it. It's permission to be self-centered and continue to benefit from injustice.

It keeps us from asking how that gap could be bridged, what would justice really look like. We're comfortable with "first world problems," because solving third world problems likely would require even more sacrifice than having to go to the Starbucks two streets over that stays open an hour later.

I guess I'm saying, what I never realized, was how the notion of "first world problems" just adds one more.

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