Thursday, 8 March 2012

What Do I Mean By 'First World Problems'?

I used to use the phrase ‘First World problems’ quite a bit, particularly as a hashtag on Twitter where it would serve as a sort of nod to the absurdity of complaining about relatively petty things like iPhone updates or Pret not having the particular sandwich I like. I never gave it much thought beyond “heh, I don’t want people to think I’m shallow or unaware of poverty and larger problems, cause I’m not. This hashtag solves that”. Which is in itself a fairly minor and petty worry, given I felt the small thing irritating or important enough to post in the first place. Or, perhaps I felt my small problem was universal enough to strike a sympathetic chord with my followers, but that we should simultaneously reflect on the comparative richness of our lives. Universal is relevant later.

Then a few months ago my friend DayGloBetty tweeted a link to her Tumblr where she’d posted a quote. The quote was this: 
“I don’t like this expression ‘First World problems.’ It is false and it is condescending. Yes, Nigerians struggle with floods or infant mortality. But these same Nigerians also deal with mundane and seemingly luxurious hassles. Connectivity issues on your blackberry, cost of car repair, how to sync your iPad, what brand of noodles to buy: Third World problems. 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. Here’s a First World problem: the inability to see that others are as fully complex and as keen on technology and pleasure as you are.”
Nigerian author and artist Teju Cole

Well hot damn, that gave me pause. But surely I wasn’t thinking of regular poor Nigerians, I was thinking about those utterly starving Africans on TV! But what about the billions of people in non-First World countries who aren't in famine? The Somalians who own a TV or the South Africans who have holidays. This gave me another pause, because that would mean I don’t mean “First World problems” at all. So I had a look at what this whole ‘Worlds’ business actually means, and it turns out it’s a pretty ridiculous relic.

For a start, there are now several definitions, so the phrase isn’t meaningful, although generally the countries originally designated “First World” were the whitest. That gave me another pause, because then “First World problems” more or less equals “white problems”. Not so much a pause as a full stop, really. But if you still need convincing, have a look at the “succinct” list Wikipedia gives of First World countries:
Europe, plus the richer countries of the former British Empire (USA, Canada, Australia, Singapore, New Zealand) and Japan.
Any country not in that list is not a “First World” country and can be said to fall outside the scope of First World problems, but the definition can be stretched to include “high development” countries, so we now have:
Argentina, Bahrain, Barbados, Brunei, Chile, Hong Kong, Qatar, Singapore, and United Arab Emirates.
That gives us a pretty generous definition of those suffering “First World problems” with some countries not even vaguely like the enlightened comfortable middle class British world I suffer my First World problems in.  I mean, Qatar? Homosexuality is punishable by years in prison and torture. Does that sound like a First World problem?

So, these geo-political/economic definitions might be useful to governments, but they seem to be pretty useless, if not plain wrong, in general life. The richest person in China (not a First World country) is worth $11billion, not bad for a man who doesn’t have any First World problems. The poorest people in the rich West live in places like Camp Take notice, a tent encampment in America for the homeless, or on the streets of cities like London.


A First World country
Not a First World country


But, I still protest, I don't use it for the big stuff! The whole point is that I'm saying I know my problem is petty! This is where the perceived universality of my own seemingly-petty complaints is relevant: if they’re defined as petty irritants then they’re not universal to my equally lucky, equally Western Twitter followers, they’re universal to everyone at their most basic level. People with tempers. People with tastebuds. People with loud kids. People who hate that song you keep whistling. People are destroyed by big things and annoyed by small things in every country, everywhere. Some countries have more of one and less of the other, sure, but even though the details are different the humans are the same. And if the details are different then they’re not really universal at all! They’re very, very individual.

So next time I need to justify why I’m tweeting about not being able to get fresh guinea fowl for my cat, I’m going to be honest about what I really mean. These are not problems which I should judge as more or less valid than other people's, whatever their race or income. They are things that are interesting or laughable or ironic or irritating or even important to me in the instant I consider sharing them. It doesn’t mean I’m shallow or that I don’t have any big problems, or that I can’t recognise that other people are suffering. They are not #FirstWorldProblems. They are #TracyKingProblems. And that’s ok.