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Let’s stop dubbing things “first world problems”

May 19, 2017

It’s the kind of phrase where the person who coined it must have felt very smug indeed. What could be more satisfying than knowing your expression, meme or concept has gone viral?

It doesn’t last. I remember reading that the one who came up with the “manic pixie dreamgirl” concept trope was perturbed by its overapplication. And as likely as not, you’ve never heard of that.

Everyone has heard of FWP, to the point where it has its own acronym. You needn’t delve into the murky depths of Urban Dictionary to find it.

It’s not just you and the other whippersnappers. I remember, during my childhood, on tired days my mother would get rather annoyed at all manner of expressions, such as “I’m starving”, saying: “You’re not starving! People in Africa are starving!”

And also in reaction to behaviours, such as the typical childhood activity of leaving and picking at food on the plate: “Children in Africa would be glad to have that food!” It’s enough to make a ten-year-old rather resentful of children of Africa.

Of course it’s true that we, both children and adults who should know better, complain too much about things that don’t matter much, in the grand scheme of things.

But, does it really improve society, or make any difference at all, to set aside so much time to acknowledge it, to dedicate great swathes of the online world to pointing it out?

The first question to ask ourselves is, who benefits from the sudden cessation of the expression of first world problems? I think that we’re just complaining about other people complaining, which is in itself a first world problem. There are worse things in this world than hearing other people whinge.

It strikes me that, when we’re down on each other for complaining about the weather or iPhones, we’re not considering the therapeutic value of blowing off steam.

Does it matter that’s it’s over something silly? Anger doesn’t dissipate just because you give it a stern talking to and tell it not to show up so often. If anything, it gets worse if it has no outlet.

Also, I wonder what type of person obsesses over first world problems. People who’ve never gone abroad anywhere particularly poor (most people), no doubt; or people who’ve been once / seen suffering on the telly, then feel enlightened, but actually have just as much a tendency as everyone else to swear like buggery when they lose their keys.

The fact is, every problem that happens in the first world is a first world problem. If you stub your toe, that’s a FWP, because you won’t get gangrene and die, which is a genuine risk of mild injuries back in history and in places where basic medical care, or even rest, are not possible.

The problem with defining all problems in the grand scheme of the world at large is that it betrays a lack of awareness about the world at large, rather than being a demonstration of greater knowledge.

Breaking your leg in the UK is a first world problem, because at least you can get a cast free on the NHS and all the associated help you need. But it would be a callous world that told people with broken legs to get up and stop whining.

Depression is also something of a first world problem. It may be that people who work the fields don’t have time to get depressed, or that the amount of fresh air they get compared to office workers keeps them physically fit and mentally healthy.

It may have to do with other aspects of the body clock, such as sleeping in line with natural light and eating the right food at the proper time.

It may be that, when all is well, a farm produces physical results for labour, which are directly appreciated by the person that produces them; compare that to the office workers who work overtime to no end, for a result taken for granted, offering few tangible rewards for the worker.

Whatever the reason may be, suicide rates are higher in the first world. First world problems, indeed.

The point of all this is to highlight that suffering is necessarily relative. There is no point telling people to get perspective, because whether they do or whether they don’t will be down to a number of individual factors.

Sometimes, the people you’re saying that to have depression. They can’t simply ignore those problems which are comparatively minute, any more than they can snap out of depression.

When we bandy about labels of FWP, we forget that we are under varying levels of stress, which we cope with differently from individual to individual. Are the whingers privileged? Mostly not, in the relative sense.

They are more likely to be the overworked and underappreciated in our society; more likely to be in pain, or suffering long term health problems.

Moreover, classic FWP complaints are harmless. I daresay that National Front skinhead I just saw on YouTube complaining about “Muslamic” crimes could hardly be accused of the being overly privileged, relative to our society here in Britain, the average person of which is almost certainly better off than him.

Yet his complaints are offensive, in a way that meagre gripes about broken phone screens will never be.

Say that there’s an inevitability to the act of complaint; there’s an allotted threshold of griping in any given society. Some complain about the government, some the trains, some the weather, but the overall quantity of complaint is about the same.

Some of those complaints matter, some don’t; some lead to action, some don’t; some are reasonable, some aren’t – but everyone’s at it.

If everyone’s at it, and will be until the end of time, then the first world problem is the last thing we should be worrying about. It’s the legitimate grievances we should want to eradicate, not the trivial act of sweating the small stuff.

There’s a difference between deciding for yourself to change a part of your life to make it better, by whatever means you like – trying things like saunas and acupuncture and other obviously first world things – and going on at other people to follow suit. Maybe they can’t.

It’s up to them; your responsible for your actions and attitudes, they for theirs. Let’s not waste any more time tossing around trite, dismissive, reductionist comments about first world problems.


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