Opinion: First World Thankfulness


By Jordan Reisman

If you peruse any the Twitter accounts for the John or Jane Does of the world long enough, you might very well find a hash tag that reads #firstworldproblems. This is generally used in reference to a tweet that says something like, “My iPhone’s screen is frozen” or “I forgot my wireless internet password.”

You have to give these tweeters some credit for being self-aware. At face value, this ironic expression of guilt for being born of privilege is a good thing, right? However like most trending topics on social media, it reflects a widely held paradigm to which, like most class-based paradigms, a sizable amount of skepticism should be reserved. As George Carlin said, “The status quo always sucks.”

A “First World problem.”

Photo by Trebz.

So, what is the problem with #firstworldproblems? First of all, it operates on the assumption that only those of the first world actually experience them. This quotation by Teju Cole, the author of Open City, offers another look at the phrase:

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.

In total contrast to the aim of making exclaiming a First World problem in the first place, the kind of thinking involved in the #firstworldproblems hash tag stems from a deep, willful ignorance about ways of life other than one’s own. We’d love to think of everyone in Africa the way UNICEF commercials show them, because then we don’t have to learn about African nations anymore, TV does the work for us. We feel guilty for a second when those commercials come on and then that’s it. It is an easy assumption to make and one that is convenient for us. But the guilt, oh the guilt.

Why do we feel guilty for being haves when others are have-nots? It is a strange psychology because there are unfair inequalities in wealth that exist but does the guilt do anything for those inequalities? More importantly, what’s so alleviating about expressing that guilt? It is hard not to have mixed feelings when fiddling with your iPhone at the same time as seeing Ugandan child soldiers on YouTube.

It’s like when your mom would tell you to finish your meal because there are “starving African kids out there.” What she was trying to tell you was that you should be grateful for your privileges but also to be humble about expressing them. While both admonish the gluttony they seek to shame, therein lies the hypocrisy of the #firstworldproblems sentiment: it is impossible to be both humble and vocal about your privileges at the same time. You can’t have your brisket and eat it too.

A recent viral video showed young Africans reading tweets with the #firstworldproblems hash tag, created by the nonprofit organization, Water is Life. The video ended by saying “#firstworldproblems are NOT problems, donate to those in need.” Water is Life took a trending topic and turned it around on those who created it in order to raise awareness about the worldwide water crisis. The trouble is it only does half the job of combating ignorance through use of this term. It tells the viewer to put their inconveniences in perspective but it still reinforces the problematic notion of a First World citizen being categorically more advanced than any Third World citizen.

This kind of imagery is typical of an NGO video: skirting specifics and using African kids to stir up feelings of guilt in us gluttonous, ugly Americans. Donating a dollar to a clean water NGO may help in the short term, but letting that be our only perception of the third world only feeds our ignorance (and, by proxy, guilt) in the long term.

What does this all mean for us and our attempts to be considerate, well-rounded citizens of the world? Thanksgiving is today and, like our relationship to the third world, the occasion tends to warrant mixed reactions from folks. It’s a joyous and warm holiday, filled with family, friends and food. But if you log on to your Facebook that day, you’ll inevitably see a few stinkers who will have had a little too much Howard Zinn to go with their mashed potatoes, filling your feed with statuses like: “Think about the Native Americans who were killed so you can enjoy your turkey.”

While they are right in the sense that Thanksgiving does not have the most peaceful history in the United States – but, like #firstworldproblems, what they’re doing is merely guilt sensationalism at its finest. In the case of faceless tweeters and Thanksgiving killjoys, the thing that they share is unnecessary guilt when they should really be grateful for what they do have. If you’re truly thankful, then guilt shouldn’t even factor in.

The same should go with your iPhone. It is possible to enjoy technology without attributing immediately to undue privilege, First World or otherwise. If the device has problems and you want to whine about them, it’s okay! You might lose a few Twitter followers but in terms of international etiquette, it’s a petty, minor offense. Don’t forget, there’s probably a Nigerian kid out there with the same exact problem.