First world problems cliche skewing our worldview

“First world problems” has finally gone the way of “That awkward moment when,” “ironic,” “random,” “literally”—expressions which American youth once had a firm grasp on the meaning of, then they became popular, and then we stopped knowing what they even mean. The expressions turned into interjections to be thrown around when it feels right. All of these expressions are annoying, but “first world problems” is also sad.

In his 1946 essay, “The Politics of the English Language,” George Orwell warns the reader of how easy it is for expressions to become vague and meaningless while still maintaining the impression of authority on an audience. The essay serves as a great diagnostic for what has occurred with “first world problems”: it once had meaning—pointing out the absurdity in some privileged frustrations—and even humorous value, but it has so saturated Twitter and our speech that it only seems cute because we know it is supposed to be cute.

The casualties of “first world problems’s” descent into obscurity are more far-reaching than its sacrificed humor and meaning. It further removes us from the contrast the joke was intended to indicate—the “third world.” (Many experts dislike the expression, as there is such inequality between the first and third worlds that the implied “second world” may not even exist.) We didn’t know what the hell was going on there in the first place, and we’re maybe even more in the dark now that “first world” doesn’t mean anything.

In my Twitter search for what became of “first world problems,” I found a video made by the non-profit WATERisLIFE that shows Haitians reading a list of “first world problems.” At the end of the video is a plea for the viewer to reframe her or his worldview and donate to provide clean water to Haiti. And it reminded me of “KONY2012.” Not that Invisible Children or WATERisLIFE intended for their causes to become lifelessly viral, but both of these campaigns have given us very one-dimensional views of the developing world: Africa has child soldiers and Haiti has bad water. “First world problems” has done something similar, but only insofar as pointing out what the non-“first world” does not have: iPhones, Wi-Fi, being confused for lying, etc.

It may seem insignificant to pick at this flash-in-the-pan Twitter trend; it probably doesn’t anger people in Africa, as they’re not getting any less aid from America than they were before. But I think “first world problems” potentially has had an impact on our generation’s worldview. It could have been put to decent use (better than the pompous WATERisLIFE campaign), but instead it has just made the mere conversation of the first-/third-world disparity a little hollower. All we can really learn here was best said by Orwell: “(If) one jeers loudly enough, (one can) send some worn out and useless phrase … into the dustbin where it belongs.”

Jonathan Neidorf
Senior, College of Arts & Sciences