Last week, my usually steadfast and loyal upstairs toilet decided to go on strike, requiring the intervention of a slightly psychotic but surprisingly competent handyman. The whole thing needed to be replaced, he declared ominously, but it was a process that would take a number of days, demanding the toilet be left in peace, living out its final days in quiet dignity. It the meantime, this would require me trudging downstairs, to the second bathroom, for a middle-of-the-night piss.
Naturally, the following day I would be attacked by Normandy-like waves of nausea, turning Lou Ferrigno green, retching and coughing and puking until my stomach was vacant and throbbing. With upstairs off limits, I left the comfort of my bed, decamping to the narrow living room couch. This minor plumbing issue, corrected for a reasonable fee absorbed by an unreasonable landlord, provoked a good bit of complaint (“How long does it take to buy a new toilet?” “When can I return to my very comfortable, rather large bed?”). But these types of “white whines” are best whispered in private, lest one be reminded that while you might be infected with the Norovirus, someone else has cholera—and that you’re also suffering from an acute case of “first world problems.”
That ubiquitous phrase—never uttered by beaten down inhabitants of the third world, incidentally, though beloved by the guilty, white, and bourgeois—is sarcasm disguised as social analysis: if someone somewhere is suffering a worse fate than you, then what right do you have to complain? Your first world toilet is on the fritz? Well, don't you know that there are people in the third world for whom indoor plumbing is but a fantasy? And because the world is beset by misery, poverty, and war, those living in relative peace and comfort can have problems, but only if they’re qualified by the words “first world.”
Indeed, a day rarely passes without being confronted by someone kvetching about something innocuous on social media—this is what Twitter is for, after all—then quickly acknowledging that their temporary Wifi outage isn't quite as bad as that afternoon’s car bombing in Karbala. And if you doubt that this self-effacing-but-jokey nonsense has taken over the planet, I urge you to do a quick Twitter search for the hashtag #firstworldproblems.
Here’s a sampling, pulled at random, all tweeted within a few seconds of each other (35 seconds ago, 37 seconds ago, 56 seconds ago...ad infinitum): “15 hours without water & counting. It's amazing how fast I can get ready in the morning when I can't shower!” “I just want to sleep in.” “The biggest struggle of my day is finding motivation to get down from my bed.” These seem to be very much third world problems: having no water; saddled with an awful, exhausting, and tedious job; and desperation for a bit more sleep.
And the guilt of having problems of insufficient moral weight easily transfers from social to mainstream media. When journalists in Sochi complained about the spartan conditions of Olympic village, posting photos of terrible accommodations, missing doorknobs, yellow water, hotel rooms booked months ago that didn’t exist, plumbing problems—all at the most expensive (and corrupt) Olympics in history—the story overwhelmed social media.
Then the backlash. From Washington, D.C., a writer for The Atlantic Wire took it upon himself to adjudicate whether these were “real problems or first world problems.” NBC News reported on the problems in Sochi, beginning its story with a subtle sneer: “While some are calling them first-world problems of Western journalists sent to cover one of the world's greatest events...” (It should raise a reader’s antennae anytime they are told about that precise demographic group “some”). The parody Twitter account @SochiProblems has quickly amassed 350,000 followers.
Who are these spoiled Westerners (one Canadian journalists called the complaining hacks “ugly Americans”), blithely assuming that other countries have doorknobs and functioning elevators? Incidentally, if you really want to upset Russians—a superpower regularly besting Washington on the international stage, awash in oil money, home to one of the most expensive cities in the world, stuffed with oleaginous oligarchs—make the implicit argument that this first world country is, in fact, a third world country, a less-temperate Nicaragua.
But there are times when, in a slightly modified context, the “who are you to complain when others suffer more” formulation is sharply condemned. Take the bomb-throwing atheist Richard Dawkins, who rolled his eyes at allegations that female atheists are routinely forced to endure the awkward advances of male atheists. Dawkins commented acidly, “Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and… yawn… don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.”
The anti-Dawkins chorus responded—led not by theists, but by progressives who hate Islamophobia more than they hate religion—pointing out, quite rightly, that just because many women in the Muslim world are victims of sexism, institutional discrimination, and daily indignities doesn’t mean that inappropriate comments in the West are therefore rendered appropriate.
Is being awkwardly propositioned in an elevator by an Aspergers-afflicted scientist a first world complaint? How about being prevented from attending an elite university because of limited financial resources? Sleeping on the couch so you don’t have to trudge down a flight of stairs to vomit?
In some countries, there are no scientists, no elevators, and sexual assault is shrugged off by a patriarchal culture. In other countries there are no universities at all, much less financial resources to be wasted on studying the nuances of race, class, and gender. And that last example—toilets, vomiting, and couches—is so absurd as to not even merit a response. Because until you have malaria and are threatened by a fanatical militia from a neighboring village, you are merely suffering from first world problems.