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First world ...

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Over winter, great hordes of our population seem to have been infected by the phrase "First World problem"; a knowing pronouncement uttered after someone complains about getting too much feta in their Greek salad.

If you've not yet heard this new cliché of conversation, it's a reaction to what's been called the "white whine", where people who live in wealthy countries such as Australia voice frustration about life's petty inconveniences.

Thus, gripes about your iPhone's connectivity, your favourite TV show not being in HD or the great gobs of nutrition-rich food you've ordered being served without the right sauce - are dismissed by the listener with the tongue-in-cheek aside "First World problem, eh?"

Which can be a useful way of slapping some desperately needed perspective into the speaker but, now the term has gone mainstream, it's also increasingly used to shut down "thinky" or "difficult" conversations about more fundamental issues.

Recently, I've heard concerns about morality, gender, even the environment, belittled as "First World problems" simply because the "complainer" has enough to eat, is safe from war and lives in comfort compared to the average Syrian or Haitian refugee.

As one commenter on this blog put it: "Yes, we're privileged to live in a First World country, but am I meant to be silent if I see something wrong and want to protest about it, even if it's not as critical as 'poverty in Africa'?"

Though many of us live in "First World" conditions in this country, Anglicare Australia tells us there are still kids heading to school with no lunch and single mums and dads missing meals so their children will not.

45,000 Aussie households don't have enough food to eat, while pensioners go to bed at 6pm because they can't afford the electricity to run a heater.

Topics as diverse as the welfare of indigenous Australians, funding for the arts, euthanasia and overseas aid also struggle to find traction among the public because the moral responsibilities of being a citizen of the "First World" have been reduced to earning as much cash and having as much fun as possible.

In the public sphere, opinion leaders who dare champion issues other than immigration, education or the economy are ridiculed as elitist or eccentric, particularly when veering on to subjects such as culture, drug reform or political philosophy.

I've witnessed this dynamic countless times when conversations move into areas where people are challenged to assess the consequences of their choices as consumers or citizens; the bored shifting in the seat, perhaps an eye-roll and then the suggestion it's a "First World problem" if you've time to ponder values aside from real estate or the sharemarket.

In many contexts this phrase strikes me as the adult equivalent of the teenage dismissal "whatever" - it's the "evasion of scepticism" for topics deemed too "heavy", "confronting" or "complex" for dinner table chatter or the pub.

In short: "It's someone else's problem." So, many Australians simply throw up their hands and give up on moral reflection altogether and, worse still, mock it in others.

German philosopher Immanuel Kant had his share of First World problems and once wrote that: "Scepticism is a resting place for human reason ... but it is no dwelling place for permanent settling. Simply to acquiesce in scepticism can never suffice to overcome the restlessness of reason."

In short, again: It's not being a whinger to point out problems in our society - in fact, it's intellectually lazy not to.

It's also what makes us a "First World" country.

You can follow Sam on Twitter here. His email address is here.

82 comments so far

  • Just to be clear, concerns about real estate or the sharemarket are "first world problems", or at least "rich people problems".

    In general you are right: It is a lazy way to end an argument, by pointing out that other people in other places have more urgent concerns. That's just setting the bar really low, like saying you're a decent person because you haven't murdered anyone.

    When it comes to just complaining, in my experience the topics tend to be the same: Bureaucracy, the habits of the opposite gender, idiotic behaviour by those in positions of power, the degradation of moral society by today's youth, and not being able to get the type of food you want.

    Date and time
    November 20, 2012, 6:10AM
    • The reply to the dismissive remark 'first world problem' is 'then don't let us detain you from your important work of solving world famine, war and disease'.

      Wankers who say FWP are unlikely to have engaged in anything but FWPs themselves, and without any depth or effort to boot.

      Date and time
      November 21, 2012, 8:57AM
  • Yep, sure BUT keep the "First World problem" or winging in perspective.
    There’s a difference between seeking improvement and winging.
    What I regularly see amongst the Australian elitist(usually perceived and in specific areas) is a very insular winging mentality, absolutely no clue about life 5 suburbs away, the worst being the fake empathetic ones.
    The majority of the population is absolutely great and with a balanced perspective in life.

    Victorious Painter
    Date and time
    November 20, 2012, 7:37AM
    • Whinging has a H in it. More than a first world problem.

      Date and time
      November 21, 2012, 10:49AM
    • It also has an "e" - i.e. whingeing.

      Date and time
      November 24, 2012, 3:01PM
    • @ luapa and jennome, I’m so proud of you 2, you can spell, wow I’m impressed.

      Victorious Painter
      Date and time
      November 26, 2012, 7:42AM
  • I wonder if the opposite phenomenon exists in Third World Countries. I wonder if they have "Third World Aspiration".

    You could imagine a couple of blokes sitting around their local talking about stuff.

    "You know, I am really getting sick of the complete lack of civil rights in this country. Why can't I just walk down the street without worrying about being randomly beaten to a pulp by corrupt police?"

    "That's a bit of a Third World Aspiration eh mate? You should just be grateful that due to economic impact of the trade embargo against our tyrannical dictator, our police forces can no longer afford steel capped shoes and you have the luxury of being kicked with shoes made out of recycled tire rubber. Honestly, some people....."

    Date and time
    November 20, 2012, 8:52AM
    • Guess it's time to move to the second world! Those guys seem to be cruising.

      Date and time
      November 20, 2012, 9:35AM
      • Yeah, North Korea is going great.

        Date and time
        November 21, 2012, 8:59AM
      • Sheesh Rudy it was a joke and a pretty funny one (kudos B3). Did you just need to comment to show that you know the "2nd World" refers to the old communist states, you are so clever, gush.

        Date and time
        November 21, 2012, 10:29AM

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