JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

How a first-world cliche is killing debate


Sam de Brito

All men are liars

iPhone reception ... first-world problem.

iPhone reception ... first-world problem. Photo: Bloomberg

In recent months it seems great hordes of our population 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 cliche, it is 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 gobs of 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 is also increasingly used to shut down ''thinky'' or ''difficult'' conversations about more fundamental issues.

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

As one person put it to me: ''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 tells us there are still children heading to school with no lunch, and single parents missing meals so their children don't.

About 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, arts funding, 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.

I've witnessed this 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 ''whatever'' - it's the ''evasion of scepticism'' for topics deemed too ''confronting'' or ''complex'' for the dinner table or pub. In short: ''It's someone else's problem.'' Thus 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 once wrote: ''Scepticism is a resting place for human reason … but it is no dwelling place for permanent settling. Simply to acquiesce to scepticism can never suffice to overcome the restlessness of reason.''

In short, again: it is not being a whinger to point out problems in our society - in fact, it is intellectually lazy not to. It is also what makes us a ''first-world'' country.

HuffPost Australia

Follow Us

Featured advertisers