The hash tag #firstworldproblem is becoming commonplace on social media pages when people complain about something trivial. The following video has been circulating on social media pages…if you haven’t seen it, it’s “third world” people saying “first world” problems – complaining about things like their phone charger being too short and not having heated leather seats. The video ends with the saying “first world problems are not real problems.”
I realize the intentions of this video were to encourage “first world” people to have some perspective and not get bogged down by trivial complaints. However, I have a problem with the implicit ethical messages that this video communicates.
Implicit ethical messages are those thoughts and values that we communicate in an indirect way, oftentimes without even realizing that we are communicating them. A good example of this happened the other day when I was waiting to see a doctor at the medical clinic. In the waiting room there were three Somali women, two Ugandan men, and myself. A white lady walked in and put her backpack and suitcase down across the room from me (I’m not sure why she had such a big suitcase at the doctor’s office!). Because she had to go to the bathroom, she approached me and asked if I would watch her bag.
She had never met me before and we hadn’t had any interactions before this one. Her intention was to keep her bag safe. But by choosing the one other white person in the room to do that, she communicated an implicit message that she believes that white people are more trustworthy than Africans.
Back to the video – I realize that the intentions of this video are good – to make people appreciate things more and complain less. But the problem lies in the fact that the way this information is presented, along with so many of the ways we talk to and about “third world” people, carries an implied message of cultural and societal superiority. Even the terms themselves – “first world” and “third world” carry an implied meaning of superiority. For that reason I don’t like using those terms, but since they are the ones used in this video I will continue to use them for clarity.
What are the implicit ethical messages that this video is communicating?
– “first world” countries don’t have real problems. We have it all figured out.
– “third world” people are the ones who have the real problems
– Our problems cannot even be considered real problems in comparison to how bad life is in the “third world”
You can realize how these implied messages can be condescending and offensive to the billions of “third world” people in this world.
Imagine that after catching up with a friend and filling him in on the latest happenings in your life, your friend said, “Wow, thank you. You know I was feeling really bad about my life and my problems. But after talking to you, I realize your life is so messed up that it makes my problems appear insignificant. I feel better now and I won’t complain about my life ever again. Thank you.”
How would that make you feel? Probably not very good.
It’s also worth looking closer at the implied message and considering whether or not it is true – are first world problems really not real problems?
What about the skyrocketing rates of chronic disease and cancer, especially in children? I don’t think a mother of a severely autistic child or one who has suffered the loss of a son or daughter to cancer would appreciate being told that her problems are not real problems. What about the parents of the children who were killed in Sandy Hook?
Drug abuse, domestic violence, rape, gangs, gun violence, spiraling personal and national debt, eating disorders, depression, suicide, poverty, racism, loneliness and social isolation etc. are all very real problems that are present in the “first world.”
Our media portrayal of the global village tends to exaggerate the positive aspects of life in the “first world” while also exaggerating the negative aspects of life in the “third world.”
I have some friends in Kenya and Uganda who also complain about trivial issues. Not everyone in the “third world” is miserable and drowning in a sea of problems. An honest look at the serious problems that we do face in the “first world” should result in humility, and this humility can enable us to learn something from other countries in the “third world” who are not facing some of the same problems we are.
A great video that has also been circulating on social media pages which turns these implicit ethical messages on its head is the following video from “Africa for Norway”