“First World Problems”

In a class I’m teaching on Ethics at Lexington Theological Seminary, I recently gave a lecture where I argued that the work of ethics involves creating new language – a concept I learned well from one of my own advisors, Aana Marie Vigen. I gave the example of women theologians in Africa (such as Musa Dube) who are using the term “Two-thirds world” instead of “Third-world” to name their reality. The old terminology of “third-world” is outdated, and to many, offensive. The terminology was coined in the 1950‘s to name countries who were not aligned with capitalism and the West (the first world) or communism and the USSR (the second world). In popular speech, the designation “third-world” now refers to countries that some would call “developing” or “emerging” states. It is a comparative way of talking about poverty and a lack of infrastructure. The more apt designation “Two-thirds world” reminds us that those in this category make up the majority, not the minority, of our planet’s population.

As we talked about this, one student asked me what I thought about the chatter around “first world problems.” To be honest, I haven’t quite made up my mind. I think in some ways, the concept is an important pedagogical tool. It can be helpful when it is used in a constructive way to remind us or others that people in other places deal with different, and often more painful problems. One student chimed in to say he calls “first world problems” “luxury problems.”

So yes, perhaps the concept has a place. However, I really don’t like the “we’re so lucky” attitude that sometimes accompanies it because that doesn’t lead to justice. Too often, when I tell people about my work in sub-Saharan Africa, they respond by saying something along the lines of, “We should count our blessings for all we have,” or “I bet its a sacrifice to live there.” Not really. Its not a blessing to consume too much, as our overdeveloped culture does. Its not a blessing to be unable to live with less, even if we’ve learned how to make fun of it.

I have friends in places like Kenya or Tanzania who, by the standards of the West, would be considered poor. I’m not talking about gut-wrenching-can’t-feed-my-kids poverty – we should never romanticize that. I’m talking about everyday folks who make ends meet but live well-below what’s considered poverty in the US. Yet many of them lead lives that are full and flourishing, filled with family and commitments to their community. This reminds us that material wealth is sometimes not wealth at all.

So my question is this – can the concept of “first world problems” lead us to justice? Can it be a tool in helping us curb our consumerism? Can it lead us to give more or become more aware of life outside our borders? Or will it only be something trending on Twitter that leads to no real change?