May 7, 2012

The real problem with “#FirstWorldProblems”

Humorous meme raises issues far more serious than the trivial ones it lampoons.

It’s not easy coming up with column ideas. Even with the righteous fury of youth on my side, I still frequently struggle at the crucial moment to think of discussion-worthy things that get my goat. Maybe that’s why they keep us so busy around here—ever think about that? I don’t know about you, but I’ve really been neglecting my goat lately. We used to be really close. Fall quarter? Some good times.

So, when I had “some free time” recently and decided I’d better write this little ditty, the disgusting lack of immediately visible flaws in the quotidian of our University lives forced me to revert to my most desperate tactic. I broke the glass on the case within me containing the insufferable brat I keep for emergencies and started in on some good old-fashioned complaining.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, every minor inconvenience was suddenly just the worst. Among the objects of my petty scorn were some lady wearing heels in the Mansueto (literally, who does that?), freshly-dishwashed dining hall cups that are a little warm (oh my God I have to get ice now), and those loose stone tiles or whatever on the quad that pop up when you step on them and virtually become land mines when it rains (my ankles are soaked, what is life?).

“I could get a solid seven hundo out of this,” I told myself. And I really could’ve. I mean, I’ve technically gotten 240 words out of it already. But I thought better of it—why should I subject our readers to something so insubstantial? You’re better than that.

Aside from how special you are, another thought crossed my mind: People can be so mean. Before I put fingers to keyboard, I stopped to consider the kind of response a column of inane complaints would get, no matter how many pointless layers of irony I could violently force into it. There is, after all, no shortage of witty people and witty banter at the U of C. It would only be a matter of time, I reasoned, before one of the really clever ones piped up with a “#FirstWorldProblems”—and then they’d be awesome and I’d be dead.

But then it hit me: I should write a column about how people who say #FirstWorldProblems are the worst because they are the actual worst. Accordingly, the remainder of this column will be an open letter to the (very) hypothetical commenter who would have responded to the piece described above.

Dear Rick,

When you say #FirstWorldProblems—you used to just do it more justifiably on Twitter—what you do is you highlight in a quite vague and crass manner the fact that a minor grievance someone else has with the world is a problem one could only encounter in our comparatively privileged sphere of existence. “Comparatively” is the operative word. “People living in third world countries wouldn’t even have stilettos or a cup or land mines to complain about,” you imply, “so cool your jets accordingly.”

Like many of the attempts at humor made popular by the Internet in recent years which have spilled over into the real world—namely, trolling and hashtags—#FirstWorldProblems is a fad steeped in insecurity. It reflects the same lack of confidence that trolling does as it resorts to putting others down for the sake of comedy. Sure, maybe it’s advantageous when a joke goes wrong to have already degraded your audience, but that sort of defeats the purpose. Comedy, laughter, smiling—these are happy phenomena, remember? It’s helpful to keep that in mind before you choose to hashtag as well. There’s no need to be so shy; to couch your joke in the safe house of a hashtag; to make it a “thing” rather than a joke, so that it’s not your fault if it doesn’t go over so good.

So what if people don’t laugh? Is that threat alone enough to cause you to sacrifice your sincerity? If nothing else, to do so is disrespectful to the art of comedy. Jokes can and should be improved upon skillfully, so to give up on them without a fight is just sad. And that’s exactly what happens every time you say #FirstWorldProblems. A potentially smart and funny turn of phrase—one that may delve into satire or cogently address the inequities implicitly pointed out by #FirstWorldProblems—is left hangin’ like a feminist frat bro. No matter how ham-handedly you spit it out, the effort’s there, and that’s worth an A in the grade book I keep on your life choices.

But this last point raises the most serious issue surrounding #FirstWorldProblems. Imagine for a moment and for the purpose of discussion that #FirstWorldProblems is funny and apropos. You just whipped it out on someone complaining about having to hold onto his wet winter coat at a party and it got a good response. In short, you’re on top of the cloud nine. What you’ve failed to realize in schooling this guy and his outerwear is that, by reducing the thought, “I think your complaints are trivial and pale in comparison to those faced every day by our fellow humans in less developed nations to hilarious effect,” to “#FirstWorldProblems,” a bit of subtlety is lost. Namely, you left out the part where you mentioned a very broad array of issues for which evoking empathy among the privileged is unspeakably important.

The point is that when you say #FirstWorldProblems, what you do is you invoke the problems of the third world not purely to foster awareness or change—admit it, you don’t—but rather in the interest of getting a cheap laugh or, more often than not, just not having to feel bad about not getting a laugh. That’s not cool.

Oh, and one more thing. Before you muster up the courage to point out the irony you identified that I’m complaining about something that someone in a third world country wouldn’t have to deal with, I’d like to refer you to the article you just read for an explanation of why that’s inappropriate, and to the following for what I think you’d do well to do: Come up with a better, funnier way of telling me to keep a sense of perspective about my complaints. It should be easy; I’m very unreasonable.


Unamused in Chicago

Ajay Batra is a first-year in the College.