Sunday, October 21, 2012

Misplaced Guilt Problems

            Perusing the vastness of social media, a phrase has caught my eye a few times and has been repeated enough to call it a trend. The phrase is “Middle Class Problems.”

            Except that isn’t the real phrase. It’s a glossed-over sanitized version of a more apt, accurate and original term that caught on first.

            The expression is “First World Problems,” not “Middle Class Problems.” To be really hip, write it without spaces and with a hash tag (#) to replicate the preferred style of the Twitter social media site. #Firstworldproblems. “There is too much guacamole on my omelet,” is a good example of such a "problem."

I’m old enough to have gone to grammar school when the schools were still teaching students real subjects. Sure we had our share of lame love-in student assemblies from time to time, but there were some facts that they didn’t hide from us. One of those facts is that we, being Americans, lived in the First World. That meant that we lived in a country where widespread famine and disease were eradicated, political decisions were made nonviolently and the basic necessities of life were easily obtained by almost all of the population. Those countries that suffered from widespread poverty, famine and disease were Third World countries. Those were the countries we were thankful not to live. It was a testament to how lucky we were to live in the First World. We weren’t taught to be ashamed of that, but to be grateful for what we had, because there were many people in the world who did not have that.

            The Second World, we were told, consisted of countries like the Soviet Block, that were developed but still lacking in many things. Once the cold war ended we saw just how second-rate the Second World was, and while our government had lied to us about a lot of things, the horrors of Communism turned out to be every bit as bad as we were told.

            Nonetheless, there was no moral judgment or implied superiority in this division of the world. It seemed to make perfect sense and was instructive to us. There is nothing about “First World Problems” that ought to offend anyone unless you’ve actually been caught complaining about how the sound of your maid cleaning your house woke you up.  Living in the First World is a good thing. No one asks to be born where they were. There are millions of people who would love to live in the First World rather than where they’re living. Why would it be wrong to say so?

            There’s no reason to feel guilty about living in The First World or declaring it so. Developed Western Civilization gets to give the nomenclature to its own standard of living, and we have our shit together better than anywhere else; that’s fact. Trying to shame us into ignoring that or saying otherwise doesn’t bring indoor plumbing to the people of the Serengeti. It’s more misplaced guilt that has no place among a sane, self-confident people.

            And in fact, the phrase “First World Problems” is not a boast of wealth, racial superiority or some other politically incorrect geographic prejudice, but an acknowledgement of our society’s own fixation with the trivial. It at once exposes and parodies the shallowness and self-regard that comes with great material success and the corruption of societal excesses. It’s the snarky, electronic media equivalent of your mother reminding you not to be such a shallow jerk; there are starving kids in Africa, you ungrateful snot.   

            The refusal to use the term when that’s what you mean is the worst kind of moral cowardice. First of all, though they are surely related, economic class and the different spheres of the developing world are not the same thing. Being middle class in the U.S.A. is nothing at all like being middle class in Ethiopia. But living in the First World means living in the first world not matter what you’re class. In their effort to not offend, these phrase murderers are substituting a subset for a set, and it doesn’t follow.

In fact, using the phrase “Middle Class Problems” as a substitute puts the user in the worst of all categories: enjoying the benefits of living in the First World and most likely not doing anything of consequence to improve things for those people starving in other parts of the world, somehow needs to alert others to their superior sense of moral rectitude. Thanks for the implied moral lesson, now go send all your co-op groceries to Somalia. Don’t have the international postage coupon to send your artisanal cheese to Africa? First World Problems. 

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