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“First World Problems” versus Checking Your Blind Spots

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I’ve written a few posts in recent months for which I received the common logical fallacy response that we at the Skepchick Network not-so-fondly refer to as “Dear Muslima.” It goes something like this: “Stop talking about this problem because there are worse problems.”

I have also written about inconsistent application of principles: the fallacy of avoiding Trader Joe’s wine for its harvest practices because those practices are common in most agriculture, for example, or my observation that white liberals’ zeal for food responsibility often suffers from notable blind spots. In writing pieces like that, I am very careful to avoid the Dear Muslima fallacy, not just because this community is particularly sensitive to it (and rightfully so) but because it is a fallacy––lazy, unhelpful, and fundamentally faulty.

I thought it might be instructive to explore the difference between a Dear Muslima fallacy (which I’ll henceforth refer to as FWP for the similar phrase “First World Problems,” to avoid further perpetuating Dawkins’ exploitation of Muslim women to make his point) and what I feel to be a valid criticism of priorities.

Let’s look at FWP first. Related to the classic logical fallacy tu quoque or “you, also,” which is the response to a charge with an appeal to hypocrisy, FWP rests on the incorrect premise that caring about one issue means a person is incapable of also caring about other issues. We know this to be false.

 We care about little things (I’m noticing that my laptop screen needs to be wiped down as I write this); moderate things (I haven’t seen my sister in awhile and am trying to plan my holiday travels to maximize time with her); and major-impact news things (I’ve been glued to the Ferguson feed for a month now) simultaneously, without imploding or getting confused. Knowing that it’s time to clean my laptop does not prevent me from caring about what’s going on in Ferguson, and following what’s happening with ISIS does not prevent me from wanting to spend time with my sister.

But sometimes work prevents me from spending time with my sister. And then we’re talking about a different issue.

What people think they’re doing when they trot out the FWP fallacy is calling for a priority adjustment. What they’re often really doing is expressing personal discomfort with the topic at hand; we can see this because while they feel the author or OP is paying inadvertent attention to a topic, they don’t have a problem taking time from their own day to say so. If their own concern for the very issue they’re citing as superlatively important was so intense, wouldn’t they be spending their time engaging in activism for that cause, rather than arguing on the Internet?

As in the Dawkins case, FWP often comes down to an exploitation of a group or person in order to shut down conversation about another, unrelated situation, rather than championing a noble cause in any meaningful way. As just one example, the “children are starving in Africa, so finish your dinner” trope has done nothing to feed any starving children anywhere, but it has perpetuated the racist concept of “Africa” as a single, homogenous, and woeful entity.

As someone with a passion for wine, beer, and food, I have struggled often to decide how I feel about devoting my career and much of my time and energy to something that will most likely never cure cancer or help correct social inequality. But when I post about the beers I’m drinking or the dinners I’m attending, no one ever says, “Aren’t there bigger things in the world to be talking about right now?” Not once.

It was only when I wrote that sexist and racist beer labels are keeping the craft beverage community homogenous that I received responses like that. It’s not hard to see where they’re coming from: an attempt to derail the issue. We can say “There are worse problems” to anything except the worldwide Zombie Apocalypse or a meteor the size of Texas hitting the Earth. It’s when we choose to use that phrase that makes the statement.

 Yet we all have to manage priorities, and we all occasionally need perspective. I bet a lot of us have had the experience of fretting over something small, then having something terrible happen and realizing that first thing doesn’t seem so important anymore. This is “perspective.” Perspective does not change the first problem, but it can change its effect on us.

Perspective can be helpful or unhelpful depending on the emotional toll of the scenarios in discussion. You don’t get to say whether your friend’s cancer diagnosis is harder to experience than your recent breakup, and attempting to do so is neither necessary nor helpful––chances are your friend won’t appreciate being used as a prop to dismiss your own struggles because at least you don’t have cancer.

But if the friend with cancer has a supportive partner, perhaps after hearing about your breakup they might hold that partner a little tighter and feel lucky to have them through this difficult time. And if you have your health, keeping that in mind might help you remember to feel lucky that you have no limits on your strength to move forward. Or, you and your friend might just hug and cry together or play video games and order a pizza and talk about something else.

Either way, maybe your priorities will change based on that perspective. Priorities are the necessary ranking of what is important, what is necessary, and what is convenient. We all have contradictions in our priorities and occasionally compromise them, but over time, when someone’s priorities seem inconsistent with their values, I think it’s fair to criticize that.

When you claim that advocating for equality is a priority for you, but it turns out to only extend to your group and not other marginalized groups, you have a blind spot that needs to be examined. When your privilege makes you unaware of how your pet cause can sometimes exclude or harm certain people, you have a learning opportunity that can make you a better and more mindful person. Asking someone to apply their stated values consistently, and calling them out when they do something that flouts those values, is appropriate, and it’s not the same as telling them their values are bad or that they pale in comparison to something else. It’s saying, “If you care about this, care about this related issue too.”

If you don’t think they’re related? Or if you do, and you disagree over approaches? Then there’s a real conversation to be had. But since no one’s saying “You can’t care about both” (except the FWP crowd), stating that you can is not necessarily a valid defense.

 We can’t talk about and care about everything with equal weight at once. But we can continue to examine our priorities and values and behavior to make sure they truly reflect who we want to be, and in my opinion, that’s a worthy goal.

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8 Comments

  1. I think the FWP meme can actually be quite humorous, but only when used in fun. When my wife points out that the stir stick doesn’t reach the bottom of her extra large coffee cup and points out it’s a “first world problem” we share a laugh.

    When you start to take apart someone’s concern over a real problem because there are “bigger problems” is when it stops being witty and becomes a lazy way to attack that concern without addressing the problem.

  2. Julie,
    This is a great piece that really got me thinking! Everyone does have their own problems in life, and it is all about perspective. There is a definite difference when you take FWP into account, and life becomes more superficial if that is what you focus on. I just hope that people look outside themselves and find something they care about and do what they can (little or big) to help make a difference!

    I watched the Weird Al Video and just laughed when he sang “I can’t remember what car I drove to the mall!”

  3. I remember being annoyed when PZ Myers was complaining about how everyone was supposedly caring more about Robin Williams’ suicide than they were about the Michael Brown shooting as though it was impossible to care about both and in fact it turned out there was quite a lot of people who ended up caring about the Michael Brown shooting after all.

  4. Thanks, Julia! Another great piece. When FWP is used to silence an argument, it’s often made by someone who enjoys the status quo. The problem with this is that it’s essentially saying, “It is more important to me that I enjoy this thing without it being criticized than for you to enjoy it in a way that feels safe and welcoming to you.” I really can’t think of any other way to see these FWP criticisms.

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