First World Problems

I know I’m going to get a load of blowback for this, but I’m posting it anyway.

In Bangladesh right now, religious extremists are murdering advocates of secular democracy. Recent religious conflicts in East Timor, the Ivory Coast, Bosnia, Ireland, India and many other countries have been persistent, vicious and bloody.

Meanwhile, here in the good old U.S. of A., college students are irate over insensitive Halloween costumes and fundamentalists are whining about Starbucks unadorned coffee cups.

I have to agree with Asher Miller, who wrote in a recent Resilience column

If offensive Halloween costumes and throwaway holiday coffee cups can generate this much discord and animosity, what happens when Americans are faced with far more complex and challenging situations? I’m afraid that in the coming months and decades there will be no shortage of these …

In this our mainstream media and politicians are doing us no favors, as they feed on anger, resentment, and an “us vs. them” mentality to capture eyeballs, votes, and dollars. Nor is modern communication technology, which fosters an expectation of immediate gratification and instant answers, while allowing us to filter information and interactions to those that reinforce our cognitive biases.

What is really worrisome about our homegrown conflicts is not that they exist, nor that they reflect different perspectives on our common culture. We live in a diverse society, and we should expect–and to the extent possible, accommodate–such differences. What is troubling is the lack of proportion.

So many of these “culture war” conflicts–some manufactured out of whole cloth, some vastly overblown–are what my youngest son calls “First World Problems.”

Let me stipulate that people have every right to criticize clueless folks who appropriate others’ identities or insult minorities by their choice of Halloween costumes. It’s insensitive and tasteless behavior. In the scheme of things, however, it ranks considerably behind machete-wielding in Bangladesh (or for that matter, racist bullying and gay-bashing in the United States).

Coffee cup hysteria is harder to justify. When people’s real lives and liberties are so secure that they have to go looking for offense at Starbucks, we can only assume that they have a very tenuous relation with reality and a deep-seated psychological need to see themselves as victims.

Americans can and should discuss differences in our perceptions and approaches. We should try to understand each other, and appreciate where other folks are coming from.

But we also need to recognize the difference between actual threats to personal safety and/or liberty, and First World Problems.

Americans need to get a grip.


  1. On this particular morning this post really hits home. Some Americans inability to differentiate between real and imagined threats is in itself a real danger to all. To the hyper sensitive among us I say, “Get a grip!”

  2. Costumes and cups vs. civil and human rights will distract those whose civil and human rights are being denied by those posting concerns over costumes and cups.

    To quote George Carlin, “Don’t sweat the petty things and don’t pet the sweaty things.” Too many in this country have lost sight of simple facts; the difference between what is worth fighting for and/or over and what needs to be ignored to concentrate our energies on righting wrongs. Pay attention to the words of Trump and Carson, et al, to know what to ignore and why to ignore their hyperbole. Threats to personal safety of those around the world, thousands of miles from our doorsteps do concern us, they are our problems to heed so we will recognize them when they appear before us. Costumes and cups are distracting us and the loss of civil and human rights in this country are making inroads into all our lives via ignoring the full meaning of the 1st Amendment to prevent government from “establishment of religion”. It is here, people; in our homes, in our beds, in our businesses, in our schools and in our churches preached from the pulpits by pseudo Christians and it inundates all forms of our media.

    “In Bangladesh right now, religious extremists are murdering advocates of secular democracy. Recent religious conflicts in East Timor, the Ivory Coast, Bosnia, Ireland, India and many other countries have been persistent, vicious and bloody.”

    Sheila’s referenced atrocities did not happen overnight; they crept into these countries over time and were ignored as being unimportant to and by citizens, and they are creeping into America and American’s lives while we concentrate on costumes and cups.

  3. Thank you. Yours is a voice of reason amidst the ugly clatter of the voices of self importance.

  4. I speculate that an individual’s discontent is, in a sense, fractal — maintaining roughly the same shape regardless of the severity of the stimulus.

  5. Not blowback — but surprise. Surprise that you imagine this is an either/or situation. Surprise that you think everyone in this particular part of the world who is being marginalized is also a first-worlder, like you. like me. Surprised that you don’t automatically see (or write about, at least) those appropriations as part of a much, much broader, insidious and deeply violent pattern of racism. In Canada, where I’m from, there are hundreds upon hundreds of missing and murdered aboriginal women whose lives have been discarded like trash, while some of us fetishize indigenous costuming, or tell others just to “get over it.” After all, there are starving children in India, right?

    In the scheme of things, who are you to rank the importance of the suffering that marginalized, abused and silenced people have endured, or where they choose to draw the line?

    Sorry, but your comments are tone deaf and simplistic today. And I expect blowback too; though I’d prefer a conversation.

  6. Sheila: “Americans need to get a grip”

    At the present time that is impossible. Only after a series of momentous political disasters, Americans might wake up. But by then it will probably be too late.

    Doris Lessing author and Nobel Prize recipient said, as I remember, something to the effect that: “Human beings lack the ability to take pre-emptive action.” I hope that was an exaggeration. But realistically, I feel from past experiences, that she was right.

  7. I learn about “newsworthy” items through the media. All of us do. That’s why I spent 30 seconds out of my life reading an article about Donald Trump criticizing Hillary’s hair. And the Red Cup. Sure, I find and read the more important articles buried under the headlines, or on page 33 of a Weekly News Magazine, but if the media could help me out and focus on more important issues, as I hope they will this weekend, then most of us could get a better perspective and proportion of First World Problems.

  8. Much of the essay is insightful but telling people to get a grip does not seem to be very productive. Listening to people and not over reacting are time proven means for chilling out immediate anger and for building pathways of respect among people that have the potential to lead to positive and peaceful solutions. I suspect that for every example of violence among people there are many more examples of diverse people getting along over problems large and small. That happens everyday in every country on the earth media reports notwithstanding. And when Donald Trump is purposefully in character on tv I can turn him off, pick up the phone, arrange breakfast with a rational Republican friend, and the positive living energy from that breakfast over toast, scrambled eggs, and respectful back and forth can carry me through several more days despite whatever nonsense is passing by in the multiple electronic mediums of contemporary society.

  9. “we can only assume that they have a very tenuous relation with reality and a deep-seated psychological need to see themselves as victims.”

    I do believe that ‘the need to be a victim’ plays a very important role in the lives of the people that feel compelled to attack others.

  10. “What is troubling is the lack of proportion.” In keying this Sheila you’ve laid your finger on perhaps one of the biggest reasons that we are in such a shambles today. There is no one nor anything today that sets out what a reasonable sense of proportion is, let alone be able to articulate what it is. Every touch stone of what were our traditional ‘American’ values, both good and bad, has been sullied and undermined so thoroughly that we no longer have a credible and common vantage point on virtually anything today. I would also add to that the word ‘restraint’. The societal norms that have been the glue that holds our culture together are also falling by the wayside. Instead negativity, cynicism, and fear reign supreme today and over arch basically everything. About the only things we really share anymore are the notions that the sky is blue and the grass is green with everything else being up for grabs.

    Without having any semblance of a shared vantage point or a common sense of proportion it’s no wonder why we are a loggerheads on just about everything today. We can’t even agree to disagree with shared civility anymore and that failing permeates every echelon of our discourse, from inter-personal relations to national politics. When we rail at Congress about not being able to get anything done we don’t realize, apparently, that they are a just a reflection of our society and culture as a whole; i.e, all of us. We as Americans need to take ownership of not only our political system but our culture as a whole. No one else really can.

  11. Right on……..and those silly people should feel a tiny bit of shame after what is happening in Paris. A lot less religion might help our poor tired earth.

  12. Seems like perhaps the simplest words to describe Sheila’s point is that our culture has moved from largely rational to largely emotional.

    Of course if that’s accurate it leads to many other questions. Why? Can we act to move it back? Who leads and who follows in that change? And of course always the biggy here – how’s that problem related to liberals and conservatives (if it is)?

    As I pay close attention to all things related to climate change one thing that remains very apparent is the demeanor of science experts. They are almostly universally, well, rational. Calm, soft spoken, relentlessly logical, confident, informed, sure that the facts at their disposal will address and explain away the natterings of those who are frightened by the possibilities of reality. Think Ben Carson but informed.

    What generally leads humans from rational to emotional? Fear for sure. Love. Anger. Things that to us are overwhelming and cannot be controlled. Ration is pushed by external forces away and out of reach. Think puppies and starving or cancer riddled children or Jack Nicholson at his most insane.

    It used to be we encountered those things personally. Now we almost never do personally but constantly impersonally through the magic of entertainment. They are a product delivered into our homes like the milk man used to bring to us.

    And they are very, very useful to many, many businesses. The last thing you want if you are selling cars for instance are rational prospects.

    Now the operative question becomes can we ditch the witch of media playing with our emotions and return to rational?

    I don’t know. I believe there is evidence of what I call the great awakening or enlightenment but the future has yet to unfold before it can be known.

    We need to have that great awakening overcome entertainment for profit. Two behemoths going at it with the fate of humanity in the balance.


  13. Bravo Pete!!! Yes, that’s the big question – how can we move it back? How can we do that when so many people are tied so emotionally to issues where it borders on supplanting rational thinking? How do we do this when there are people being paid right now to inflame things by getting people angry or afraid via mass media in virtually every form for short term political or societal gain completely unabated? How do we restore some balance and with that a shared reference point so that we can get back to the business of effective problem solving, both here and abroad, when it’s so desperately needed?

    If anyone has that all figured out, I’m all ears!

  14. One of the things that needs to be done this morning, but will be too hard for most of us über comfortable people to do, is to accept that the Paris perps are normal people just like us who have been led to the most horrific acts imaginable by the events of their lives. What could those events and forces be?

    Pretend you are a writer (I do every day). Could you imagine a plot that would create real characters who could end up behind those Kalishnakovs at that time and place?

    If you can, what can we do after now to change those events and forces? Anything? Can we say that it’s all completely out of our control and there is not a single change to our lives that would reduce our risk of being on the other side of those machines of death?

  15. How many of your neighbors do you know? How many of your neighbors know you? Have you been in one another’s homes, had conversations with them, know WHO they are? How can we be expected to turn this country around into a cohesive governmental body, working together to resolve problems when we can’t even hold a conversation with someone who lives 50 feet from our front door? Actual problems should be primary in the media, NOT the BS that seems utmost in the minds of the conservatives who have done what I expected – blamed President Obama for the attacks in Paris last night.

    Halloween costumes and disposable red coffee cups do have their place on the list of importance – that place is to remind people that they are of NO importance and urge them to move on to resolving issues that continue to plague this country. Roe vs. Wade will AGAIN be before SCOTUS but the issue will not be resolved due to the importance of women’s health or availability of birth control to prevent unwanted or dangerous pregnancies. It will be decided by their old men’s Old Testament pseudo Christian views. What is different between this action in the U.S. and the terrorist attacks in Paris last night and a few months ago is only the lack of physical violence in public places. If Roe vs. Wade is overturned it will result in more deaths than we are learning of in Paris, France.

    We cannot change the past but…we can be forced to return to it and forced to live with those results minus many of our rights as American citizens by changing our present. And NO, Pete, those terrorists in Paris are NOT normal people like us who have been led to those horrific attacks by events in their lives. They are the ones in this country who are killing our children and teachers in schools, people peacefully sitting at prayer in churches, shopping in malls, working in their places of employment, walking down city streets, driving on our roads. They have just organized and pulled themselves together to act as one. That is the basis of their success.

  16. Jo Ann, “And NO, Pete, those terrorists in Paris are NOT normal people like us who have been led to those horrific attacks by events in their lives.”

    Two possibilities, nature and nurture. I believe that the Paris perps were indistinguishable from your and my kids at birth except perhaps by coloring.

    That leaves nurture, the sum total of our experiences.

    So, I have to heartily disagree with you JoAnn.

  17. I think this is in part due to a difference between tangible things people feel they can solve vs. large intangible problems that individuals can’t see their efforts leading to a solution. For instance in protesting campus racism and boycotting Starbucks, people can see their actions resolving a problem. In contrast sending a $50 donation to alleviate child hunger hardly makes the smallest dent into the problem.

  18. The proposition that our culture was, at some point in the past, largely rational strikes me as assumption of facts not in evidence. The good old days were never as good as they seem.

  19. For two days, I’ve dismissed all our petty first world problems, the Starbucks coffee cups, the silly Halloween costumes, the Mizzou football players, potholes in asphalt highways, and most decidedly our silly obsession with partisan politics.

  20. A couple of things that we wish now Republicans knew both then and now.

    All armies train soldiers to kill people.

    The rules of combat are set by the least ethical/moral combatant.

    The rules of asymmetrical warfare are different than the rules of symmetrical warfare.

    Paris yesterday was a typical battle of asymmetrical warfare.

  21. Symmetrical wars are fought between armies of roughly equal strength who contest who is the most powerful military.

    Asymmetrical wars are fought between countries of grossly unequal military strength. So the militarily weaker country or region has to find ways to compensate and adapt.

    That typically involves stealth based attacks on civilians.

    I hope the other points are self explanatory.

  22. Perhaps I should add: in asymmetrical wars the militarily weaker side is testing the strength of the support that civilians, as compared to military, feel for the cause. If there is insufficient civilian resolve they will eventually withdraw their military which would be a win for the other side.

    America’s use of drones against leaders, be they civilian or military (indistinguishable in asymmetric warfare), is a technical adaptation to the realities of asymmetric warfare.

    All this calls into question the Republican arms race rhetoric of America being all powerful.

  23. Many Americans, most of them Republicans, assume that MADmen (Mutually Assured Destruction) rule the world. That may be true in a world limited to symmetrical warfare. It’s not in the real world.

    Not that we don’t need highly organized and lavishly equipped government workers to defend our interests. They must defend us against extreme civilians and militaries, but the biggest threat is civilians against civilians.

  24. Sheila – you really are my “shero!” I want to be you when I grow up! You always say so perfectly what goes around in my head. Thank you so much for your intelligence and common-sense!

  25. It would be most valuable if people could accept three ideas:
    1) We are physically incapable of being completely rational. We make decisions largely based on emotion, then justify those decisions with our rational thought processes. Actual rational decision-making is true genius and our path to a better future. To make progress we need more minds clear of emotion and aware of reality, thus
    2) We must remove the mind viruses that cause us to not question certain assertions: religion, tribalism, faith, bigotry, and holding things to be sacred or unquestionable, and
    3) We must adopt education in all forms as the ultimate foundation for enabling the solutions to all problems we face.

  26. For the most part the root cause of being “offended” is #2. “How dare you exclude a snowman from my coffee cup?” These people really don’t see the ridiculousness of that question because they have accepted ridiculous assumptions about the nature of the universe as the foundations of their thinking – the mind virus of religion.

  27. I would argue that being offended by racist costumes is more defensible, if not entirely helpful, but that the root cause is still someone accepting a false paradigm on faith – racism. Again, the solution is education.

  28. There is a lot of evidence to show that people 150 years ago were not only the same as us, but had fewer facts and did even worse things. I just saw a presentation about a family in New York that died of TB in the late 1800s. As members continued to die, one after the other, the community was convinced that the mother, who died first, had a vampire’s heart that was inflicting this disease on the family. In the best interest of the family, the community dug up mom, removed her heart and burned it. They all died anyway. We know that TB is caused by a bacteria, but they didn’t. Doing the best they could, but it was pretty weird.

    If you want to see more evidence that the old days were not so hot, read “The Good Old Days: They Were Terrible!” by Otto Bettmann.

    Today, we have the blessing/curse of Internet blogs and email, where people gather together to confirm their biases. Folks know that negativity trumps all: If it bleeds it leads, and if you can make someone feel like a victim for the cause, you have their hearts and what is left of their minds. If these people are not well-read, but possess short attention spans and unwillingness or curiosity to question “information” and, of course, are subject to being afraid, you have a winner. Just stir them up. No matter how insignificant the problem, if it meets their level of unhappiness and their old white man’s anger quotient, you’ve got them. Result: red cup rage and a nuclear engagement over Ben Carson’s latest delusion. Feeds the desire for a fascist state, discourages informed dialogue and wrecks the Republic but some people are happy when they are outraged and think easy answers will fix a problem, whether it exists or not. Is this history repeating itself that we have somehow ignored…again?

  29. Just to be clear Stuart, I believe that irrational is different than ignorant. We are all ignorant but less so than our forebears and more so than experts in their fields. A trade off though is emotional vs rational. Emotional body chemistry trumps rational thinking.

    My question was has pervasive entertainment led us to be more emotional and less rational. I believe so, you apparently not but neither of us can prove our assertion. Not unusual. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence so the bottom line is either of us could be right or wrong. Good enough for me.

  30. Pete, I don’t think we disagree as much as you may think.

    In your first paragraph, you said that we are all ignorant, but less so than our forebears. I think you will agree that “we” is a big word, as well as “ignorance”. If you and I are talking about civic knowledge, I’m not sure how much different “we” are from 100 years ago, but that is an empirical question that turns out to be pretty complex. In 1932, 50% of students in the 5th grade had dropped out of high school (more illiteracy, illiterates couldn’t spread their ignorance as easily as today), so the 1932 graduates tended to look pretty good in most areas, but in 1943, when only 7% of the population attended college, they scored really bad on geography, which is about the same as today. One big problem is that the world has become more complex, and our access to information is easier, but many people do not choose information that would lead to greater understanding. I suspect that people choose information and entertainment that will confirm, not challenge or educate, their bias. Many choose to be locked in (see, for example, the supporters of Trump and Carson and their ignorance about facts.), but even that ignorance isn’t totally irrational, though the basis for it is not always true.

    For sure, we know a lot more about the emotion vs. rational areas, and that’s where we really agree, believe it or not. Current psychology theory and practice is in cognitive-behavioral psychology, in which a therapist holds the demonstrable assumption that what you believe (cognitive) has a lot to do with how you feel and behave. When your cognitions (beliefs) are “distorted” (e.g., People are more hateful now than when I was a kid.), that will probably steer your emotional reactions in negative ways. I believe, as you, that our current easy access to constant entertainment that we want and like has led us to hold a cognitively distorted understanding of the world which leads many people to react in predictable and negative ways toward reality. These distortions are pretty clear. Faux News tells us that their news is “fair and balanced”, a notion that is patently and demonstrably not true, but seduces people into believing what they opine; “you deserve the best”, “it’s all about you”, high fallutin’ music isn’t for the good people, it’s dangerous to think too much about stuff, superficial Hollywood characteristics are what’s really important, America is the best nation on earth, if you believe it you can achieve it. American mythological crap. All of those cognitive distortions serve as the foundation to react emotionally in an unhealthy way to the world and ourselves, and probably contribute to the narcissism around us. I contend that it may well serve to bring down the Republic.

  31. Wow. Great explanation. My thesis is simply that pervasive entertainment works by playing with our emotions. That’s not saying that it doesn’t or couldn’t also support education and the propagation of facts but humans prefer to be entertained. One consequence of our present culture is that our reaction to entertainment, especially TV fare, is more to feel and less to think.

    That’s largely benign on many topics but can be malignant on others.

    An example that we see here every day is the vitriol from Fox News addicts.

    Thanks for the useful debate. I look forward to more.

  32. When big problems vex or overwhelm, folks resort to something they can easily understand, complain about, and remedy. It happens time and again. How do we stop terrorism? Oh gee, did you see those awful coffee cups without snowflakes?

  33. Being in a culture, it’s hard to appreciate what it really means and its pervasive, inclusive impact on the way we think, feel and behave. Wasn’t it you who talked about motivated social cognition? An excellent way of approaching the enormity of the job of understanding and dealing with people who have strong and reactionary views. There is more we don’t know than what we know, unless someone is looking for that simple solution that’s always wrong.

    It’s amazing the number and power of the media and communication tools and how they have been wasted on foolishness and focus on narcissistic wants. There seemed to have been a time when there was at least a vague recognition of that power. Even the bad guys in the movies wore suits, and TV productions were live theater, creative productions and often concerts, aspiring “for the public good”. That’s kind of slipped.

  34. Best to read and savor rationality today now after taking issue with several more militaristic minded in disreputable media. Made me feel better in the process.

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