I recently had a guest visiting for a few days. On a lovely summer evening, we went for a walk. When I asked how his day went, he said it was frustrating because he wasted two hours trying to authenticate an email account. I expressed my sympathy for his lost time. He added, “First world problems, you know.” I remained silent. He looked at me and asked, “You know what the phrase, ‘first world problems’ means right?” I said I knew what it meant, but I never liked using it. He was shocked about why I would have a problem with such a widely used phrase in English. He then assured me that he did not mean it in an arrogant way, but rather to show that he was mindful that there are many greater hardships happening around the world than what he had experienced on that day. When all his attempts to justify the innocence of this phrase failed, he finally asked me directly about what I thought was problematic about it.
With that question, the two of us had a long conversation about whether language is a tool in our hands or we in its hands. How and why many of us blindly repeat words, idioms, and phrases passed down to us like shabby clothes from our parents or ancestors, without even pondering the exact meaning of what we say. More importantly, in the case of European languages, how the language we uncritically use is an inseparable part of the colonial matrix of power through which the West distinguishes itself from the rest as superior and exceptional. We talked at length about how language is a double-edged sword that can imprison or set us free. There are countless words, phrases, and idioms like “first world problems” that we use daily without pausing and thinking about what they really mean, what do they tell us about ourselves and others, and how using them blindly can hinder free thinking or having broader perspectives on life or our relationship to the outside world. In what follows, I would like to take you on a journey with a selection of such commonly used words and phrases that have always shocked me to hear them used repeatedly, without questioning them.
Let us start with the phrase “first world problems.” The first problematic issue with this phrase is the assumption that we live in three (or more) worlds rather than one planet. My guest argued that we do live in three worlds at least based on the economic and political structures that govern our world. Yet, if we insist on dividing the world into multiple worlds, and if we consider all the wars, crimes, plundering, and exploitation the so-called “first world” has committed against the worlds ranked lower, then does that really make it “first” in anything? Is a world that commits all these atrocities worthy of being called “first”? If we, for the sake of argument, assume that the “first” world is called so because it is more technologically and scientifically advanced, then we must raise another critical question, should humans be measured by their advances in technology, nuclear power, and other destructive weapons, or should they be measured by their level of humanity, mercy, and kindness? Finally, the phrase “first world problems” is built on the misleading assumption that every single individual in the first world is living in better conditions than those in the other worlds. And if so, this totally ignores the fact that the first world, too, is filled with violence, suicide, mental issues, homelessness, death, and every other problem we see in the rest of world. In this sense, the phrase “first world problems” does not even do justice to millions of people suffering in the first world itself. The phrase assumes that people in the second or the third worlds are miserable and incapable of having economic, social, or even political fulfilment.
In reality, as anthropologists and travelers who have traveled to many beautiful and remote towns and villages in many parts of the world know well, many places outside the first world are full of organically intelligent and kind people who live healthy and fulfilled lives. They do so despite all the daily hardships they encounter. As such, phrases like “first world problems” assume that those in the first world live such stress-free and luxurious lives that any problems they have are considered when compared with those from the rest of the world. Not only are such assumptions false, but they also function as myth generators by giving the people of the first world the impression that they – and their problems – are superior to everyone else around the world. Likewise, it misleads people outside the first world into thinking that the first world is full of joy and happiness, which is false by all measures. The way I see it is more like Charles Baudelaire who wrote, “Life is a hospital in which every patient is possessed by the desire of changing his bed. One would prefer to suffer near the fire, and another is certain he would get well if he were by the window.”
Another word we hear repeatedly is “tolerance”. Many people use this word positively in situations like “tolerating difference”. Yet, it is equally problematic if we think about it. If you simply search the linguistic meaning of the word, the first definition you will get is (tolerance: noun): “to allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of something that one does not necessarily like or agree with without interference.” In this sense, using this word is disturbing because it suggests two things: first, the person who is doing the tolerating has the upper hand in everything; that they “tolerate” others out of the kindness of their hearts. Second, it gives those doing the “tolerating” the right to change their mind and stop “tolerating” others any time they please, which could make them commit violence against those they deem “intolerable”, since they have the upper hand on matters. In brief, this leaves no voice, power, or agency to the tolerated. I never understand how any native English speaker could thoughtlessly use “tolerate” as a positive word in such situations. How could they use the same word to tell us that they tolerate a medication, an immigrant, or another religion? We need a culture that teaches us to appreciate, to love, and to affirm others not to tolerate them!
In the American workplaces, we often ask people how they are doing to receive the automatic response: “I can’t complain.” I find this response at once hopeless and helpless. I cannot understand how anyone could adopt this as a positive response. I often try to disrupt people by reminding them, “oh, yes, you can complain!” I feel that we should never give up on our right to complain or to change reality, especially when it is unfair or unjust to us. Indeed, hearing phrases like these make me feel I am talking with prisoners not free people. With these normalized ethics and ways of expressing things, there is little space left for resistance, creativity, and taking action. In this way, once again, the language we use becomes a prison cell rather than wings that help us fly.
Oh, my friends, many are the examples that makes us slaves in the hands of the languages we speak. In all the languages I speak, they say, “I fell in love.” I always wondered why we have to fall if we are really loved. Why do we not stand in love? Why do we love someone to “death” not to life? Perhaps the day we learn how to stand in language, we shall also be able to stand in love, to love our lovers to life, and to turn the language we speak from chains in our hands into wings to help us fly away from the prison we have built from it. On a bright note, I take solace when I realize that in Arabic, one of the richest and most beautiful languages I know, they have 38 synonyms to express the different degrees, variations, and intensities of love! The linguistic richness and details in languages like Arabic give me hope in the human ability to create, express, and release our potential to speak, write, and to love. Speaking of language, love, and Arabic, here I am typing these last lines to you while listening to a beautiful old song by the Lebanese singer, Pascal Sakr, singing a poem that starts with:
Oh, my beloved!
I became aware of your love at dawn,
Contain me in it,
So that my sunset will never come…
Here I am wondering, just as in the case of love, whether a language that does not enable us to destroy the walls that separate us from each other, or a language that is not more musical and articulate than silence itself is worthy of being written, spoken, or heard at all. Oh my friends, here I am writing all these lines on a flight, hanging between heaven and earth. I feel like a helpless apostrophe hanging between two letters hoping to build new bridges between words…