The headline is shamelessly plundered from this post by Greg Laden. The original context was indeed about ElevatorGate, so do get more detail there, not here. Greg’s title very aptly describes a certain style of argument. Basically, the idea is that when someone doesn’t like something, you bring up something similar that you consider far worse in order to say that the person with the original complaint is over-reacting or ridiculous or something similar.
This was recently played out again with Amanda Todd’s suicide. For those who aren’t aware, Todd was a teenager whose sexts got out into the general ecosystem. She was bullied and slut-shamed to such an extent that she moved schools several times (the gossip always being one step ahead of her — strangely similar to prisons?) and eventually committed suicide.
Enter the eternal asshole Amazing Atheist (see previous assholery). He posted a video* about the strong online response to Todd’s death, essentially saying that the reaction was completely overblown, that Todd was privileged and had food, shelter and medical attention and what about the 100,000+ people who had also died the day that Todd died? PZ Myers gives a perfect response:
We could, for instance, search the world for that one person who is in the worst circumstances of anyone; the person who is suffering the very most right now. We can do this while turning up our nose at each other afflicted individual who isn’t hurting enough for our standards; why, you’re a quadriplegic dying in a ditch? But you don’t have shingles! And both your eyes are intact! I’m sure we can find someone worse off than you. And then when we find that ultimate person in pain, we can promise to do everything we can to help them. [Source]
Of course, we all do this to an extent. Everyone has a threshold of seriousness below which they consider problems too trivial. If someone’s worried about a parking fine to an inordinate extent, maybe we’ll think it’s ridiculous given how many bigger problems there are, and maybe we’ll tell them too. However, if my bar for what is trivial does not include things like sexual harassment (online and offline), suicide and so on, then the best explanation that fits the data is that I’m a horrible person.
There is one particular way in which progressives sometimes use this argument. This is if the victim is getting the large amounts of public sympathy due to being privileged, white, able-bodied, cis, hetero, middle-class etc etc. Of course this is often (mostly?) a reason that helps push such cases to get mass public response — and this is an important thing. But here, there’s also a fine line between genuine commentary and being an asshole. I’d say when you rely on minimising or demeaning the victim because they were privileged, you’ve crossed the line. If you just ask people to remember that not all girls slut-shamed into suicide look like Amanda Todd while retaining compassion for the victim, you’re probably above it.
But the biggest litmus test for whether the argument is genuine or not is if it’s being used to shut people up. In the above cases, people were being told to shut up about problems because others have it worse. It’s therefore not a genuine counterargument that we should pay more attention to those even worse off but a silencing tactic. The person making the argument rarely actually intends to follow it up. The most annoying example of this is “but what about the starving kids in Africa?” as a retort to why someone’s problems don’t matter. The person isn’t asking us to do anything for this nonexistent country of Africa. They’re not proposing some course of action. They’re just coming up with a retort they think is clever. Certainly the extreme kind of utilitarianism they’re advocating (only focus on the very worst problems and prioritise everything in this manner) is not one they’re going to follow.
This again highlights how condescending the general idea of first world problems is (see a previous post here). It might be a useful thing for the most trivial things people complain about but once you get used to the idea of labelling other people’s concerns as trivial, you’re into the territory of “Shut up about everything all the time unless what you have to say is HITLER!!!!”, which I’ve seen many times. What makes it particularly demeaning is that people who trivialise things as first world problems tend to only do this to shut people down. They’re not asking people in the third world about whether these things are a concern.
Which makes it yet another retort without substance, with people making it and then jerking off into the sunset like a trolly Zorro.
*For the record, I did not watch the video, I just find him too vile personally. However, based on what I know of his style (given that I used to watch his videos years ago), this seems very plausible. I’m happy to accept corrections but I took care to be as charitable as possible in my description.