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Is my lack of central heat a first world problem? or how contempt is poisonous to our politics

It is a a cold for Florida day. It is only 43℉/9℃. I know those of y’all who live someplace with a real winter are saying “cry me a river.” But for the Florida born, this is cold. I have mentioned before that I live in a up on bricks house. We do not have central heat. There is only one layer of floor between me and a bunch of cold air that has, like a pack of dogs, taken over the underside of the house. The house is surrounded by big oak trees that shade it from the sun. This house was built and designed before air conditioning, so the way it is built and its location under the shade means the house cools down quickly and stays cool easily. This is important in a climate that is warm more often than cold.

I should go for a walk, but the combination of my cold house and the cold to me temperature outside keeps me from going out and about. Besides which, I will be biking to work later and figure I will be cold enough then. When we have a few cold days in a row, I tend to stay in the bedroom or the den where the space heaters can warm up a smaller area. Even in those rooms, I wear layers. When possible, I stay under covers. Luckily, I can work on my laptop under cover. Unfortunately, it is bad for my back.

Through a social media site (other than FB), I friended someone from France who was teaching in China. There central heat is not common, and space heaters don’t seem to be an option in her apartment, and thus winter is sort of miserable, at least it is for someone used to having some form of heat. I am cold but not miserable. I do not need central heat, but I notice the lack on a day like this. My hands hurt a little bit from the cold even though I am under covers in a room warmed slightly by a space heater. I wonder if my lack of central heat is a “first world problem.” Perhaps here in Florida it is, but in parts of the US, a lack of heat can kill you.

I have been mulling the causal use of the phrase “first world problem.” It came up in conversation last Wednesday. I and another person were talking over a story we had been told of an elderly couple’s mismatched sexual desires. The old man likes to be penetrated anally and had a sex machine built that looked like a regular tool box. He had and used this device for a year until his wife found it and made him get rid of it. I said it broke my heart a little bit that he could not share this sexual desires with his wife, that anal penetration could not be part of their sex play. The other person snorted with derision and said, “It sounds like a first world problem to me.”

I understand the political importance of underlining the differences between the daily problems for folks in the “first world” and the daily problems for folks in the “third world.” Though it should be noted that there are plenty of people living “third world” lives right here in the US. I get that what is held up as examples of first world problems are moments of people caught whining about stupid and petty stuff. But I am not sure that kvetching about the inconsequential is limited to those with resources. I am pretty sure that even those without potable water sometimes bitch and moan about unimportant stuff. I worry about the snide ways in which this expression is used to belittle problems that we think are ridiculous. It is a way to make fun of others and feel justified because our derision arises from our nuanced political understanding of the inequities of this world.

I do not think that a long-term, monogamous couple with mismatched sexual desires is dealing with a small or ridiculous problem. Mismatched sexual desires happen for couples all over the world at all sorts of income levels; it is not just a first world problem. That old man deserves some small part of our sympathy, even though he has money, even though imagining his wrinkled old body bent over and taking it from a machine driven dildo makes many squirm. It is not a small problem. It looms large in the life of this particular couple, and it is connected to larger social and political problems relating to sex and sexuality.

I also am concerned because I have noticed that I personally have a hard time caring about wealth inequality in the United States when as a country we use such a high percentage of the world’s resources. Most of us have clean drinking water, food, heat, televisions, cars. Most of us benefit daily from working sewer systems and roads built and maintained by our government. I see a video like “Wealth Inequality in America” and besides not being shocked, I also find that a part of me says, “Good, we deserve to be punished for being so greedy.” I realize that this is reactionary. I know that the top 1% are let off the hook when I primarily focus on how much folks in the US have compared to much of rest of the world. It is not either/or. We can call the 1% on their shit and call ourselves on own shit at the time.

The “first world problem” of wealth inequality in America deserves our attention. It is not a ridiculous problem. It is not a small problem. And working to solve it may help us solve the larger, international problem of wealth inequality. I do not need to belittle the problem of wealth inequality in America to remember the importance of international wealth inequality. It is not either/or.

I think that hearing frequent sneering uses of the expression “first world problems” strengthens a nasty little bit of my soul. I do not need help being judgmental or self-righteous. Mean spirited overuse of this expression conditions us to believe that those of us in the “first world” do not deserve sympathy and undermines our ability to work for social change here in the United States. It lets us pretend that we have a nuanced position when really we have simplified things into black and white caricature.

We can hold those in power, which sometimes means ourselves, accountable without hating them, without hating ourselves. Having some small sympathy for their or our pain does not mean we let them or ourselves off the hook.

I offer a challenge to my faithful and faithless followers; find ways to be mindful of the inequalities of this world that do not mean holding others or yourselves in contempt. Contempt is like oil. It burns hot, and it lubricates, but it will not last. Overuse clogs up our machinery and pollutes our environment.

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