Appeal to Worse Problems

Also called:
  1. The "Children Are Starving In Africa!" Argument.
  2. Fallacy of relative privation (its proper name).

Arguing that expressing concern about a (relatively) small problem means that the person doesn't care about any larger problems. A type of Strawman, this fallacy takes the opponent's claim and appends to it the following additional claims:

  1. That it is not possible to care about big and small problems simultaneously.
  2. That venting a minor complaint is sufficient proof that the major problem is considered unimportant.
  3. That if the person irritated over the minor problem did help solve or even cared about the big problems, s/he would then not mind at all that his/her car broke down or whatever the frustration was...or because there are people with worse problems, that person shouldn't complain about a frustration.

The intent is to distort the opponent's claim X into "X, which is far more important than anything else."

A similar fallacy is the "if you care so much, why aren't you doing something about it?" argument, which is also related to the Perfect Solution Fallacy in that the only way that the target can be doing something about it to the arguer's satisfaction is to be devoting 24 hours of every day to the issue and therefore not be involved in the debate.

A related issue is the airgap problem. No matter how much worse someone else's pain is, you can only feel your own. Your paper cut isn't objectively as painful as someone else's broken leg—but you don't feel any pain from their leg, while your own paper cut stings you like the dickens. (For that matter, their broken leg isn't as painful as the pain of someone else who's being tortured to death; but they still have an airgap. Their broken leg is agonizing to them, but they don't feel the other person's torture at all.)

Finally, there's the issue that people have different pain tolerances. One woman might be kind of bummed by a miscarriage; another might be depressed for months; a third might go permanently mad from grief. A "First World problem" for one person might be honestly devastating for another.

A close cousin of Appeal to Pity. Often invoked in Misery Poker.

Examples:

Advertising
  • The "And you are worried about stepping on dog poo" ad in Reader's Digest about landmines.

Film
  • Commonly used when an unrealistic element of fiction is being argued about; for example, if one person questions how Naboo in Star Wars can have an Elective Monarchy that elects a 14 year old queen, (or what the point of such an institution would actually be) the second states something like "And this is the biggest problem you have in a universe with mystic powers and spaceships as big as moons?"
    • There's an old fiction saying about this: "You can ask an audience to believe the impossible, but not the improbable." If our hero must win a game of poker versus the Galactic Emperor Zurg to save Earth from the Unobtanium Bomb, people will buy it. If he wins the game with a Royal Flush beating a 4-of-a-kind, they cry foul.
  • Done in A Christmas Story when Randy doesn't eat the meatloaf because he hates it. Mrs. Parker tells him that starving children in China would be happy to have it.
  • In Munich one of the people involved in the planning of the Munich massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes says that compared to the reaction of the massacre, nobody says anything about the children killed in Israel's military attacks to Palestine.
  • 3000 Miles to Graceland gives us this exchange:
    Michael: Finish your fries.
    Jesse: I don't have to if I don't want to. You're not my father, you know.
    Michael: Didn't you ever hear about starving kids in Africa?
    Jesse: Why? Are you gonna send them my fries?

Literature
  • In the Dilbert book The Joy of Work, Scott Adams responds to Norman Solomon's book The Trouble with Dilbert by writing a fictional interview between Solomon and Dogbert. When he has Solomon complain that Dilbert attacks Pointy Haired Bosses more than Corrupt Corporate Executives, Dogbert's counterargument is that Solomon clearly supports teen pregnancy because he didn't write a book about that.
  • In The Cat Who... Series, one time when Qwilleran's pampered Siamese turn up their noses at the food he gives them, he makes some reference to there being cats in another country that don't know where their next mouse is coming from. It makes no difference to the spoiled kitties.
  • In Write This Book: A Do-It-Yourself Mystery, Pseudonymous Bosch talks about this in a sidebar in about perspective, describing a parent using this argument against a kid who got a bad haircut. He comments "It goes without saying that this so-called long view is infuriating for someone whose hair is cut too short. Sure, your hair might grow back one day, but will it grow back before school starts next week." The end of the sidebar, however, reads "And stop whining about that haircut!"
  • Spoofed in Good Omens, when the anthropomorphic personification of Famine throws the contents of a fast-food tray into a bin; "if you had told him there were starving children in Africa, he would have been flattered that you noticed."
  • Ken Jennings (that guy who won all the money on Jeopardy) points out the ridiculousness of this in his book Because I Said So!: The Truth Behind the Myths, Tales, and Warnings Every Generation Passes Down to Its Kids.

Live-Action TV
  • Phoebe on Friends, when Rachel is wangsting over Ross getting remarried (and looking a lot like a nod to viewers who made such complaints);
    Phoebe: Wow! This reminds me of the time when I was, umm, living on the street and this guy offered to buy me food if I slept with him.
    Rachel: Well, h-how is this like that?
    Phoebe: Well, let’s see, it’s not. Really, like that. Because, you see that was an actual problem, and uh, yours is just like, y’know, a bunch of, y’know, high school crap that nobody really gives, y’know?
  • In "Amy's Baking Company" on Kitchen Nightmares, one of the owners actually uses this when a customer complains about the food.
  • Frank Burns tries to use this argument in M*A*S*H when he sees Radar throwing away a half-eaten (and inedible) dinner:
    Burns: There are people starving in China, you know!
    Radar (offering his tray): Here, you can give them this.
  • Used in an episode of The George Lopez Show when George scolds Max for needlessly wrecking his toy monster-truck.
    George: You know there are some kids who don't even have toys!
    Max: Yes, and there are some kids who have lots of toys, so that evens it out.

Music
  • Michael Jackson's "Why You Wanna Trip On Me?" is a List Song of problems he thinks people should worry about more than his personal life.
  • The Weird Al song "Beat It" opens with the lyrics "How come you're always such a fussy young man/Don't want no Captain Crunch, don't want no Raisin Bran/Well don't you know that other kids are starving in Japan/So eat it, just eat it."

Newspaper Comics
  • Appears very frequently in For Better or for Worse, when a character wants to shut up the complaints of another, typically along the lines of "You're sitting around complaining about a haircut when there are refugees in war-torn countries out there!"
    • Mocked in this Shortpacked! strip. "April, you spoiled brat! There are children starving in Africa!"
  • Many accusations of this fallacy are deconstructed by Quino in the form of First World Problems, for example: In one strip it shows a man walking unflinchingly through crime-ridden poverty-infested streets, until he arrives to his job as a TV host where he dedicates his program to people "With great angst and sadness caused by gaining weight and who wanted to show their figure by the pool this summer". In another it puts a side-by-side comparison of a rich woman and a Third-World country one, where they both complain about the unhealthy food their family eat (sweets and junk food in the rich woman's case and worms, rotten meat and infected water for the poor one).

New Media
  • Some of the detractors of Shane Koyczan's anti-bullying "To This Day Project" have been guilty of this, by claiming that the issue of bullying doesn't deserve attention when there are children starving in Africa or warring in trouble spots around the globe.
  • Unfortunately David Wong makes this mistake in his article 7 Reasons the World Looks Worse Than It Really Is claiming people complaining about the economy making opportunity scarce are only doing so because they have no unique skills, or give up trying and become cynical. Ignoring the fact that one can both complain and work for a better world as well.
  • When JonTron was criticized for referring to the Playstation Now service for PS4 as "retarded" on Twitter, he responded that those offended by his word usage should instead direct their outrage at more important matters, like the Gaza strip bombings.
  • Mocked on the Internet where someone once said, "If we really had no right to complain about stuff because others have it worse, then by that logic, people like Michael Moore and every radio talk show host should be out of a job, and most of the northern hemisphere should be dead silent, because the only people who have a right to complain are those in Somalia, Afghanistan, Sudan, etc."
  • In the lead-up to Valentines Day 2014, there was a common Facebook meme being shared, which said something like "feeling sad about not having a date on Valentines Day? Shut the f!ck up, cos some people have lost both their parents, so get over your non-issues!".

Stand Up Comedy
  • Referenced by Peter Kay when he complains about his mother buying him Rola Cola and him refusing to drink it. "There are children starving in Africa!" "Then send it to them! They'll send it back! It's that bad!"
  • Also Carl Hurley, a rather rotund Kentucky comedian, who'll occasionally sprinkle in a reference of how he wonders how his obesity benefits children in Africa.
  • German comedian Otto Waalkes has made a sketch where a friendly priest holding a tv-sermon tells us about a friend of his, a millionaire, has come to him in great distress: he had dropped his shaving brush into the toilet that morning. The priest consoled him in this fashion by reminding him that while yes, having dropped your shaving brush into the toilet is horrible, there are people who are worse off by far, after all, some people don't even have a beard.
  • Scottish comedian Danny Bhoy, after mentioning that the World Health Organization officially declared that Scotland has the worst diet in the world:
    "We have the worst diet in the world! That includes African countries! Countries with no food at all! It's better to be starving than Scottish! When I was a kid, if I didn't eat everything on my plate, my mom would tell me 'Danny, there are children starving in Africa who would give their right arm for what you're eating'. I had no idea that halfway around the world, African mothers were telling their kids the same thing about us. 'What's wrong, Muwabe? Are you hungry? Well, right now there are kids over in Scotland chewing on haggis who wish they were as hungry as you!'"
  • The late John Pinette, another fat comedian (whose material is mostly about food and how much he loves food), once had a lady knock on his door to tell him "There are children starving in Africa!" His response? "Hey, I've been here all day, okay?", thinking he was being blamed for it.

Tropes
  • Constitutes the Misery Poker trope. And the Serious Business trope, if used as an insult. (The implication being that you take it too seriously and other things not seriously enough.)

Video Games

Web Comics
  • Parodied in this strip of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, in which people who try to use the argument are constantly interrupted by people with even worse problems until they finally reach the least fortunate man in the world.
  • You Damn Kid! had the author relate how his family once accepted an orphan from China into their home for a while... which led to the Kid pointing out that his mother's claims about "Starving orphans in China would kill for that!" were false when even the orphan was disgusted by the meal.
  • Parodied in this strip of The Non-Adventures of Wonderella. "How can you even THINK of superheroing when there's so much crime and tragedy in the world?"
  • In Arthur, King of Time and Space Guenevere responds to the idea that there are "bigger problems than misogyny" by asking which is worse, misogyny or littering. When the other person admits misogyny is worse than littering, she retorts "But when you see litter, you pick it up, don't you?"

Web Original
  • Played for Laughs: Fark has many headlines that fall into this, mostly for local legislatures who, "having solved all other problems", get to work on something mostly innocuous. Also, whenever doctors come up with some silly technological innovation, you can be sure there'll be a Fark headline about it ending with, "Still no cure for cancer."
  • During a Heat Wave, you might see a blurb (sometimes on a picture, sometimes as a Facebook status, what have you) about how "I'm not going to complain about the heat today because soldiers in Iraq/Afghanistan not only experience heat every day, but carry lots of equipment through it and may not even survive the day." Here's a sample.
    • The inverse applies to a milder extent: Don't complain about how cold it is. Ever. Especially if it's above 0 C. Unless you want to get in a Flame War with those who live in colder climates.
    • Similarly, complaining about the aftermath of a tropical storm/small hurricane or small earthquake will likely get you blasted by people who experienced far worse storms and quakes every year.
  • Greta Christina lists this as one of the standard "Shut up, that's why!" arguments used to shut off discussion.
  • During Facebook's university-student-only days, there would often be groups titled along the lines of "Finish Your Drink, There Are Sober Kids In India". (This was later turned into a mildly popular dorm-room poster.)

Western Animation
  • An episode of Beavis and Butt-Head has Beavis distracting a female student while Butt-Head slips Spanish Fly into her taco. Instead of eating it, she says she's lost her appetite. Butt-Head says "You shouldn't, like, waste food and stuff. Uhh, because there's like, uhh, starving people in Indiana, or something."
  • A sketch on Robot Chicken shows a boy yelling at his parents after receiving a Rock Lord for Christmas. His mother replies that children in other countries would be grateful to have one. The scene then cuts to a Palestinian boy thanking his parents for giving him a Rock Lord, which he then throws at an Israeli soldier.

Other
  • This (specifically the starving African children) has become a fairly popular T-Shirt. It personifies Africa as saying "And you think you have problems..."

Real Life
  • During The Troubles in Northern Ireland, this was about half of what was disparaged by the term "whataboutery" (the other half being hypocrisy).
  • The deaths of celebrities can be met with these, when Fast And Furious star, Paul Walker, died in a car crash there was no lack of people who accused the public of crying over the death of one rich guy than worrying about people dying in wars.
  • Famously when Michael Jackson died, Hugo Chavez criticized the newspapers for reporting this on their front pages rather than the 2009 Honduras coup d'etat.
  • In the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in the US, a number of pundits and politicians downplayed the seriousness of possible police misconduct by saying that black-on-black crime is far worse, falling squarely into this trope.
  • Many critics of feminists say that, rather than focusing on minor aspects of institutionalized sexism in the West, they should be fighting against worse sexism in other countries, especially in Muslim nations. (Or that So-and-so has it far worse and we should ignore this form of institutionalized sexism.) One of the most notorious was Richard Dawkins's "Dear Muslima" post, which compared "Elevatorgate", where a woman was uncomfortably propositioned in an elevator at an atheist conference, to female genital mutilation.
    • Likewise, men's rights activists have been decried for focusing on difficulties men face when the issues women face are more pronounced.
  • In social justice circles, this is derisively nicknamed "Oppression Olympics".

Looks like this fallacy but is not:

  • When dealing with limited time or resources, and discussion or debate of the lesser problem is impeding the parties from solving or addressing the greater problem (e.g. "Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic").
  • When the worse issues are directly related to the subject in question (complaining that your car is wrecked when your loved ones are in critical condition because of the accident) or when it's used to rebut a deliberate attempt to lump together or equate both issues.
  • When used as a counter to hyperbole along the lines of "[Relatively minor problem] is just the worst thing ever...."