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All in a Word

Voyaging out of the United States, or England, or Spain—or really when embarking from any country that perpetrated colonialism—it’s important to understand the legacy of nationalistic violence. From genocide to enslavement to economic and environmental exploitation, “developed” countries have never treated their poorer cousins kindly. History’s status quo is reflected in our thoughts and speech when we refer to other parts of the globe.

As we in the “First World” begin to exchange greed and racism for contrition and compassion, we must learn new words. Careful language is a way to demonstrate respect for those you speak to or describe. The old ways of talking about our neighbors on far-off continents must be abandoned in favor addressing all world citizens as equals. It sounds cheesy, but as noted by “Thirteen Tips for the Accidental Ambassador,” you might be surprised by “how far a little language goes toward creating a feeling of goodwill.”

Ill-considered language can do the opposite. The term “Third World” is an outdated catchphrase from the Cold War. Back when the US and Russia were furiously arms-racing to see who could build the biggest bomb, American-allied countries were called “First World,” Soviet Bloc countries were relegated to the “Second World,” and everywhere else comprised the “Third World,” regardless of national income. Over time people forgot the original political meanings of these designations and began to interpret the “Worlds” as a hierarchy, with First World countries perceived as “best” and Third World countries perceived as “backwards.” After the USSR broke apart, “Second World” countries were somewhere in the confusing middle, no longer even identified by that name.

Proponents of political correctness oppose the term “Third World,” usually in favor of the euphemistic descriptor “developing.” Counter-pushback suggests that the word “developing” obscures the devastation of imperialism, which was imposed on countries that were already developed, countries in some ways more sophisticated than Europe. Nigerian-American journalist Dayo Olopade writes, “All of these antiquated terms imply that any given country is ‘developing’ toward something, and that there is only one way to get there.”

She prefers to call countries “lean” or “fat,” explaining, “‘Lean’ societies approach consumption and production with scarcity in mind. In the so-called least developed nations of sub-Saharan Africa, where the gross national income averages just $2,232 per capita, populations are young and hungry—at times for food, but mostly for opportunity. Nothing can be taken for granted or wasted.” Olopade is the author of The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa.

Besides being patronizing, “developed” and “developing” are not clear terms. On Policy.Mic, writer Zeeshan Aleem points out that “in the 21st century, there’s no clear consensus on what it means to be a developed country. The monopoly the US briefly held in the wake of the Cold War on liberal capitalist democracy as the only sustainable path to affluence has faded. Social democracy in Scandinavia, oil-funded theocracy in Saudi Arabia, and a one-party, partially planned, partially free market economy in China are all vastly different models for generating and harnessing prosperity.” (In this case “prosperity” specifically means monetary wealth.) Aleem asks, “Is there any way to talk about rich countries and poor countries that is both useful and forward-looking?”

His conclusion, shared by NPR’s Marc Silver, is that it’s better to talk about specifics whenever you can. Silver counsels on the NPR blog Goats and Soda, “If you’re writing about the difference in health care in Senegal and Switzerland, […] then say so. […] Sometimes we use ‘developing world’ because, well, it just seems to work best—it’s short, it’s convenient and readers know what it means. But yes, it does have problems. So as a rule we aim for specificity: naming the country in question or saying low-income countries, for example.”

What does this mean for an ethical traveler? Be aware, not only of how you speak but who you’re listening to. Classifying countries as “Third World” indicates a paradigm that is both stodgy and alarmist. There’s no single perfect alternative, but it’s worth continuing to seek one. The language we use reveals what we think. In turn, thoughts determine actions. It is better to seek information from those who realize the impact of their word choices. When you learn about Bangladesh or Burma or Bolivia, who are your sources? One of the best ways to find out more about a country that you might visit is to read the local literature. What do Bangladeshi, Burmese, and Bolivian writers say about their homelands? Would they demote the importance and ingenuity of their countries to “Third World?”

Denizens of places that seem “off the beaten path” to Americans can point to the term “Majority World,” which acknowledges that the population of lower-income countries far exceeds that of industrialized global powers. The Masalai Blog endorses the phrase because it “defines the community in terms of what it is, rather than what it lacks.” As we move forward, as all the billions of human beings on Earth construct our mutual future, we must be aware of how we make and define each subset of society.

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