Polishing the Brass on the Titanic
Ignoring the major problem by focusing on a small one.


(permanent link) added: 2011-07-04 13:59:54 sponsor: VandalHeartX edited by: billybobfred (last reply: 2011-12-03 00:09:55)

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So, here comes the Zombie Apocalypse. Or planet sized fireball. Or a tax collector. Something bad. Pick something. There may be a solution for this, there might not. Instead of trying to find one - or even acknowledge that there is a problem in the first place, the character decides to focus on another problem. This small issue may be important, but it usually isn't. The randomness of this activity tends towards the low end of the spectrum, but has beyond left field potential. This might help pacify the bigger problem, but not nearly enough, and it's painfully obvious. Characters who engage in this behavior have a very high mortality rate, as is to be expected.

To be fair, it isn't always an impending and/or deadly situation, but dramatic/comedic effect is usually easier to squeeze out of the situation if it is potentially disastrous, even more so if it's unavoidably, obviously and utterly apocalyptic. As long as we're being fair, it's also important to mention that this is an incredibly common reaction. If the problem is big enough, self-defensive human psychology has a tendency to slip into the mindset of "ignore it and maybe it will go away." Professionals in the mental health fields call this denial.

However, denial isn't always the explanation here. Sometimes, the impending doom isn't always obvious to the character. If another character tries to warn him or point out the problem, he passes it off as something else and goes back to his soap carving. Other times, though, the trope gets subverted to illustrate the genius of the character: the lurking monster is allergic to carved soap, and the character knew it.

So closely related to Selective Obliviousness and Skewed Priorities it's almost a combination of the two. There are some distinct indicators of this trope being in full effect, though. If the following traits aren't presented, it's probably not this trope. Some flexibility happens, but not often.

  • 1. The situation is an impending danger of some kind.
  • 2. The character has found something else to work on.
  • 3. This secondary activity wil most certainly NOT prevent or avert the danger.
  • 4. Depending on the nature of the problem, the character may not actually know the problem is that bad, either through stupidity or subtlety of the warning signs.

Compare Selective Obliviousness and Skewed Priorities. Contrast Only Sane Man and This Is No Time for Knitting.

Examples:

  • Fight Club is the Trope Namer, and in a way can be seen as a study of the trope itself.
    Tyler: Martha Stewart is polishing the brass on the Titanic, man; it's all going down!"
  • 2012 - when the monk goes to his grandparents to tell them the world might be ending and his brother may be able to save them, her response is "let's eat first."
  • In Starcraft, Aldaris decides to prioritize the capture of Tassadar for crimes of morality and principle, nevermind the Zerg invasion which killed Fenix and is threatening all life in the galaxy. This is lampshaded by Tassadar himself:
    "I cannot believe they would go so far. In the face of total annihilation, they're still clinging to their failing traditions!"
  • In The Legend Of Zelda: Majoras Mask, the moon is about to crash into Termina and destroy the world. While most inhabitants of Clock Town have evacuated, the Postman refuses to leave because he still has mail to deliver.
  • In the fourth episode of Scrubs, My Old Lady, Elliot has to decide what procedure her patient should go through and what to say to the patient. She runs off and Carla finds her and is greeted with this:
    Elliot: I've been trying to decide what drink to get. I've been standing here trying to choose between cherry soda and Gingerale. And you know what? It's a tossup. I mean, either way I get a cold drink, right, and it would be almost impossible for me to kill someone with this decision but I still can't make it. I think I'm in trouble.
  • A quote often attributed to Martin Luther that's quite popular in Germany:
    "Even if I knew that the world will end tomorrow, I'd still plant an apple tree today."
    Note that the earliest confirmed source is from 1944 - towards the end of World War 2 and Nazi Germany.

"Poundfoolish" is the inverse of "pennywise", and is used to describe the act of attempting to save time ineffectively. For example, if one were paid $10 an hour and spends half an hour ($5) to save one dollar, this is poundfoolish.

In one Harry Potter fanfic, Dumbledore comments that Hogwarts runs much more smoothly when there is a major outside crisis for Mc Gonagall to ignore.
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