Created By: VandalHeartX on July 4, 2011 Last Edited By: billybobfred on December 3, 2011

Polishing the Brass on the Titanic

Ignoring the major problem by focusing on a small one.

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Needs Examples.

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.
Community Feedback Replies: 28
  • July 6, 2011
    AMNK
    • In a great scale, in the original Starcraft, in the middle of the Protoss campaign, Aldaris decides to prioritize the capture of Tassadar, nevermind the Zerg invasion which killed Fenix. This is lampshaded by Tassadar himself:
      "I cannot believe they would go so far. In the face of total annihilation, they're still claiming for their failing traditions!"
  • July 6, 2011
    Catalogue
    Sounds a bit like Skewed Priorities, although perhaps it's handled differently.
  • July 6, 2011
    Psychobabble6
    Live Action TV
    • 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.
  • July 6, 2011
    VandalHeartX
    Thanks for those. This helps.

    By the way, in the description, it's mentioned that the trope is sometimes subverted to prove the wisdom or intelligence of the character. I KNOW that's a trope, I just can't remember what it's called and I want to sneak the link in there. Anyone?
  • July 6, 2011
    Micah
    Are you thinking of This Is No Time For Knitting?
  • July 6, 2011
    VandalHeartX
    No, but thank you for introducing me to that trope, and it is related. Editing now. What I meant was, what does This Is No Time For Knitting illustrate that character to be? Crouching Moron Hidden Badass at work, or just a case of The Cloud Cuckoolander Was Right? And is that really the best name for it? Knitting? Really? Anyways...
  • July 6, 2011
    AMNK
    I'm not convinced about the title. What about Small Problem Big Priority, or something like that, to match with the laconic description?
  • July 7, 2011
    VandalHeartX
    Meh. Any other suggestions? Better yet, any other examples?
  • July 7, 2011
    Nibbles2
    I think the name's fine. Well, I like it at least.

    • 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.
  • July 7, 2011
    Frank75
    There's a quote (supposedly) by 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.
  • July 7, 2011
    VandalHeartX
    God I'm horrible at coding on my iPhone. I'm going to try to get to an actual computer later this week and fix some of this crap, make it look a little nicer. Any suggestions on a picture?
  • July 7, 2011
    Trotzky
    Re-arranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic is a common British proverb.
  • July 8, 2011
    Frank75
    If less extreme examples also count: Financially, there's "pennywise" and "poundfoolish". If you make 10$ per hour and waste half an hour to find a way to save one dollar (and this is a one-time situation), you're doing it wrong.
  • July 11, 2011
    MrInitialMan
    Re Arranging The Titanics Deck Chairs could work as a title--especially since it's a proverb.
  • July 11, 2011
    Frank75
    Just a bit long.

    And about my last comment: Note that there are persons who manage to be both pennywise and poundfoolish. At least one is mentioned in The Peter Principle (the book).
  • July 11, 2011
    c0ry
    Fiddling While Rome Burns would also be a shorter title which is a preexisting expression.
  • July 11, 2011
    VandalHeartX
    I'm hoping to trim the body and code the folders soon. I'm working from an iPhone right now and haven't had the chance to use a computer that hasn't crashed on me just yet. I'll deal with the length soon.

    As for the pennywise entry, should I just copy/paste your earlier writing, or would you like to make another go at it and I'll c/p that? I want that entry, but I want to get it right and I'm not sure I'm comprehending the terms.

    Fiddling while Rome Burns doesn't quite fit. Nero knew Rome was burning, realized the implications and didn't care. That wasn't stupidity OR denial. It was straight up malice. Or he was Axe Crazy on an epic scale.
  • July 11, 2011
    billybobfred
    In Harry Potter And The Methods Of Rationality, Dumbledore had once commented that Hogwarts would run much more smoothly when there was a major outside crisis for McGonagall to ignore.
  • November 20, 2011
    Fanra
    Stephen Colbert at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Association Dinner:

    "Everybody asks for personnel changes. So, the White House has personnel changes. And then you write, "Oh, they're just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." First of all, that is a terrible metaphor. This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring! If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg!"


    And as much as I love Fight Club, the title should be "Rearranging The Deck Chairs on the Titanic".

  • November 20, 2011
    Elbruno
    • In Brawl In The Family, during the ''Cocoon Academy" arc, the bell that controls the academy's shields is attacked, rendering the shields inoperative and the academy open to bigger attacks. Eario the janitor responds to this by cleaning the stain that the attacker left on the bell.
  • November 22, 2011
    69BookWorM69
    I agree with Fanra. "Rearranging The Deck Chairs on the Titanic" is the idiomatic phrase to describe this phenomenon, and it's far older the Fight Club (by several decades).
  • November 23, 2011
    surgoshan
    • The film Titanic featured the engineer responsible for its design calmly correcting a clock as the ship sank. Subversion?
  • November 23, 2011
    nielas
    Is this trope still applicable if the person fully realizes the scope of the disaster but simply does not see any way to avert it or save himself? Since he is doomed, he decides to do something else as a way of facing death with dignity.
  • November 24, 2011
    HiddenFacedMatt
    The My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic episode Look Before You Sleep has a giant tree fall through the window while Rarity, Twilight, and Applejack are having a sleepover... and first thing Rarity does is try to pick up and reorganize the books that the falling tree knocked out of the bookshelf.
  • November 24, 2011
    SonofRojBlake
    I think if the person realises the scope of the disaster and decides to face it with dignity, that would be And The Band Played On. (Edit: I didn't realise there was an entry for a film with this title, but no trope. The title comes from the observation that, in an act of dignity, and as portrayed accurately in the movie, the band on the Titanic did indeed continue playing on deck as it sank.)
  • December 2, 2011
    HiddenFacedMatt
    Bumping because neither the YKTTW's original creator nor the user who edited it seem to have added the more recent examples yet.
  • December 2, 2011
    jatay3
    Sometimes a form of Stiff Upper Lip.
  • December 3, 2011
    Arivne
    The OP Vandal Heart X has not posted on this YKTTW since July, so it's Up For Grabs. It's virtually certain they've forgotten about it.
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