Monday, August 17, 2009

An Inconvenient Tooth

There’s something about movie popcorn. My sweet tooth I can satisfy anywhere but only movies can satisfy my popcorn tooth. I also firmly believe that you should try to do some good in this world.

And that precisely is the problem.

Think about the roughly 15 dollars you spend whenever you go to the movies. Then think about those commercials you’ve seen on television: weepy, wide-eyed, hungry children staring at you while you’re reminded that just pennies a day could keep that that very child from starving to death. You are moved, you resolve—and then a moment later you are chuckling over Joey's latest antics in the Friends rerun you are watching for the 11th time.

You are spending 15 dollars munching popcorn while children are literally dying.

It’s easy to rationalize your behavior. “What could my $15 do against the all the world’s problems?” Answer: It could save a child’s life. “Hey I do plenty of good, I give to charity, donate my time. Can’t I just go to the movies?” Answer: You could always do more. Is your evening at the movies worth a child’s life? “How can I be sure my $15 will actually do any good?” Answer: Stop going to movies and get involved in the relevant organizations.

In fact it’s very hard to justify going to the movies. Or going out to dinner. Or buying new clothes. Or pretty much anything we do. If all of us just cut back a little on our luxuries and redirected our resources we could do an awful lot of good in this world. Take global warming, for example. If everyone who saw Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth had just applied their popcorn money directly towards the problem in some way, perhaps the movie wouldn’t have been necessary.

You are a terrible person for going to the movies.

Oh wait—Ross is about to propose to Rachel!


  1. Not to be rude, but I find this to be a little below your typical standard of nuance. In my 60 second rebuttal - created and typed out in as close to a minute as I can get it - the first problems I see with this is that a) it assumes that the art itself is without philanthropic merit, which is perhaps likely but not necessarily fair, and b) that the act of going to the movies is an event which occurs in a vaccuum, with no ultimate results beyond the initial entertainment value of the watching experience.

    The first point is rather obvious, so I won't belabor the point about socially minded documentaries and muckraking exposes which have exposed people to important issues or highlighted hidden problems or created momentum for action. Instead, I want to focus on the second point, which might seem less obvious, but which I think is more important.

    When Paul Newman wanted to create a line of salad dressings, he couldn't get a distribution deal until he agreed to name his line after himself and to put his face on the label; it was against his style to use his celebrity as a marketing tool given that he disliked being a celebrity and wanted to be seen just as an actor. But by the very fact that he was Paul Newman the product line got attention and did very well and ultimately raised hundreds of millions of dollars for nonprofits and charity; certainly he raised more money than I, or any other anonymous peon could have, and he did so as a result of the fact that he had made popular movies. By going to the movies we can empower the people that make those movies to produce social works that are greater than what we could do on our own. There's a reason why Unicef and other charities reach out to the Angelina Jolies of the world.

    Now, granted, most actors are not Paul Newman or Angelina Jolie, and those two certainly kept a lot of perks just for themselves. But all I'm saying is that my $15 (or, in Portland, given our abundance of second run theaters, my $3) isn't just being spent frivolously to numb my brain and to pay for a ridiculous star's lattes. It also supports theater employees and keeps them from being homeless, and it ultimately works its way back to where the movie was filmed, and there are a lot of places - especially in Eastern Europe, which has become a hotbed for filming lately due to its dirt cheap prices - where the money props up an economy and prevents poverty far more directly than giving to a charitable society would.

    Like anything else, the ethical cost of going to the movie depends on what and how: what are you seeing and how was it made. And yeah, there's not much ethical merit in Friends, but that's apples to oranges next to Born into Brothels and just as helpful as saying "you shouldn't eat food" just because you think factory pig farming is unpleasant for pigs.

  2. Wow, Kirk, many great points -- but just think what good you could have accomplished in the world if you had devoted the time you spent writing this great comment to actually doing something to help somebody....

  3. So the rule here is I have to respond in 60 seconds? I'm not sure I can type fast enough to add to the brilliant points mentioned above coherently, but my own point of view is that a) social responsiblity extends to keeping yourself happy, and for some that means going to movies, that b) supporting the film industry keeps hundreds of thousands of people employed, and c) as noted above, some films actually do generate more social responsiblity than irresponsibility.

    I'm reminded of that famous guilt-trip thought experiment about the person who refuses to save a drowning man because they have expensive new boots on, and how that scenario is related to the choice to buy the expensive boots in the first place. But of course, the reality of global economics is that giving away money is only useful in the very short term - selfish consumption actually serves a fairly significant larger purpose. That doesn't mean people shouldn't also do charitable things, or that it's not possible to be a self-indulgent jerk, but I think it does mean that *some* indulgence is probably ultimately a good thing.

  4. The important point I take away from your thoughtful commentary is we all should do more to help our fellow human beings. I read somewhere that 35,000 children die each day in the developing world, once referred to as the Third World, from diseases that have long since been eradicated in developed countries. Many of us in the U.S. lead shallow, self-deluded lives. You remind us we all can and should do something to alleviate the suffering and misery of our neighbors near and far. It's a point that bears repeating again and again.