As promised, I am finally completing the “’Miracle On 34th Street’ Ethics Companion,” which I began a year ago and took so long to complete that I ran out of 2019 holidays. As a refresher, I am also, in this post, presenting a Comment of the Day on Chapter Three from all the way back to January 1 of 2020, an excellent analysis of a feature of the story that I missed, by A.M. Golden.
Yesterday’s latest installment attracted some flack from commenters. “Wow, what a Christmas downer, Jack. Channeling Scrooge or the Grinch?” wrote one. “I suspect we could poke holes in any film with respect to morality and ethics if we wanted to.” On the last observation,
- I want to, because it’s my job
- Movies are excellent for tuning up ethics alarms
- Christmas movies, which are seen by children, have a special obligation to teach the right lessons, both prominently and subliminally, and
- No, in fact you can’t poke holes in any film, at least not fairly.
I suspect this will be the last of the traditional holiday film fare to get the ethics work-over, along with “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “White Christmas,” which will have the annual Christmas season re-posting with updated text up today. The three classics were chosen for different reasons. IAWL was designed as an ethics movie with very important and profound ethics messages, and the more one examines it, the more there is to think about. Nonetheless, its cheats on the way to its most important messages are pretty flagrant—justified, but flagrant—and deserve to be flagged. “White Christmas” is different: it’s a musical, for one thing, and musicals never make sense (why are these people singing?), but it also is story about ethics, so it is fair to examine it on that basis. Moreover, one doesn’t need to poke holes in it, the story is full of ethics holes. None of them bothered me before I became a full time ethicist: Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are two of my favorite entertainers of all time, and the ending still moistens my eye. But the movie is almost impossible to watch now, with my ethics alarms on, and even with my brain on. I had an obligation to dissect it. As for “Miracle,” I accept it as a classic, but the story was constructed to reach the climactic trial gimmick, and scant attention was given to consistency or playing fair. Moreover, I am a legal ethics expert, after all. You can’t honestly expect me not to analyze a trial like that.
You will never see me try to “poke holes” in the greatest of all Christmas stories, and arguably the best ethics story period, “A Christmas Carol,” because it is pretty close to perfect. (AND I now see that the link to the text on the home page has gone bad; I’ll be fixing it ASAP!). “A Christmas Story” is off my list because it is seen through a child’s eyes, and ethics has nothing to do with it. Critiquing “Holiday Inn” would be like shooting ethics eels in a barrel, but it’s just not worth the trouble.
There are also holiday films and ethics films that are written superbly, and have few if any ethics holes to find. Among these are “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo” (most of the Pixar movies, in fact), “Mary Poppins,” “The Sound of Music,” “Babe,” and even “Groundhog Day.” I’m not the Grinch, but if you set out to make an ethics movie, you had better pay attention to ethics.
Now here almost a year late, is A.M. Golden’s Comment of the Day on the post, “’Miracle On 34th Street,’An Ethics Companion, Continued…Chapter 3: Kris Joins The Macy’s Family!”
There’s another dimension to Kris’ handling of the Gimbel’s Switch. Peter’s mom psssts to Kris that Macy’s doesn’t carry the fire engine, that “nobody” has them. I can’t imagine why she would say that if she hasn’t checked the ads and the stores themselves. Nevertheless, when Kris pulls out an ad for Gimbel’s and shows her that the competitor carries the item, she seems surprised. He shows her an ad that proves that someone carries the item she was certain couldn’t be found…so did she not check the stores or ads at all? If she didn’t, how could she have been so sure that the toy couldn’t be found?
Did she not want to buy the fire engine for Peter? Does it cost too much? Does she not like toys that will likely cause Peter to be too loud? Was she dumped by a fireman and now forbids Peter, a la Doris and Susan, from having anything to do with first responders? Is it possible that she is just telling Santa that they don’t exist anywhere so she doesn’t have to buy it for her son? She was pretty upset when Kris told Peter he would get it.
I’ve mentioned before that I’ve had some experience working with the public. While working at McDonald’s during college, there were many parents who didn’t want to have to buy their children Happy Meals or desserts and would expect us to back up claims to their child that we were out. You would be amazed how often parents want store and restaurant employees to lie to their children. The child wants an ice cream cone and the parent says, aloud, in front of the cashier, “No, they don’t have those here”.
Now, here’s the dilemma. Does a fast food employee do what the boss would want and say, “Oh, yes, we actually do have ice cream cones!”? After all, it’s possible the parent has made a mistake and really doesn’t know they serve ice cream cones here. It’s also very possible the parent just doesn’t want to buy the kid a cone, is lying to them and will become very angry at the cashier for revealing this information. What is the ethical thing to do when you know the customer is telling the child something that isn’t true, know that your boss would want you to correct that information in the hopes of getting a sale and suspect that doing so will get you a tongue lashing because now the customer HAS TO buy an ice cream for the child (for lack of the ability to say, “No” to the kid, I guess.)?
On the other hand, Peter’s mom seems delighted at the service Kris has performed for her so it doesn’t appear that she was trying to avoid having to buy the toy. But it could’ve happened that way. Since it didn’t, better service would have been handing Peter’s mom a fire engine – He IS Santa Claus, after all – because…
Ads mean nothing. Merchandise sells out all the time, even if the store isn’t trying to pull a fast one. Just because a store has something in an ad doesn’t mean that it will still be available when you get there to purchase it, especially during the biggest shopping season of the year. What if Peter’s mom had already been to Gimbel’s that day and found that, despite the advertisement, they were sold out of the fire engine? Kris is lucky she didn’t bat him over the head with the flyer, complain that she was just at Gimbel’s, was told the fire engine is completely out, ad or no ad, and to stop contradicting her in front of her child? Or what if the relieved mother makes a special trip to Gimbel’s only to find out that the fire engine is gone, despite the ad?
Would she still be a regular Macy’s customer then? Like you wrote above, it’s just moral luck that it apparently worked out since we didn’t get a scene where angry customers march on Macy’s with pitchforks and torches because their Santa Claus sent them to competitors for sold-out merchandise.
Anyway, these are just a few thoughts based on my own customer service experience from back in the day. I doubt it’s changed much and has probably gotten worse. Opening up cans of worms when trying to be helpful is an occupational hazard most people who work with the public have to deal with regularly.
Kris took a big risk giving Peter’s Mom this information. In the real world, Mr. Macy (the original or his successor) would probably have fired Kris for violating store policy and for sending customers to the competition, regardless of how old Kris was.