Southern Man

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Shipwrecks and the Social Contract

On this day a century ago the RMS Titanic, while on her maiden voyage from England to the United States, was mortally wounded when she grazed an iceberg that tore open her side. It took her nearly three hours to sink in dead-calm water - long enough for the accepted rules of social behavior to temper the behavior of the passengers and crew. But along with tales of heroism and sacrifice there are some ugly truths to be had from the tales of those who survived and those who did not.

The tales of heroism and sacrifice among the upper-class men are numerous and legendary. Many saw their wives and children to safety but declined to leave the ship while women and children were still present. Only a third of the first-class men survived (and many of these in the earliest half-empty lifeboats, taking seats only when no others elected to board in that first hour when few realized the true scope of the disaster) while only four first-class women perished. As many as three of those four could have escaped but refused to part company with their husbands. Only a single child from first and second class perished; that child's mother, having along with her son been seen safely to a lifeboat by her husband, left that refuge to search for her husband and her daughter, who with her nurse had become separated from the family on the crowded deck. The three were last seen on deck, reunited and smiling, long after the last boats had left. Their son, who she had instructed to stay on the lifeboat while she searched, was the only survivor of the family.

An image from the James Cameron film Titanic.

Second-class men did not fare as well; less than a tenth survived, but not before seeing almost all of their women to safety. The casualties in third class were dramatically worse, with slightly over half the women and most of the men and children lost in a panic amplified by their low-deck quarters deep within the ship, language barriers, and locked quarantine gates - but those steerage-class women and children who made it to the boat deck were given priority at the lifeboats. Many of the male survivors were plucked from the icy waters or rode out the sinking on the backs of overturned lifeboats. Many were ostracized for daring to survive a disaster in which women and children perished.

The big picture does not paint a particularly endearing portrait of some of the women on Titanic: three-quarters survived, but only half the children. The refusal of women to allow their boats to return to the survivors in thee water are many. At least two later obtained divorces from their surviving husbands on the grounds that the husbands were cowards; the whispers suggest that those surviving spouses were an impediment to social status.

But, for the most part, the expectations of society held: men were expected to put the safety of women and children (and not necessarily just those in their own families) first, and most did. Most women accepted this, and did so gratefully. The reason is, most likely, that the sinking took such a long time; time enough to maintain order and the social contract of the day.

The sinking of the RMS Lusitania a few years later provides a stark contrast. Struck without warning by a German torpedo, Lusitania was wracked by explosions and almost immediately took on a severe list (hampering the launch of lifeboats on both sides of the ship) and sank in only eighteen minutes. Those who survived were those lucky enough to be near topside and who could get to a boat or were fit enough to swim the rough water. About two-thirds of the passengers and crew perished, with no discernible distinction between men, women, and children among the survivors; their reports run more to tales of mass panic than of orderly evacuation. It was the Americans who drew scorn here, with some claiming that many saved themselves at the expense of the more stoic English.

An artist's depiction of the last moments of the Lusitania, taken from this website.

But the real moral of this story must surely rest with the MS Costa Concordia, the Italian cruise ship that earlier this year struck a reef, then went aground and capsized over a period of several hours. Only about thirty passengers perished, so on the scale of human lives lost this was not an event that should even be mentioned in the same breath as Titanic or Lusitania. The real story of Concordia is how the social contract has changed over the last century. There was no orderly evacuation, no rule of "women and children first." Instead there was widespread panic and hysteria, grimly documented on multiple YouTube videos for all to see.

The Costa Concordia surrounded by rescuers. Photo credit: Daily Telegraph

What happened? Some argue that this is the inevitable price of feminism; as one blog commenter put it, "this is what equality looks like; deal with it." Others, that disasters on this scale are so unusual that few on the crippled ship realized there was any danger, then panicked when reality set in - much like the final moments on Titanic. Some point out that modern cruise-ship crew are little more than glorified bus drivers, with little training compared to those who took the ocean liners of old across the treacherous seas without benefit of computer-controlled navigation or satellite weather reports or radar, and that the disorganized evacuation was as much due to the negligence and incompetence of the Captain and crew as anything else. That YouTube link above will surely take you to the infamous conversation between the Italian Coast Guard and Captain Francesco Schettino, who had abandoned his ship with passengers still on board and remains under house arrest at the time of this post.

But there isn't much doubt that the social contract has changed. Is the world a better place for it, or worse? And what would be your conduct in such a disaster? Southern Man hopes that he'd have the courage and wit to save his friends and family. There is no question - none at all - that he would gladly lay down his life for his children. But would he make such a sacrifice so that a stranger might live? That is a question that no man can answer until the moment of crisis arrives. Southern Man hopes that should that moment come he makes the right call. Lord, you gave us Your expectation of our conduct in your Golden Rule. I pray that I remember it. Amen.


At Tuesday, April 17, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the man (or woman) who knows without a doubt that he is heaven bound will sacrifice--but you already know that don't you


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