There’s been a lot of debate going on this week about the behavior of the men–both the crew and the passengers–of the shipwrecked Costa Concordia cruise ship.
Part of the controversy concerns the behavior of the ship’s captain, one Francesco Schettino. Schettino not only wrecked the ship by going too close to the island of Giglio in order to salute an old colleague on shore and show off his boat, he also abandoned his ship instead of being the last one off, as has traditionally been considered the duty of a captain. Amazingly, Schettino has excused his behavior by saying that he didn’t mean to abandon the ship, but that he tripped and fell into a lifeboat and couldn’t get out! Reportedly, when the Italian Coast Guard ordered him back to the ship, he refused to go.
Rich Lowry of The National Review contrasts Schettino’s behavior with that of the captain of the Titanic:
A century ago this spring, as the Titanic entered its death throes and all its lifeboats had been launched, Capt. Edward Smith told his crew: “Men, you have done your full duty. You can do no more. Now it’s every man for himself.” One witness recalled seeing him, probably washed overboard, clutching a child in the water as the Titanic disappeared. A member of the crew always believed it was Captain Smith’s voice he heard from the water after the Titanic was gone, urging him and others on: “Good boys! Good lads!”
But the main point of Lowry’s column is to criticize not just the captain, but all of the male passengers, who trampled over the practice of allowing women and children to get to safety first:
An Australian mother and her young daughter have described being pushed aside by hysterical men as they tried to board lifeboats. If the men of the Titanic had lived to read such a thing, they would have recoiled in shame. The Titanic’s crew surely would have thought the hysterics deserved to be shot on sight — and would have volunteered to perform the service.
Women and children were given priority in theory, but not necessarily in practice. The Australian mother said of the scene, “We just couldn’t believe it — especially the men, they were worse than the women.” Another woman passenger agreed, “There were big men, crew members, pushing their way past us to get into the lifeboats.” Yet another, a grandmother, complained, “I was standing by the lifeboats and men, big men, were banging into me and knocking the girls.”
Guys aboard the Costa Concordia apparently made sure the age of chivalry was good and dead by pushing it over and trampling on it in their heedless rush for the exits. The grounded cruise ship has its heroes, of course, just as the Titanic had its cowards. But the discipline of the Titanic’s crew and the self-enforced chivalric ethic that prevailed among its men largely trumped the natural urge toward panicked self-preservation.
Because of this chivalrous ethic, more men from first class died on the Titanic than women from third class.
Lowry argues that the abandonment of this tradition signifies a degradation of manliness:
The Titanic went down, they say, to the strains of the hymn “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” as the band courageously played on. It lent a final grace note to the tragedy. Today, we don’t do grace notes. We’ve gone from “Women and children, first,” to “Dude, where’s my lifeboat?” As the women of the Costa Concordia can testify, that’s a long way down.
Meanwhile, over at Slate.com, Brian Palmer has given us a bit of history about the tradition of saving women and children first (a fuller history of this practice would make a good Man Knowledge article on AoM, methinks):
In her book Women and Children First: 19th-Century Sea Narratives and American Identity, English professor Robin Miskolcze chronicled the origins of our maritime evacuation priorities. Until the second half of the 18th century, it was widely believed in England and America that God decided who would survive a shipwreck, so no one criticized men for climbing over whoever stood between them and safety. However, as Enlightenment thinkers began to emphasize human agency, and women came to be viewed as the holy protectors of the family, news reports grew critical of men who survived shipwrecks that killed female passengers.
Three disasters solidified the principle of women and children first in Britain and America. When the HMS Birkenhead went down in 1852, the soldiers reportedly stood at attention while the women and children were loaded into life boats. The overwhelming majority of the men died in an act that contemporary writers called “a piece of pure and exalted manhood.” Two years later, there was a mad scramble on the decks of the American ship SS Arctic as it foundered near Newfoundland. The press branded the male survivors cowards for failing to save even a single woman or child. American morality was redeemed in 1857, when the crew and male passengers of the SS Central America loaded women and children onto lifeboats at the expense of their own lives. Media reports glorified the gold-rush men who sacrificed their new wealth and their lives in a final act of chivalry. The image of captain William Lewis Herndon calmly smoking a cigar as he went down with his ship became a symbol of American seagoing bravery.
In both articles there is a lot of debate going on in the comments between those who think the lack of duty and chivalry shown by the captain and the passengers evidence our societal decline and the unfortunate results of the blurring of gender roles, and those who argue that if women wish to be treated equally in all other areas of life, then these shows of special treatment should be abandoned as well. One commenter on The National Review article posted this poem which was written by Clark McAdams after the Titanic sunk, showing that this debate is nothing new:
“Votes for women!”
Was the cry,
Reaching upward to the Sky.
And flashing eye-
“Votes for Women!”
Was the cry.
“Boats for women!”
Was the Cry.
When the brave
Were come to die.
When the end
Was drawing nigh-
“Boats for women!”
Was the cry.
So what say you?
“Dude, Where’s My Lifeboat?” (@National Review)
“Abandoning Ship: An Etiquette Guide” (@Slate)
Hat tip to Daniel K. and Mary R. for these links.