Thursday, March 11, 2010

Titanic vs Lusitania

I am well aware of having missed several great conversations in the bibliosphere. I hope I can catch up. But this one is fascinating.

The CBMW gender blog has posted on the difference in the behaviour of men during the sinking of the Titanic and the Lusitania. On the Titanic, women and children were more likely to survive than on the Lusitania.
    What accounts for the difference? The researchers looked at several factors, but settled on one that appeared more obvious as they considered the question -- the length of time it took the ship to sink. As the report explains, on the Lusitania "the short-run flight impulse dominated behavior. On the slowly sinking Titanic, there was time for socially determined behavioral patterns to reemerge."

    Put plainly, on the Lusitania the male passengers demonstrated "selfish rationality." As TIME explains, this is "a behavior that's every bit as me-centered as it sounds and that provides an edge to strong, younger males in particular. On the Titanic, the rules concerning gender, class and the gentle treatment of children - in other words, good manners - had a chance to assert themselves."

    Note carefully the assumption here that "the rules concerning gender, class and the gentle treatment of children" are ascribed to "good manners" and "socially determined behavioral patterns." In other words, the male decision to give priority to the welfare of women and children is just a learned behavior, a social convention.

    Is that all there is to it? There is a huge question looming in this -- is it right for men to act with care and concern toward women and children, or is this just an outmoded relic of Victorian morality?

    What do modern feminists do with this? Those who stake their lives on the elimination of all meaningful gender distinctions must, if honest, take what they see on the Lusitania as the inevitable result of such a worldview. Are we really to believe that the moral call that makes men act against their own self-preservation is just a socially-constructed artifact of manners?

    Aboard the Lusitania, young males acted out of a selfish survival instinct, and women and children were cast aside, left to the waves. Aboard the Titanic, there was time for men to consider what was at stake and to call themselves to a higher morality. There was time for conscience to raise its voice and authority, and for men, young and old, to know and to do their duty.

I suppose some might class me as a modern feminist, although I fit few stereotypes, for those who know me. But let me answer anyway. As a mother of adult age children, male and female, I would strongly object to an older woman taking the place of a younger man in a lifeboat. I do understand the dictum "women and children first," but it is not by any means the only way to organize survival in a crisis.

I would rather go down with the Titanic than accept the subordination of women, just so I could be dumped screaming in a lifeboat, and watch a young adult male of my acquaintance go down with the ship.

Another problematic aspect of this study is that the men on the Lusitania did not put children first. This suggests that young men do not have a natural protective instinct toward children. And yet many suggest that mothers do have a natural instinct to sacrifice for their children. This is a disturbing study. On the one hand, the men on the Titanic did sacrifice for women and children. On the other hand, the men on the Lusitania did not. Perhaps it suggests that men are human too, just like women, and should not be given authority over women.

Its an interesting study, but one not one which supports the erroneous notion that men should be in charge of women.