Pretty damned ironic, that the Costa Concordia disaster happened almost exactly a hundred years after the Titanic. It’s not all that often these days that a European/American flagged passenger ship becomes a catastrophic loss to their insurance company – although it happens with dispiriting frequency to inter-island ferries in the Philippines and hardly any notice of it taken in Western newspapers. The contrasts and ironies just abound; fortunate that the Costa was so close to land that some passengers were able to swim to safety, and that rescue personnel were at the scene almost before the air-bubbles from the sunken half of the ship even popped to the surface.
There was also some notice taken that the ‘women and children first’ ethos seems to have pretty much gone with Captain Schettino’s nautical career; with a lot of bitter commentary in various corners of the blogosphere about fifty years of feminism having done finished off that particular principle. Hey, ladies – how do you like your equality now, when it comes to the lifeboats on a sinking ship? That seemed to be the question asked with a barely concealed sneer … which I believe rather missed the point. The kind of social convention demonstrated in the sinking of the troopship HMS Birkenhead – where the wives and children were put into the available lifeboats and the soldiers stood in ranks on the sinking ship rather than risk swamping the boats – we traded off that world a long time ago. That kind of honor and gallantry existed in a world where the average woman was less than a second-class citizen. Preference in the lifeboats was about the only advantage that the poor ladies had.
(Actually – and as a diversion, a prominent suffragette at the time of the Titanic sinking was asked pretty much the same question: what would she have done, if as a liberated woman, she were the Captain of the Titanic and it came to loading up the lifeboats? IIRC, her answer was that she wouldn’t have run it full-speed into an iceberg to start with. But enough of history – back to the somewhat current event.)
With regard to feminism and lifeboats and conventional courtesy, I believe that the Victorian convention had been slightly amended over time. Based on practicality and civility in this day and age – if it’s a seat on a crowded bus or a departing lifeboat – a rough rule of thumb is that youth and fitness should yield to age and disability. Pregnancy is a temporary disability, a parent having the care of a small child or two is another one, being on crutches or creaking along in a walker is either permanent or temporary, depending. The practical application of this rule would be that a fit and able woman should feel obliged to give up a seat on the bus to a pregnant woman, a young mother with a toddler – or to the old guy with a cane. A fit and able man shouldn’t be apprehensive – or even hesitate very much – in giving up a seat to the young mother, or the elderly crone with a cane. I am keeping in mind that a lot of mid-twentieth century women took feminism as an excuse to be a nickel-plated bitch, and I am sorry as hell about that. The sensible ones among us never confused conventional good manners with economic and political justice.
Apropos of this principle, I will observe that almost the last of the crew of the Costa to depart the semi-floating hulk were half a dozen young and fit female personnel who were onboard as part of the entertainment staff, and the male fifty-ish purser – who was sidelined at some point in the proceedings with a broken leg. And I would also add that the Italian Coast Guard officer in charge of the rescue operations has gone a good way to redeeming the reputation of Italian sea-farers in general. I’m purely amazed that 4,000 people managed to get away safely, and that more weren’t lost or injured. It’s a testament that at least some of the Costa’s crew stuck to their posts and their duty, and that the Italian Coast Guard was prompt and efficient.
But that all leads to another observation; that it was in general the senior boat crew, and possibly a fair number of the ordinary ones as well – who left the Costa, ahead of passengers. It’s not that we ought to be having conniptions about men leaving the boat ahead of women and children: it’s that the senior cadre of professional seafarers in charge of a ship carrying a large body of paying customers appeared to have no hesitation about leaving those customers – fit and active, male and female, old and young – all in the lurch, on board a ship that gave every evidence of sinking, somewhat like the MTS Oceanos, some twenty years ago. That lack of professional responsibility or plain old personal cowardice seems to me to be a more dispiriting development than quibbling over the merits and demerits of doctrinaire feminism and the perceived decline of good manners.