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Women and Children First

March 8th, 2010

titanicIt’s interesting that after almost a century since it’s demise, the story of RMS Titanic continues to attract interest and may even be capable of triggering a bit of controversy. An article in a recent edition of the New York Times will be of interest to all local Titanic enthusiasts. It describes the behaviour of the men on the occasion of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 compared with the behaviour of the men when the Lusitania sank in 1915.

Most of us know that the Titanic struck an iceberg on 14 April 1912 and sank early the next morning, with the loss of 1,517 of the 2,223 lives on board. Less well-known is the sinking of the Lusitania, which was torpedoed by a German U-boat on 7 May 1915, taking 1,198 of 1,959 lives on board. The sinking of the Lusitania was a major factor in bringing the United States into war against the German Empire in the First World War.

The two sinkings were notably different in one crucial respect. The Titanic took hours to sink, leaving time for a remarkable human drama on board the sinking ship. The Lusitania sank in just eighteen minutes.

But there was another crucial difference. A new study looks at the difference in the behaviour of the men aboard the two sinking ships and it notes a remarkable difference. Aboard the Titanic, the men generally behaved with great concern for women and children, doing their best to get the women and children into the insufficient seats in the lifeboats. Hundreds of men died with the Titanic, demonstrating a commitment to put the welfare of women and children above their own.

Aboard the sinking Lusitania, the scene was very different. Women and children were less likely than men to survive that disaster, because the men used their natural strength and speed to take the spaces on the lifeboats, with women and children forced out of their way.

As The New York Times summarizes: “On the Titanic, the study found, children were 14.8 percent more likely to survive than adults, while on the Lusitania they were 5.3 percent less likely to do so. And women on the Titanic were 53 percent more likely to survive than men, while on the Lusitania they were 1.1 percent less likely to do so.”

What is the reason for this difference? Time magazine reports one conclusion the researchers arrived at.

There were a lot of factors behind these two distinct survival profiles — the most significant being time. Most shipwrecks are comparatively slow-motion disasters, but there are varying degrees of slow. The Lusitania slipped below the waves a scant 18 min. after the German torpedo hit it. The Titanic stayed afloat for 2 hr. 40 min. — and human behavior differed accordingly. On the Lusitania, the authors of the new paper wrote, “the short-run flight impulse dominated behavior. On the slowly sinking Titanic, there was time for socially determined behavioral patterns to reemerge.”

That theory fits perfectly with the survival data, as all of the Lusitania’s passengers were more likely to engage in what’s known as selfish rationality — 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.

Al Mohler, influential leader of the Southern Baptists, and a very compelling blogger and broadcaster, comments on this phenomenon and draws some conclusions for feminist thinkers and writers.

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.

The Christian worldview based in Scripture explains this in terms of God’s revelation of moral order within the structures of creation, and especially in what we call conscience. Even in our fallen state, this moral knowledge speaks to us, and there is a moral knowledge within us that calls us to do what we otherwise would never do — even what is plainly not in our direct self-interest.

A secular worldview has little at its disposal to explain all this, and is left with some argument based in evolutionary survival behaviors or socially constructed morality. The feminists are in even worse shape in this. They call for a world like the Lusitania, but must hope against hope that the world is really more like the Titanic.

Women and children first. Civilization itself depends upon this kind of moral knowledge. Without it, the entire enterprise of human civilization is destined to sink beneath the waves.

Local Titanic buffs might be surprised (and maybe pleased?) to learn that the sinking of their famous ship continues to provide data for a very contemporary debate.

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