Man Overboard?


When the Costa Concordia ran aground and her captain Francesco Schettino was accused of abandoning his passengers and crew, a long and detailed media conversation about the etiquette of abandoning ship started. As reports came out that not only did the captain take off in a lifeboat, other men took seats in rescue vessels over women and children, the patchy history of naval chivalry and masochistic machismo was put in the spotlight. But what do the lifeboat priorities in this tragedy tell us about who and what we're trying to save? If the age of chivalry is dead, what does this disaster tell us about our current survival priorities?

As we read and watch outraged reports of the behaviour of the Concordia's captain and many of his passengers, as we listen to cries that chivalry and civility are dead, how do we understand our fascination with this event and our confusion about what we believe is right action in a time of disaster?

Mary Dejevsky, commenting on the etiquette of the new order as it manifested in the wreck of the Concordia, speculates that women and children first has become fathers first instead. With several passengers recounting how fathers refused to be separated from their children and took lifeboat places ahead of childless women and the elderly, are we witnessing a new code emerging? If fathers are now leaping into lifeboats to be with their children, has the nuclear family become the new priority in our hierarchy of the right to live?

The cry "Women and children first!" was coined during the wreck of the Birkenhead, but it was during the sinking of the Titanic, where more than 1300 men and only 100 women died, that the chivalrous patriarchal principle of men laying down their lives for women and children became part of our general understanding of the unwritten naval code.

I believe we know instinctively that we could all behave as Captain Schettino is alleged to have done. We have all put ourselves first at the expense of another, either to our shame or triumph, on countless occasions. But when we are caught doing this, when it becomes even marginally public, we usually cite a code in our defence, except when our actions will be seen as absolutely indefensible.

In Captain Schettino's case, he tells us he was pushed into the lifeboat and had no choice but to abandon ship. Whether or not this is true, our vilification shows that he has broken a sacred cultural code. He has been sacrificed as a scapegoat for his sins, and for our own satisfaction that we are somehow exorcising this kind of terrible negligence with our condemnation. We have sacrificed him at the altar of our desperate desire to believe in male protectiveness and inherent leadership.

When the Titanic went down, women were fighting for the right to vote. The self-sacrificial chivalry of the men on board was used effectively against the Suffragette movement, with protesters accused of disrespecting the men who died in the tragedy by their fight for a political voice.

When we are fighting to save lives or defending our own, we often find ourselves fighting for things that have already been lost. When we enact our codes in a time of emergency, there is usually a desperate attempt to save concepts as well as people. It's in these times of crisis that the ancient codes we still cling to show beneath the skirts of our new and more modern beliefs.

In the case of the Titanic, the age of chivalry was quickly dying. No outrageous gestures could stop the political, social and personal realities of the changes taking place between men and women. Yet it was this code of chivalry that men in their hundreds chose to die for, and this concept that the Titanic has come to represent.

Most of our coded beliefs about the right to life show a bias towards preserving what is most threatened. Like white tigers, the nuclear family is fast disappearing. Unlike white tigers, many don't see this as a particular tragedy, this peculiar social configuration not having the track record for beauty and grace that the threatened tiger possesses.

In the case of the Costa Concordia, we may be seeing not only the end of chivalry in action, but also a desperate attempt to save the concept of the nuclear family. Like the age of chivalry, the nuclear family is well and truly declining, if not officially dead. And as the reports of fathers prioritising their lives over the lives of single people roll in, I believe we are witnessing a new code, one that once again is an attempt to save what has already died.

"O Captain, my captain", Walt Whitman wrote to the assassinated Abraham Lincoln, referring to him as a father. Schettino is not merely being vilified for abandoning his ship and the written and unwritten laws of his naval duties; he is being vilified as a bad father in a time where the myth of the traditional family has far usurped its presence in the wild.

ABOUT THERAPY FOR NEWS JUNKIES: Why does the news make the news? Why do certain stories gain such traction? Therapy For News Junkies is a regular NM column which looks at why audiences react so vehemently to particular issues. Zoe Krupka is a psychotherapist who uses her knowledge about how we react as individuals to better understand collective responses to the events of the day.

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