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January 17th 2012 print

James Allan

Man the boats!

Perhaps I’m just at core very old-fashioned, but there is something culturally attractive about the ‘hold doors open for women’ ethos writ several orders of magnitude larger and translated to the sinking ship scenario.


Women and children, sooner or later 


Most of you will have read about the recent grounding of the Costa Concordia luxury cruise ship off the coast of Italy. Tragically there have been confirmed deaths with dozens still missing; there have been allegations of criminal negligence on the part of the captain; and there was the sort of chaos and fear that none of us would want to experience first hand. 

But you may also have noticed that it was reported that crew members said that some men, during all that chaos and confusion as the ship listed badly to one side, would not give up their spots on the life rafts for women and children. ‘They wanted to be with their families’, was the rationale they gave the crew for not relinquishing their spots. 

On a personal level I think it’s near on impossible for anyone to know how he or she would act in such a situation and anyway, after the fact moralising always has such a holier than thou air to it. 

But it is interesting to ponder how social attitudes have changed in the last 9 decades, going back to the Titanic when as far as I’m aware the men did all just give up their spots on the life rafts unless they were needed as crew. 

Of course as far as giving up spots to the women is concerned (the children is a different story) you might just say that this new attitude is the price of the push for equality. ‘What’s good for the goose is good for the gander’ and all that sort of thing. Or perhaps ‘if you’re going to be combat troops you can’t expect outdated chivalry’ might sum up the general attitude a bit better. 

Now I understand that argument perfectly well, but somehow it saddens me. Perhaps I’m just at core very old-fashioned, but there is something culturally attractive about the ‘hold doors open for women’ ethos writ several orders of magnitude larger and translated to the sinking ship scenario. I’m not saying I could live up to it myself, and no doubt with all the cultural stigma from earlier days now gone it would be harder than ever to do so. Maybe even foolish, if you had young kids of your own. 

But something seems to me to have been lost to western culture, however much its loss may have been traded for greater compensating benefits. 

Ah well, at least Joseph Conrad wrote one of his best books on just this same sort of situation.   And who couldn’t like the title of that particular great book?