Barbara Kay: How patriarchy ran into its own iceberg
March 02, 2010,
com/NP/blogs/fullcomment/ archive/2010/03/02/barbara- kay-how-patriarchy-ran-into- its-own-iceberg.aspx
The Titanic sank in 1912 after hitting an iceberg. Of the 2,200 people on board, 1,517 died. The Lusitania sank in 1915, victim to a German U-boat torpedo. Of the nearly 2,000 people on board, 1,200 died. In addition to carrying about the same numbers of passengers, the demographic composition of the two ships - adults, children, men, women, old, young - was also similar.
Two stark differences distinguish the tragedies. One was the fact that the Lusitania sank very swiftly, only minutes after it was struck, while it took four hours for the Titanic to go under the waves. The other is that on the Titanic, most of the survivors were women and children: 75% of women and almost all the children were saved as against 20% of the men, while on the Lusitania, of the 639 who escaped, it was a question of sauve qui peut. The fittest amongst both men and women aged 16-35 were likeliest to survive.
According to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the altruism of the Titanic and the length of time it took for the ship to sink are causally linked. Benno Torgler, study author and economics professor at Queensland University of Technology in Australia explains that circumstances dictate levels of altruism. According to the study, since the Titanic passengers had a few hours to consider their options, "there was time for socially determined behavioural patterns to re-emerge."
The time factor in determining selfish or unselfish behaviour strikes one as a reasonable insight. Panic arouses atavistic instincts of blind flight; more time to consider allows the intellect, the emotions and one's sense of -- call it what you will: duty, honour, morality -- to surface and in some cases overwhelm terror.
But now let us consider these "socially determined behavioural patterns" that allowed so many women and children on the Titanic to live.
The sinking of the Titanic occurred in 1912, well before the emancipation of women. Indeed, 1912, before the "lights [had] gone out in Europe" with World War One, may be said to be the last moment when the patriarchy held fairly complete sway over the lives of women. After the war, a dearth of men, coupled with women's adventures in autonomy in the work force and taking charge of their domestic domains, along with the extinction of "honour" as a viable ideal after an honour-based war's senseless horrors, the patriarchy was on its way out, gender equality on its way in.
So these heroes who willingly sacrificed their lives for women and children had been brought up in the very heart of the same robust patriarchy that feminists today use as a shibboleth to frighten young girls with. According to the feminist mystique, these men should have been controlling, egocentric, self-serving bullies, for whom women were nothing more than sexual and domestic conveniences, little better than slaves. They should all have been candidates for anger management, not a chivalry so breathtakingly selfless that they almost to a man went to watery graves in stoic humility so that total strangers might live, simply because of their sex.
It is precisely in a crisis that we often learn a great deal about what our values actually are. So this example of male heroism in as indisputably existential situation as imagination can conceive, and ideally placed to consider their deepest convictions before acting should, it seems to me, remain in the forefront of our collective consciousness. For these men were the product of a particular culture, one that perceived chivalry and honour and duty as the highest values. And the highest expression of those highest values was the privileging of women and children's lives over their own. And they acted on that perception.
Yes, women were infantilized in many ways in the patriarchy, which a cynic might say was the driving impulse behind the chivalry of the Titanic's men. But so what? At the moment when it mattered most, the notion that men should above all act as protectors of the vulnerable in times of danger to all committed them to death in the service of others. Was there ever a more noble or selfless act?
The study reminds us that the heroism of the Titanic was a willed phenomenon, and one that feminists do not wish to discuss (I have tried).
Instead of fetishizing the victimhood of women at men's hands and the deviance from our cultural norm that Marc Lepine represented with man-bashing dirges across the land every December 6, would it not make more sense - and would it not be more ethically fitting and socially unifying - to celebrate the more representative manliness of men every April 15, the date of the Titanic's sinking? Still six weeks left to plan it.