A Conversation with Emily

With a tip of the cap to David Brooks and Gail Collins…

Jim:

I realize I may be treading in politically incorrect waters here, Emily, but I’ve been thinking about the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking and in particular about the notion of “women and children first.” If the same sort of disaster occurred today (note how I deftly skip over any mention of the “Costa Concordia”), would it be appropriate for the ship’s leader to shout out that familiar if somewhat anachronistic phrase?

Emily:

Jim, you aren’t just treading in politically incorrect waters, you’re sinking in them. Holding back (initially at least!) from the obvious gender-based argument, even from a basic, practical perspective “women and children first” has no place in 21st century disaster management. What is the goal of an evacuation during a life-threatening situation? Surely it’s to save the most lives possible. With that as our primary objective, I agree that children should be among the first removed from a crisis.

They are, almost always, if not physically weaker, than less emotionally or mentally robust. Once all the children are saved, the next people to evacuate should be the weakest adults – regardless of gender. That would leave the strongest – those most able to outlive a disaster situation – behind to fend for themselves until help arrives. Would you really force a strong woman, who has a good chance of being able to successfully wait for her survival, into a lifeboat while telling an out of shape, elderly man who won’t last for long in adverse conditions he must sacrifice himself simply because of his sex? Seems awfully discriminatory about men…

Jim:

Emily, I’d like to make a reference from “The Iliad” to show you the error of your ways, but l will have settle for a “Seinfeld.”

You may recall the episode where George Costanza thinks he is in the middle of fire, and he impulsively knocks over women and children (not to mention a clown!) in order to escape from the apparently burning building. Later, when it is discovered that the alarm was false, he finds himself the object of ridicule because he understands that he has violated a deep and unwritten code.

I think that code goes back to a heroic notion, perhaps an old fashioned one, that we expect men, particularly in a time of crisis, to deny themselves, to put the needs of others first.

The woman with whom I live, by the way, thinks that the correct response should be “mothers and children first” because you wouldn’t want a boat full or orphans. Of course, since she is a mother herself, someone other than I might suggest that this may be an example of enlightened self-interest!

Emily:

Jim, the flaw in your Seinfeld example is that while George was ridiculed for knocking over others while running out of what he thought was a burning building is that, in today’s world of greater (yet still imperfect) equality between men and women, the same ridicule would have been directed to Elaine if roles in the story were reversed.

In fact, going back to my previous argument, looking at Elaine and George, Elaine is the fitter and presumed stronger of the two characters. If she knocked George over as she ran out of a burning building, she would deserve to be mocked even more than he because she would have been better conditioned to survive prolonged exposure to smoke, etc.

Your idea of a “code of manliness” is inherently sexist because it assumes that only men are supposed to be heroic. By your rule, men are bound by duty to acts of heroism – it’s in their nature, it’s part of the social conventions governing their sex. But putting the safety of others before your own is not a “manly imperative” – it’s a human one. Whether it’s the act of a hero or a heroine has nothing to do with the end result or the praise they deserve.

We all agree that children should be evacuated first from a crisis, and I certainly see the logic in Mary’s belief that those children should not be left alone without at least one of their parents if at all possible. But is it not equally sexist (and indeed discriminatory against fathers) to limit which parent should be sent to safety with the children based exclusively on gender? Yes, mothers are still sadly saddled with most child-care duties – even in our modern, more gender equal world. But what of the fathers? Why should their responsibilities and ties to their children be made subservient the minute they are faced with a life or death situation? What of any single parents who happen to be male? What of two gay male parents?

Also, in terms of the depth you claim exists for “women and children first,” a quick google search will bring up the fact that it is a relatively new convention – first recorded in 1852 when the H.M.S. Birkenhead rammed a uncharted rock off of the shores of Cape Town and sank. The senior officer on that ship, which was carrying only seven “ladies” and 13 children out of 600 passengers and sailors, rebelled against what was then the Navy’s long-standing rule of “every man for himself” and defended at sword point the priority of the small group of women and children to board lifeboats.

In this case, I admire that senior officer (a Lieutenant Seton who sadly was not related to UCC’s own Lord Seaton) and believe that his actions were, in fact the right thing to do. Why? Because in the 19th century, those women were indeed the weakest passengers with the least chance of survival without access to lifeboats. If nothing else, the 19th century outfits they would have been wearing (heavy skirts, petticoats, corsets, etc.) would have made their ability to swim for any length of time impossible compared to the male sailors on board.

But, luckily, corsets aren’t a big trend in cruise wear today…

(Emily Kulin is UCC’s Manager, Campaign Communications and she puts the principal in his place on a regular basis.)

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5 Responses to “A Conversation with Emily”

  1. Mari Roughneen Says:

    It is precisely these kinds of intelligent exchanges that reinforce our duty, and illustrate our capacity, to focus our collective energies more deeply on issues of gender relations at the College, both in terms of education and relationship.

    There is much to discuss and advance on this front in our institution and we have a shared responsibility to engage in this work together.
    Let’s keep this conversation going!

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Jim,

    I empathize with the difficulties and ambiguities of the argument.

    First, there is an important distinction to be made between objective perspectives of moral conduct (as elucidated by Emily), and subjective notions of honour as they may pertain to various groups, including men. I thought the point of your address was to encourage UCC students to think about what honour means to them, and how they might act on those feelings in different situations.

    From an objective perspective, “women and children first” is a sexist idea based on the assumption that women and children are somehow less capable of caring for themselves. I think what we try to teach young men at present is that there is no such unilateral code that dictates one’s course of action in specific situations. Instead, it is incumbent upon individuals to make decisions according to their own conscience and morality.

    Simply because Elaine is more capable than George doesn’t suggest it wouldn’t be meaningful for George to consider his actions relative to his own understanding of masculinity. We think and talk about these things because even when our intellect suggests a new political realities, our affective and ideological lives need longer to catch-up. As well, I see nothing wrong with probing the “code of manliness” – it’s just that it turns out there is more than one code, depending on who the author is.

    The hard work of growing up is coming to grips with having to define masculinity for oneself. Understanding previous codes provides context and something against which one can push off to define oneself. The negative take on this situation is that our era is defined by relativism, but a more positive take is that we, as individuals, do not have to be governed by social dictates that may not be sensible, or which don’t reflect evolving personal beliefs. Yet none of that frees us from the moral and social obligation of knowing what we stand for.

  3. jeff mcguinness Says:

    sad that in someone’s mind that rather than making the effort to get everyone out of a dire situation, we should first perform “feats of strength” (yes, another Seinfeld reference) to determine the order of goes out the door.

    here’s the great thing about heros: they act in a moment to do what they can for those around them, not for themselves. altruism in its application is simple: all can, none must, and perhaps some should.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Jim,

    There are alternative ways of thinking about such scenarios. One way would be to privilege the lives of the young and vulnerable; in a way, that’s in the best interest of the larger community; the young are the future, or the common wealth.

    Perhaps the idea of ‘women and children first’ is anachronistic, but I would guess that it too is linked to perceptions of vulnerability, and that those in turn are predicated on notions of relative physical strength.

    But when your respondent uses the term ‘should,’ she runs the risk of supplanting one conception (the charge that your phrase is antiquated) with another (the idea that one might flatten a set of distinctions that have been in play for a long time, and which are at least in part a matter of human design rather than antiquated or patriarchal structures of some kind).

    There are also various cultural pieces looming in the background of the scenario; different communities might have different conceptions of advisable procedure in such cases. (Doomsday scenarios tend to protect VIPs, and non-VIPs might take issue with who is or is not on the A-list.).

  5. scottcowie Says:

    A very thought provoking post here Jim…I love the Seinfeld reference – totally fitting…Call me old fashioned, but as the father of two daughters, I’d like to think that chivalry is not dead (just don’t remind me of this exchange if we ever end up together on a sinking ship!)

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