With a tip of the cap to David Brooks and Gail Collins…
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?
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…
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!
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.)