Sunday, January 15, 2012

When a ship sinks, why not 'people in need of assistance first'?

Sigh. A cruise ship tragically sinks, and it spawns another tiresome round in the even more tiresome gender wars.  Have you, too, grown more than a little weary of these discussions?

An example: here's a news report that goes out of its way to vilify dastardly fathers. You see, those damnable fathers on board forgot their chivalry: "Fathers desperate to be with their families ignored the order that women and children should go first."

So, are we going to publicly shame those fathers the way some male survivors were publicly shamed after Titanic?

And what year is this? 2012, or 1912?

All manner of distasteful comments appear under the news story, and in similar discussions on the Internet. Some people bemoan the loss of chivalry; others blame women for the loss of chivalry.  Pretty much everyone gets it wrong.

Here's a comment that's not atypical:  "How disgraceful. There is no gallantry left. Although men have been systematically trained for the last half century to think of women as no different and needing no 'protection' let alone self sacrificing behavior, so what do we expect? Thank goodness the situation was not worse." - Laura, Anywhere, USA, 15/1/2012 15:10

Sigh. That comment suggests that "gallantry" that would have automatically saved women, as a class, first, is a good thing -- a natural thing, and that our modern PC culture (and, I am sure, feminism) has ruined it.

Wrong. What, exactly, does gender have to do with a ship sinking?

How about we apply common sense and civility and toss the gender lens overboard? There's no sound reason for a strict gender rule that says women, as a class, should be saved before men, as a class, when a ship sinks.  But there are plenty of  sound reasons to save the folks most in need first, female or male: kids, their caregivers, the elderly, persons with disabilities, etc.

If feminism is to "blame" for loosening society's strict adherence to the silly "women and children first" rule--maybe it inspired some young father to stay with his family on a lifeboat instead of playing the stoic hero and allowing an able-bodied woman to take his spot--well, that's one good thing feminism has done.

In any event, is it the end of the world that society largely still adheres to some customs like "women and children first," taking women's orders first at restaurants, holding doors for women, and allowing women to get out of elevators first?  Of course not. The problem is that these little customs can't really be squared with  rational notions of gender equality, and if we're intent on eradicating the corrosive effects of gender stereotyping, we can't be making exceptions for even small things.  In other words, we can't tell our sons in one breath that our daughters are every bit as capable as they are, while in the next insisting that girls need special advantages to get by. That message manages the seemingly impossible task of insulting both genders at once.  Again, maybe we have feminism to thank for opening our eyes to these issues?

I agree with the "unsinkable" Molly Brown, who survived the Titanic. She said she thought it was very brave that some men had chosen to step aside and let women and children live — but the gesture should never have been required by law or custom.

If you want to understand what happened on Titanic, see this: