Comment Of The Day: “Titanic Ethics”

Michael West has written a remarkable Comment of the Day in several respects. For one thing, it is a comment on a post that is almost eight years old, a record for Ethics Alarms. For another, he becomes the first commenter to comment on the same post under two different screen names. Finally, there is the fact that his point is one with historic validity, yet seldom if ever mentioned by the many critics of James Cameron’s  epic yet intermittently ridiculous film, including me. Follow the tag: there are a lot of  references to “Titanic” here.

One note in prelude to Michael’s essay: the cruel misrepresentation he alludes to can be partially laid at the now dead feet of Walter Lord, who wrote the influential and popular account of the Titanic’s sinking, “A Night To Remember.” It is an excellent account, but he decided to use Charles John Joughin as comic relief, and the  movies, including the one based on his book, distorted his portrayal, which itself seems to have been unfair.

Here is Michael West’s Comment of the Day on the 2012 post, “Titanic Ethics”

How about every Titanic movie’s depiction of Charles John Joughin?

Verdict: Unethical.

Joughin was the lead baker on board the Titanic. Built big and stout as a bull according to most who met him.

When he first heard the Titanic was going to go down, on his own initiative, he rallied the baking crew to gather what bread they could to distribute ample loaves to every lifeboat anticipating they may be afloat for awhile before rescue — something like 40 pounds of bread per boat. Several witnesses and his own testimony recount that he took multiple trips to help guide passengers from below decks up to the boat deck. He proceeded to a lifeboat, which he had been earlier commanded to be a crewman for (either tilling it or rowing, I’m not sure), only to discover another crewman had taken his spot. He didn’t protest, though he could have, so he helped load that boat and then went back to find more passengers below decks. After realizing there’d not be enough life boats and that many people would have to swim for it, he began to throw as many deck chairs into the water as he could as flotation devices, later he mentioned he hoped he could possibly find one of them after the ship went under. When the ship made its final plunge, he found himself standing on the back of the Titanic riding it into the icy waves. In the water, which was so cold, most people died of hypothermia within fifteen minutes…most much sooner than that, Joughin treaded water and swam for a remarkable one and a half to two hours before finding the upside-down collapsible commanded by Lightoller. Naturally, given Joughin’s luck thus far, the collapsible had no more standing room, so he had to float to the side for a bit longer before another lifeboat came by and picked him up.

Now, how do Titanic movies commemorate Joughin’s clearly heroic conduct? Every single movie:

He’s portrayed as a fat drunk for comic relief.

Why? Because, during Joughin’s own testimony before the inquiries, even with other witnesses corroborating all his other conduct, he honestly admitted, that he had a shot of whiskey when he learned the Titanic was sinking, and then had another shot of whiskey after he found his place taken on the lifeboat he’d been assigned to crew.

Two shots of whiskey do not make a big stoutly built man drunk.

But because of that anecdote, his story is forever to be depicted as the bumbling and comical drunk, not the dedicated worker trying to save as many people as he could.


9 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “Titanic Ethics”

  1. Thoughts on the interpretation of the “women and children first” custom as interpreted by Officers Murdoch and Lightoller? Lightoller thought it meant “women and children ONLY” and threatened to shoot any man who tried to enter a lifeboat, whereas Murdoch would allow a limited number of men to board if all the nearby women and children had. Ironically Lightoller survived and commanded a lifeboat until morning. By rights the other survivors should have heaved him overboard.

    • I don’t know about this. The more I read – the more it becomes apparent that the Titanic is not some metaphor for Edwardian British snobbery. The Titanic crew couldn’t fill lifeboats because the people trusted the Titanic more – and why not? The vast frigid ocean in a toss-about lifeboat compared to the apparently stable Titanic (recall it pretty much seemed to be fully stable for about 80% of the sinking).

      Once it became very apparent the “stable” Titanic was definitely going down (slowly but surely) – I haven’t seen any account that indicates crewman stopping people from boarding the lifeboats – again they faced a shortage of passengers near the lifeboats and those who were were put on board. There wasn’t any stereotypical “damn the 3rd class” nonsense either. The insanely massive losses to the 3rd class were less a function of society being geared “against them” and more a function that those in the 1st class who were saved happened to be incredibly lucky that they were saved at all of *all* the passengers who didn’t think there really was an emergency. By the time most people accepted that, indeed, the ship was doomed – ALL of the lifeboats had been launched.

      The 3rd class passengers simply had more ship to navigate once the emergency was truly realized – and by the time they’d navigated the ship – most lifeboats were gone and the last few were not discriminating against who could get on.

      • I think this is sort of right. However, I have little doubt that if the steerage passengers were in a position to compete directly with the elite, the First Class passengers would have been given priority, by force if necessary. It wasn’t only class, it was celebrity too “Now, now. Mrs. Astor, be fair, the shoemaker got here first!” Uh, no. And the extra payment for tickets would be deemed enough to justify first dibs on a life-boat seat.

        But it is true that even some in the lifeboats just thought it was a drill.

  2. I thoroughly enjoy reading historical corrections to popular accounts of events.

    I am of the opinion that when the recounting of events includes descriptions of individual behaviors of those long deceased we should include only that which portrays the person in the best possible light. Unless the less admirable qualities are absolutely necessary to create an accurate picture of events there is no reason to include them. Golden rule. Would you want someone writing with creative license to diminish your character after you are long gone because it will sell better?

  3. Thank you for the honor!

    I need to correct myself, I said he only had the equivalent of 2 shots of whiskey, but after I perused his testimony, he did admit to have a little more than that (still doesn’t seem like much), but I don’t see how what he testified to justifies portraying him as a drunk in light of all else he achieved that evening.

  4. I saw “A Night to Remember” when I was in the 2nd grade and it sent me on a Titanic reading frenzy. I decided to watch it with my kids last night (2nd and 4th grade).

    “But Daddy, it’s BLACK AND WHITE!!! It’s going to be boring!”

    15 minutes into the movie they were hooked and wouldn’t stop asking questions about the real Titanic.

    I should say, having not seen the movie in a while – A Night to Remember DOES show Charles John Joughin surrendering his seat on a lifeboat after that the movie proceeds to show him in his room downing far more alcohol than he did on that night.

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