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.


6 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.

  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.

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