All Aboard The Ship That Cannot Sink

If it had not had happened, you would be forgiven for believing that somebody had invented it. Such is the convenient way it can be used as a metaphor.

I thought about it for the first time as I was travelling into Swansea on a bus one day, but I must have dug it out from the back of my mind because it is a relatively common metaphor to be used.

It has been used to portray many things; organisations, politicians, and nations, but I think that it is best suited as a metaphor for society as a whole.

Plato often used analogies, similies and metaphors in his work, and one that I always recall is his Ship of State. The ship represents the state, and the journey the ship goes on, represents the journey of a state. Without going into too much detail the metaphor explains how a ship needs someone to steer it, but also someone to navigate. The navigators, Plato believes, should be the philosophers.

Plato’s metaphor is not perfect, but then again to qualify as a metaphor it mustn’t be perfect. And to continue the theme of ships being used as metaphors, let’s look at perhaps the most famous ship of all time. The Titanic.

I believe that the Titanic can be viewed in a number of ways. A quick Google search already shows that it has been used to describe politicians careers, the issue of the EU and to demonstrate poor leadership. But I feel the most apt portrayal is for the Titanic to represent society.

By society I mean the global society, the human race and the world we have created for us to inhabit.

The Titanic was not just a ship. It was the greatest ship ever produced. The largest, the fastest, and the most luxurious. Never before had there been a ship like it, and the thought at the time was most likely that there would never be a ship like it again. There was an arrogance and pride that bordered on naivety. Infamously it was dubbed “unsinkable” and yet it went down.

In terms of society do we not believe currently that we are the greatest civilisation ever to have walked the earth? Do we not believe that we are smarter, faster, bigger and better, than all those who have come before us? The Romans lay in ruins, as do the Incas and the Aztecs, the Native Americans were overpowered, the tribes of Africa “civilised” and colonised. Look at the wealth that surrounds us, and the technology, and our knowledge of the Earth and of our solar system. Surely we are the greatest.

The Titanic’s destination was the United States of America. “The New World” as it had come to be known by migrants looking to start new lives across the ocean. The greatest ship of all time had the new world in its sights. A better life and a better existence lay ahead for everybody aboard, but this was not enough. It was taking too long. The process, and the journey needed to become faster. Progress was simply not enough on its own, it had to reach its destination before anyone thought it could. Whatever it took, no matter the risk, progress had to be made at all costs.

The new world which society seems to strive for is not one whereby progress is slow, and steady, calculated and for the benefit of everyone. Growth, progress and advances need to be almost immediate. Nothing is ever good enough in this society, everything can be done faster. Why try to resolve poverty when we can explore space? Why try to achieve equality when the rich crave another mansion and another yacht? Year upon year the the wealthiest people are earning more money, year upon year more shops are opening and better technology being developed. We measure our progress by the life of our phones battery rather than the life of societies children.

This insatiable appetite and lust for progress came at a cost. As we all now know, such was the speed Titanic was travelling, they did not have time to re-adjust course when an iceberg was spotted in their path. Indeed the pace at which they were travelling meant that having to adjust course was out of the question. Advancing through the night, at break-neck speed, the Titanic was essentially blind. It did not envisage problems ahead, it could not spot the dangers, and even if it did, it would not have time to avoid them.

This rapid advance, this blind journey towards disaster, is exactly what is occurring within our own global society. We invent, we create and we progress, but we do not know the cost, and often we do not know the impact of our own creations. Insecticides, pesticides and fertilizers such as Zyklon B, Agent Orange and Sarin have been the cause of death and suffering to millions. CFC’s in solvents have led to a damaged ozone layer. The drugs we have discovered for treatments have only pushed the diseases to become immune, thus creating superbugs that cannot be beaten easily. And perhaps the most obvious of all is the invention and continued use of Nuclear power. Nagasaki, Hiroshima, Chernobyl, the Cold War and Fukushima have all demonstrated the life threatening impact Nuclear power has on people, and on the world.

Such was the arrogance of those who built and planned the Titanic, that there was a severe lack of lifeboats aboard the ship. Presumably the thinking being that if a ship cannot sink, what is the need for lifeboats? The expense these lifeboats would have cost was spent elsewhere. The luxurious decor and layout of the ship, the expensive ornaments and cutlery, the pieces of art decorating the dining rooms. If the unthinkable were to happen, and the ship would be endangered, there would never be enough safety features and life saving procedures to prevent everyone from dying. The Titanic was not designed to save 100% of its occupants.

So true in our society. Survival is dependent on who you are, where you live and how much money you have access to. Overwhelmingly natural disasters affect the poor. Living on land which is unsafe to live on, denied or without access to emergency relief and aid, famine on poor farmland, the list goes on. When Hurricane Katrina struck USA and the flood defences failed, there were those who fled, those who were airlifted to safety and those who could afford to leave their possessions and family home. On the other side of things, there were those who could not. Those people who were abandoned and left to fend for themselves, and then demonised when they were seen to be stealing items from devastated shops.

Even man-made disasters affect the poor more than they affect the rich. When we look at the issue of war who do we see fighting in the front lines? Who are the ones that enlist and go off to fight and die? In the case of a nuclear war or a aerial bombardment, there exists bunkers designed to protect people, but who from society will be given a place in the most secure bunkers, the safest? This global society may well be taking us all along for the ride, but when the ride gets bumpy there are only a certain number of us with access to seatbelts.

And within it all exists the issue of class. It is obvious aboard the Titanic. The lower quarters for the under class, the glamorous dining rooms for the wealthy. Even today some of the gates separating the upper and lower decks, and therefore the upper and lower classes, are locked shut. The two could not mix, and the opportunity to move between classes was virtually unthinkable.

Though the class divides are not as obvious, the barriers and restrictions not so visual, they are still very much in place within our own society. The UK, for example, has one of the lowest rates of social mobility in the developed world. In 1970 there was in fact greater social mobility than there is currently. The belief that you can go anywhere, and be anything is less a myth, and more an outright lie.

If the Titanic had not been an actual historical event it, you would be forgiven for thinking it was a fictional tale invented by a cynical author to subtly attack the society in which we are all a part of. As it is, the Titanic remains a very real tragedy, and an important reminder of what can happen when we advance blindly into the unknown, with little in the way of safety, equality and caution.

Below I have included some links for further reading on the issue of the Titanic and using it as a metaphor.

This piece in Encyclopedia Titanica explains why the Titanic is so often used in metaphors.

Daily Kos host a wonderful article that reiterates a lot of what I have said in my own piece. The piece, written by Xaxnar, includes this wonderful passage:
“As a country, as a planet, as individuals, as a species, we’re facing a lot of slow-motion disasters that may well prove fatal… The list is increasing. We have no shortage of icebergs, and we seem to able to change course about as quickly as the Titanic.”

Here too is James Cameron, the writer and director of Titanic, stating his belief that the Titanic is a suitable metaphor for today, based on his opinion that we are heading towards an iceberg of our own.

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