The Value of Others on the Costa Concordia

by Matthew Raley

The value we place on human life may be revealed in ordinary self-restraint.

While the exact causes of the Costa Concordia tragedy may not be any clearer today, the story of the evacuation unfolded all too clearly over the weekend. There seems to have been a total breakdown of order as the ship capsized.

Surviving passengers recounted how the crew gave false reassurances, then abandoned their posts. The scenes were described as “every man for himself,” with no consideration for women and children, or for the elderly. Two bodies discovered inside the ship over the weekend were elderly men wearing life jackets. The captain insists that he was the last to leave the ship, but the bodies of those two men reply, “We were still here when you set foot onshore.” Fifteen others are still missing.

The value of others on the Concordia was obviously lower than the value of Self.

For many decades now, Americans and Europeans have valued personal authenticity over social norms. We like to think each person is autonomous, free from artificial bonds. The Self is holy. Duties are anathema. The very word order has become almost contemptible, regarded by many as code for repression. And so the passengers of the Concordia endured not just the violence of a sinking ship but the fury of personal authenticity in a panic.

We’ve heard about the thin line between civilization and barbarism. We’ve seen that line crossed in macrocosm (Iraq after the invasion) and microcosm (Walmart mobs on Black Friday). On the Concordia, passengers were dining comfortably one moment, and in the next were crawling on their knees through broken glass, lashing themselves to railings, and passing their 2-year-olds to a stranger in the hope that she might think of a child rather than herself.

We have also seen the line maintained. New York City did not collapse into an orgy of personal authenticity on 9-11. Its citizens showed why order is noble. Our soldiers around the world don’t abandon their units under fire. And there were passengers on the Concordia who remained calm, nursed the wounded, and gave leadership.

Every day, we show the value we place on human life in our small actions. Giving place to the elderly, showing self-restraint in front of children and gentleness to women — or, to use the old-fashioned phrase for these actions, showing deference — these are the ways we acknowledge another person’s worth.

They are also society’s rehearsals for emergency. What we do in danger depends on what we practice in safety.

I think our society has big reserves of civility. But we are tolerating disrespect in too many ways. People who spew foul language in front of children, who refuse to defer to flight attendants, school teachers, or police, who are incapable of respecting the elderly, and who treat women as valuable only if they are hotties — and then only give the reward of crudity — are rehearsing a fresh Concordia experience for the rest of us.

It’s time we gave them the smack-down.

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