by Vijay Govind Nath.
Walter Lord’s ‘A Night to Remember’ is the definitive non-fiction account of the sinking of the Titanic. The book recounts how in the early hours of April 15, 1912, the largest ship to ever set sail, sank into the depths of the Atlantic along with 1,500 souls that had accompanied it on its maiden voyage. Mr. Lord lays out a curious statistic in his account of the disaster. While over a third of the men and all the women and children in first class survived, only one tenth of the men, half the women, and less than a third of the children in third class made it out of the ship. It is in light of this statistic that the following scene from his book reads as deeply haunting: Lady Cosmo Duff Gordon – whose party occupied the first lifeboat to themselves turned to her secretary as the boat was sinking and exclaimed ‘There’s your beautiful night-dress gone.’ It seems that people like Lady Gordon had set sail on their half-empty lifeboats before others had a chance to come on board for fear that the panicking masses would act irrationally and climb on to the lifeboat and cause it to sink. They must have concluded that the risk posed by a panicking crowd would be too high to allow the floodgates to open. The account merely illustrates anxiety that all too often plays out around the world to this very day. It seems that in times of crisis there is a palpable fear among those most likely to be safe, about the risk posed by panicked masses. This unfounded fear of mass panic that the wealthy and the comfortable feel during disasters is what Lee Clarke and Caron Chess call ‘Elite Panic’, and it is one aspect of a severely diseased relationship we have with wealth and the hierarchy it creates.
The crux of this fear is an idea that those in worse off positions, those who live in relative discomfort and angst, will in times of a crisis act in brutal and irrational ways. The layperson obsessed with survival might, it is feared, forgoes basic morality. This pre-emptive fear of barbarism then justifies why a selected elite can, without moral quandaries, pursue an overabundance of caution even at the risk of causing great harm to others. Someone with enough money, for instance, is entirely justified in this schema in putting themselves first and buying all the groceries in a supermarket in the middle of a pandemic. It also justifies decisions made by those in the know to hide the fact that wearing masks might prevent the spread of disease, for fear that the panicked and unenlightened masses cause a shortage of masks for professionals. Notably, the clerk at the grocery store who also has to work through the pandemic does not fall into the category of professionals who might benefit from the knowledge that mask-wearing prevents the fatal illness.
The shadow of this hierarchy is a pretty pervasive one. It is why the immediate response from certain quarters to students protesting fee hikes, is the careful examination of the civility of those protesting while dismissing the fee hikes as marginal. It is why all too often the response to street hawkers and houseless people asking for alms is suspicion or derision (beggar mafia!). It is why we celebrate the third-generation billionaire as a visionary and a trustee of national pride while guffawing at the news story of the 70-year-old beggar who died with 5 lakh rupees in his bindle (Why was he begging? He had more money than me!). It is why the news anchor sharing news of food riots in Venezuela seems to care more about the instability caused by a riot than the starvation that caused the riot. Does a person with a full pantry have a greater moral right not to starve than the person whose pantry has never been full? Why is it that “paying” ten rupees for a bar of chocolate manufactured by a conglomerate exploiting farmers halfway across the world is a relatively benign act, but “donating” it to a houseless person who begs for it involves several moral and socio-political questions?
To tie all this up, the final lifeboats that left the Titanic were all functioning over the set capacity. Some of them still went back to rescue those who were drowning. These lifeboats were apparently filled with third-class passengers. The same unenlightened masses that supposedly would forgo morality to gain a chance at survival. But none of them had fancy night-dresses to save, so I guess they decided to save each other.
 Clarke L., Chess C.; Elites and Panic: More to fear than fear itself; Social Forces, Volume 87, Issue 2, December 2008, Pages 993–1014 (https://doi.org/10.1353/sof.0.0155)