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Titanic rhetoric


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The hit film Titanic serves as more than just a way to entertain moviegoers and make millions of dollars for the creators, according to a researcher who has written about the disaster.

The film, like most examples of oral, written or other narratives of disaster, embraces a number of social purposes, said James Hikins, associate professor of journalism and communication at Ohio State University.

“The movie preserves the memory of the disaster, assigns blame to those responsible, celebrates the heroes and provides lessons for society,” he said.

Hikins studies what he calls “the rhetoric of disaster” -- the speeches, eulogies, editorials, books, poems, music and, yes, movies that remember calamities of all kinds.

He has focused particularly on the Titanic disaster, and wrote a case study of Titanic rhetoric for the book Generic Criticism of American Public Address (Kendall/Hunt, 1996).

“The Titanic was, without question, the quintessential disaster of the twentieth century,” Hikins said. There were many disasters that killed more people, but none have become as much a part of the public imagination as the Titanic.

“In 1909, floods in England and the Netherlands killed about 100,000 people, but we don’t remember that calamity,” Hikins said. “But we remember the 1,522 lives lost on the Titanic.”

Why is the Titanic still remembered today? Much of it has to do with the symbolism of the Titanic for society. “The disaster happened near the end of the Gilded Age, when everyone thought that humans had control of nature. As the largest human-made moving object ever constructed, the Titanic represented the best of our technology, our ability to challenge nature and be supreme,” Hikins said. “When the Titanic sank, it just instantly dashed a lot of our society’s dreams.”

As such a potent symbol, the rhetoric of the Titanic has continued unabated since the sinking in 1912. Hikins has a box full of Titanic newspaper articles, books, speeches and other memorabilia that has been produced. Even before the movie Titanic, the disaster had not really gone away. Hikins has a supermarket tabloid from October 1990 with the headline Titanic Survivor Found On Iceberg! Trawler Picks Up Young Woman Dressed in 1900s Clothes.

“This is but one of the ways individuals and institutions have used memories of the disaster to influence subsequent generations, for such ends as selling products or political views,” Hikins said. “The Titanic lives on in ways that are almost unimaginable.”

Hikins, who has seen the movie Titanic, said the film serves many of the basic functions of disaster rhetoric. Overall, the discourse that is produced after a major disaster aims to preserve the social and cultural values that may be threatened and strained by the calamity. People need to be persuaded that everything is OK, and that life can go on, he explained.

In order to meet this goal, discourse performs several functions. For example, disaster rhetoric often looks for who is at fault. “After a disaster, we have to lay blame. In this case the film, like other discourse about the Titanic, blames society in general and the ship owners in particular for daring to challenge nature,” Hikins said. “It took great arrogance to believe that any ship was unsinkable.”

Disaster rhetoric also serves to teach the rest of us how we should -- and should not -- act in the face of catastrophe, he said. That’s why movies like the Titanic offer heroes for us to emulate and villains for us to despise.

But not all the rhetoric that arises from calamities is directly related to the disaster itself. Often, disasters are used to serve other purposes having little or no direct relationship to the disaster.

For example, at the time of the Titanic disaster, women were still fighting for the right to vote in the United States. But some opponents of women’s suffrage used the disaster to argue against women having the right to vote. These opponents pointed to the fact that women were given first chance at the limited lifeboats available on the Titanic. “Some men argued that women shouldn’t be given the right to vote if they aren’t willing to suffer the same risks as men,” Hikins said.

The Titanic was also used by African Americans struggling for racial equality in the United States. Many observers noted the irony that Jim Crow laws guaranteed no persons with African ancestry would be aboard the Titanic. After the disaster, a story known at the Titanic Toast became a staple of African-American culture in the United States. The toast tells the fictitious story of an African man who worked in the engine room and was the first to notice the impending disaster. His warnings were ignored by the white crew, so he jumped off the ship and swam to shore, saving himself.

“Some observers say this is the first instance in African American history where Blacks plainly said that they didn’t have to rely on whites to save themselves,” Hikins said.

While the Titanic may be the quintessential example, every disaster will inspire people to produce speeches, books, movies, memorials, music and poems, according to Hikins. “The rhetoric of disaster reminds us of past calamities, enables us to cope with present disasters and helps us face an uncertain future.”


Contact: James Hikins, (614) 292-4680; Hikins.1@osu.edu Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457; Grabmeier.1@osu.edu