Why the Internet Is Obsessed With the Missing Titanic Sub
While the jokes may be insensitive, they’re human.
It could be the safe distance between land and the bottomless depths of the ocean, or it could be irony-poisoning. Irrespective, social media erupted in a mix of horror and memes — a strange cocktail indeed — as people processed the idea of the Titanic tourist submersible stuck in the wreckage of the ship, deep in the sea.
In a sense, the five affluent men stuck aboard the missing sub have inadvertently become contents of Schrödinger’s box — existing in a liminal state between life and death, while international rescue efforts race desperately against time to tip the scales on the side of life. And much like the fictional characters of Rose and Jack — who not only live in our minds rent-free, but also inspire regular debates on whether Jack could’ve survived the crash while letting Rose live, too — the fate of the passengers, too, have now become fodder for predictions, deliberations, and in the typical post-2020 style, memes. #EatTheRich memes — mocking the wealth of the passengers — are, of course, ruling the roost with jokes like “Only rich [people] can figure out a way to die on the Titanic 111 years later” and “Why eat the rich when you can simply make them eat each other?” circulating online.
Many others are, simultaneously, policing the jokes, arguing this is too morbid a subject for humor. Death might indeed not be the best thing to joke about, but the question is: are people merely attempting to process the unfolding horror through jokes? Stress can often be brought on by a sense of helplessness, translating into a perceived lack of control. Enter: jokes, which can help one feel they are not only taking control of the situation, but also exercising control over their own emotional state. Humor can force one to look at the same situation from a different perspective — possibly a funnier one that shifts an individual’s attitude from nervousness to amusement, from overwhelming to minor. As The Swaddle had noted once, “[I]nappropriate laughter may be our brain’s way of breaking anxiety and tension — a built-in coping mechanism to diffuse bad vibes or stress.”
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Besides, the humor surrounding the sub captures the zeitgeist of the post-pandemic era. Living through a deadly global health crisis that claimed millions of lives — including people we knew and loved — has left us scarred, causing more mass trauma than the Second World War. And so, in a world where we regularly receive information about catastrophic tragedies, expressing disdain for foolhardy expeditions seems like a natural consequence. Especially so, when this is hardly the only at-sea crisis part of the ongoing news cycle: earlier this week, 500 migrants from Syria, Egypt and Palestine were presumed to have died after an overcrowded fishing vessel capsized off the coast of Greece.
Yet, the Titanic‘s fate generated more buzz due to the presence of billionaires on board; there are over a dozen news websites with live updates from the site. Meanwhile, hundreds of people aboard the fishing vessel continue to remain “missing.” As Adriana Tidona of Amnesty International notes, “This is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions, all the more so because it was entirely preventable.”
Both scenarios are horrific to contemplate — drowning, or being stuck deep in the ocean without any oxygen to breathe in, is a stomach-churning thought no matter who is involved. But the fact that a vessel with five wealthy individuals has received disproportionate coverage, compared to one with 500 migrants, speaks to the dehumanization of people entrenched in our information systems; making jokes about the lesser of the two tragedies, then, is but a means to cope with the unfairness.
The present situation, then, is a confluence of various emotional prompts: empathy and horror at the crisis, anger at the unequal value placed on human lives, and choosing the seemingly better outlet to release that tension. And so, while the jokes may be insensitive, they’re human.
Devrupa Rakshit is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, a painter by shaukh, and autistic by birth. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.