Death by Water: The OceanGate Billionaires & Fisherman Boat Refugees
By Arroy Jacob, Contributor Writer
Chances are, you’re not a billionaire reading this. And nor are you a refugee fleeing your home.
On Sunday, June 18th, four billionaires and the CEO of OceanGate Expeditions entered a 6.7-meter-long submersible named the “Titan” to explore the Titanic wreckage. On Wednesday, June 28th, human remains, and metal debris from the vessel were found.
The TikTok Creative Center reports that Canadians used #submersible on an influx of 722 related posts in the last month.
On Wednesday, June 14th, more than 500 refugees from Egypt, Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Palestine boarded a broken-down fishing boat traversing the Mediterranean Sea, hoping to flee for a new life in Greece. On the same day, 79 deceased bodies were recovered, and almost 400 still missing, making this incident “the worst ever recorded on the feared central Mediterranean migration route – the world’s deadliest,” as reported by Al Jazeera.
But the TikTok Creative Center reports that Canadians used #refugee on only 71 related posts in the last month.
Compared to the #submersible statistics, it is 10 times less likely for a Canadian to discuss anything remotely related to the refugee crisis in comparison to the OceanGate incident.
Two disturbing cases, both with a similar outcome: death by water. Yet one seems to be doing much better online than the other.
So why do we gravitate to learning more about five men dying rather than 500 refugees? Are we similar to those five men in any way? Are we justified to laugh or ignore both events?
Is it okay to laugh?
“I was laughing,” says Ushi a student at Mount Royal University (MRU), when asked what her initial reaction was to the recent blowup of TikToks with #submersible.
“But I didn’t think they were actually gonna die. But I also didn’t feel any real sympathy for them.”
But then, when asked about the Mediterranean Sea tragedy, she says, “That’s my first time hearing about that. It never came up on my For You page at all.”
Engagement on social media platforms such as TikTok is driven by entertainment value. People found enjoyment in creating and consuming humourous content over the OceanGate case. But no reasonable person would dare try and gain “clout” – popularity – by making the same type of content for the Mediterranean Sea tragedy (unless Family Guy has already started storyboarding a scene which I’m sure the creators have considered). So why do we feel so compelled to jostle about the Titan?
Heather Mallick, a Canadian columnist, covered the OceanGate “jalopy” in the Toronto Star. She says, “There are plenty of destitute migrants dying horribly … corpses come up in fishing nets … but their deaths aren’t ironic like those of Titanic tourists.”
Irony is the heart of all humour. These tourists were men with power, calloused hands wrapped in white gloves; one lift of a finger and the world was theirs.
Until one day, hanging by a thread at the edge of a cliff, their literal lives on the line, they realized their gloves were too greasy, and they slipped, forever plunging earthward. Or seaward. Either way, it’s ironic and silly.
“It’s like TV, you know? It’s just for the entertainment,” says Ushi.
And this reasoning makes sense because we do not feel any guttural satisfaction for lower-class families dying. There is no irony there. “Eating the rich” is a concept we have seen in the media since the dawn of film. It is simple to understand and doesn’t need an in-depth analysis.
But then, on a separate note, sometimes, you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. If we see bits of ourselves in the billionaires who have passed, should we still be laughing?
Are we just like those billionaires in some ways?
Yes and no. Firstly, we know that because the rich keep getting rich— billionaires have more of a responsibility to to something useful with their cash.
Mallick further comments in her column, “Childish men do childish things with big money. But money is not a toy; it’s a responsibility. Tell that to the boys of Silicon Valley.”
Compared to the middle class, the rich have higher obligations to use the money for good.
“But that does not mean we have no obligation to at all,” continues Ushi.
“People are hypocrites. And this debacle finally brings that back into the light. How can people like us talk down about rich families and how they’re not using that money for the poor, when we don’t give our own money to the poor?”
Whether we like it or not, we were all born into a social hierarchy. Imagining an arbitrary scale, if we generally assume that most TikTok users are middle-class, then there is a higher class above us and a lower class below. To the lower class, us in the middle-class are their higher class – we are their billionaires. And we don’t always do what we tell the childish men we mock – we don’t always set a good example. In simpler terms, how can we tell people to donate when we don’t even consider donating ourselves, especially if we have the means to.
This is not to say that the current TikTok generation acts this way. In fact, Barclay’s recent report on consumerism and charity claims that “18-34 year-olds remain the most frequent donors to charitable organizations.” Undoubtedly, social media platforms have created a strong awareness of the need to fight and give to the underprivileged.
But there are too many others who belong in this majority that do not donate or spread positive awareness. Rather, they complain about who is benefitting from what and who they think should actually be dead. We don’t put in any of the work themselves. Our hands aren’t getting dirty. Almost like we’re wearing gloves.
It’s an issue that we can only ask ourselves. How guilty do we need to feel to donate or spread positive awareness about those struggling to survive?
Are we justified in ignoring the real issues?
“Desperate migrants climb onto flabby dinghies because they have no choice. The OceanGaters had every choice that the world could offer,” says Mallick.
We, as the middle class, with the platforms and voices we own, as the general majority, can call out unacceptable billionaire behaviours (continuously) and bring light to how the rich love staying rich.
But why are we 10 times less likely to talk about the poor staying poor?
Ushi says, “since [migrants] are lower on the social hierarchy, [people] are less likely to care.”
This simple answer explains why some argue that passively scrolling past disaster awareness is “understandable.” I then asked her why she thought this.
“On TikTok, especially, if you see a traumatic issue like this, since they’re seeing it on a screen, they don’t think it affects them. It’s kind of like the bystander effect, right? They’ll think oh someone else will deal with this, someone else will fix the problem. What can I do from across the screen?”
She continues, “TikTok has actually made this even worse. We have desensitized ourselves to people’s problems. And you just quickly swipe away. I’m guilty of that. I’ve done that.”
As have I. Out of sight, out of mind.
“We just keep seeing so much pain.”
Then I remembered that people don’t usually turn on the TV to remind themselves of how twisted the world is. We seek escapism, not discover the next big atrocity. And that’s how social media platforms steal you into doom-scrolling through mountains of humourous content, like signing away hours of your day to the devil. We also sometimes want to watch Family Guy.
But then Ushi continues— “Finding escapism and peace is not an excuse, though. We should do more. As the younger generation becomes more and more desensitized to the world, there is more of an obligation for them to do something about it. Just as the rich has an obligation with all their money.”
Although we all deserve a break from our world occasionally, we, as the upcoming generation, have the power and capacity to lead a progressive future for those below us in the social hierarchy, whether we want it to exist or not (and whether we think we have the power or not).
The middle and upper classes should always have an ingrained expectation to aid those in need. The differences come from the extent of giving and the frequency of awareness spreading: the more power or money one has, the more standards and obligations one should be accountable for.
It is in human nature to try and save those who ask for saving. And if we still question whether or not the upper class is still human, maybe we should spread awareness on that too.
However, the bravery those 500 refugees had when boarding the fisherman’s boat, knowing that the waters below may be the last thing they see, is unparalleled. The courage most #submersible TikTokers have will never match up to the many families that was lost that day. But if we skew our focus (just a bit!) from ironic and entertaining “jalopies” to the needs of people around us, perhaps we can start undoing the world we became desensitized to.
Mallick—“There are plenty of destitute migrants dying horribly … off shores right now.”
Ushi— “And that is why we need more young people making legislature.”
And for me— less Family Guy. Only after the billionaire episode comes out, though. I’d like to see that first.