(NEXSTAR) — Since news of the ill-fated Titan submersible voyage broke, the incident — which ultimately killed all five people aboard — has seemingly united many who found humor in the situation, or else, unity among those who expressed disgust at jokes about such a gruesome death for those aboard, including a 19-year-old.
Through Wednesday and into Thursday, the OceanGate incident dominated social media site trends. Among many of these posts were memes about the perceived ignorance of boarding such a voyage to begin with.
A Reddit thread in /NoStupidQuestions posed the question many on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook may have been wondering: How are so many people comfortable making jokes about the Titanic submarine?
One main reason given for the perceived glee or dismissiveness with which the incident has been met with is summed up in a German word: “schadenfreude.” As defined by Merriam-Webster, “schadenfreude” means enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others — generally this enjoyment is reserved for those considered by individuals to be “above” themselves.
In this case, the fact that the people aboard were wealthy (or at least wealthy enough to afford the $250,000 per passenger ticket cost), appears to have made it easier to joke about for some. In recent years, Americans’ views about billionaires have changed significantly.
While 2021 Pew Research showed a narrow majority of Americans saying billionaires were neither “good” or “bad,” the share of people who said billionaires existing is “bad” rose 8 points (to 42%) in just one year.
Other research points to increasingly negative attitudes toward the uber-wealthy as sparked by both the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial justice movement. As reported by Vox and Data for Progress, 52% of Americans polled said it’s “unfair” the richest Americans got richer during the pandemic. Additionally, about 49% of Americans (of all three majority political affiliations) said they had negative feelings about billionaires.
In reference to the Titan incident, many online felt making light of a billionaire’s death was taking the ‘Billionaires Should Not Exist’ social movement too far.
“It’s weird to me that [people are] so quick to be like ‘lmao billionaires stuck in the ocean hope they [don’t] make it’ [without] even thinking that these people have families who will miss them. You don’t need to humanize a billionaire but some of [you] have zero sympathy,” tweeted one user Wednesday.
As of Thursday afternoon, the U.S. Coast Guard confirmed the Titan submersible had imploded near the wreckage of the Titanic, with OceanGate Expeditions releasing a statement acknowledging the deaths of the five killed.
Though “gallows humor” (also known as black humor) is a long-storied form of entertainment making light of tragedies or misfortunes, there are scientific reasons why people engage in it.
“One of the reasons we laugh at tragedy is that it makes the enormity of the issue easier to deal with,” psychologist Dr. Linda Papadopoulos told BBC, though she added a follow-up. “But we do live in a society where tragedy has become something that we’ve become conditioned to laugh at.”
Los Angeles Times writer Jessica Gelt also opined Thursday that the remoteness and anonymity of social media makes it easier to joke about things you wouldn’t normally say out loud.
“Imagine for a moment that there was a camera inside of the Titan and we could watch the mounting desperation in its hull. If we had to actually look at the pain in the dying men’s eyes, would we still joke about it?”
Many online also pointed to a recent tragedy in Greece, where an estimated 209 Pakistani migrants were aboard a boat that capsized. Even though an estimated 82 people have officially been declared dead, many say lack of media coverage is a clear indicator of the types of people who get media coverage and pleas for sympathy (wealthy, white) and those who don’t (poor, migrants).
“The Titanic submarine is a modern morality tale of what happens when you have too much money, and the grotesque inequality of sympathy, attention and aid for those without it,” editor Ash Sakar tweeted Thursday.
Proximity to the Titanic wreckage may additionally be a factor in reaction to the event. Even 111 years after the Titanic sank, people whose grandparents weren’t even alive at that time are obsessed with the tragedy.
“The disaster has become so invested with mythical status,” writes literary biographer Andrew Wilson in his 2012 book, “Shadow of the Titanic,” portions of which appeared in Smithsonian Magazine. “It’s been said that the name Titanic is the third most widely recognized word in the world, after ‘God’ and ‘Coca-Cola.’”
There have been at least 15 films involving the ship, in addition to countless documentaries. Most notable among the cinematic depictions is 1997’s “Titanic,” directed by James Cameron. The mega-blockbuster has grossed over $1.8 billion since its release, helped catapult the careers of stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, and snagged the Academy Award for Best Picture. Céline Dion’s smash hit “My Heart Will Go On” — featured both in the film and on its soundtrack — also remains one of music’s best-selling singles, serving as a musical reminder of the movie and the ship.
Wealth also factored into the equation at that time. Some of the U.S. and Europe’s most notable society members were aboard the Titanic, including American socialite Molly Brown, and multi-millionaire tycoons John Jacob Astor IV and Benjamin Guggenheim. Both Astor and Guggenheim died in the disaster.
Victims aboard the Titan were businessman Hamish Harding; explorer Paul-Henri Nargeolet; OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush; and businessman Shahzada Dawood and his teen son, Suleman.