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Where's the empathy? Experts explain why sub disaster led to jokes

Many mocked the crushed Titan submersible after learning the passengers paid an exorbitant amount of money to get on board.
Where's the empathy? Experts explain why sub disaster led to jokes
Posted at 3:36 PM, Jun 28, 2023

For days the world held out hope that the passengers on board the Titan submersible were still alive. 

But for some, that hope turned into relentless mockery after learning that several wealthy people, including at least one billionaire, were on board the vessel. 

Experts tell Scripps News it's their collective wealth that turned their deaths into the butt of jokes across social media, including French deep-sea explorer Paul-Henri Nargeolet, who was known to many as "Mr. Titanic." 

The renowned Titanic expert toured the ship's wreckage more than 35 times and supervised the recovery of 5,000 artifacts. 

Despite Nargeolet's  astounding career, his stepson John Paschall says his legacy lies in the love he had for Paschall and his mother, Emmy-award winning reporter and anchor Michele Marsh. 

Marsh died from cancer in 2017, and when Paschall's own father passed away three months later, Nargeolet was one of the first people he turned to. 

"We always talk, you know, about action, speaking louder than words," Paschall told Scripps News. "And that that was a perfect instance of how he truly felt about me — you wouldn't expect that from a stepdad." 

He's now left coping with an unimaginable loss as jokes about his stepfather and the other wealthy passengers trend across social media. 

"I saw one that showed a lady who was completely submerged underwater on what looked like a little motorcycle," said Joshua Doss, political research and communications consultant. "She's like, this would be me if my man was down here." 

It was just one of thousands of memes, tweets and TikToks mocking not only Nargeolet, but the four others who died aboard the submersible: OceanGate CEO Stockton Rush, billionaire businessmen Hamish Harding, businessman Shahzada Dawood and his teenage son, Suleman. Each passenger reportedly paid up to a quarter million dollars for their doomed dive to the Titanic. 

Doss went viral on TikTok after many listened to his take on why the Titan victims' wealth made it hard for many to empathize. 

"People are dying every single day as a result of policy failures that billionaires are actively lobbying for," said Doss. "Like, suppressing wages for record profits during a global pandemic and hoarding wealth." 

One study suggests just how much wealth Doss is talking about. 

British non-profit OXFAM found the richest 1% of the world's population raked in nearly two-thirds of all the wealth created during the pandemic; almost twice as much money as the bottom 99%. 

The satirical newspaper "The Onion" also made waves during the submersible search by pointing out the incredible wealth of the passengers with headlines like "Critics Say Submersible Should've Been Tested With Poorer Passengers First," and "Coast Guard Sends Another Submersible Full Of Billionaires After The First One." 

While some people derided the timing of the jokes, Doss argues the satirical responses should make people uncomfortable because they exemplify just how fed-up people are with America's growing wealth gap. 

"Millions of working-class people react really uncompassionately to the death of another human being, right? Matter of fact ... it should be scary. The actions that billionaires and large corporations are making are really, really having a deep emotional effect on middle- and working-class people." 

The emotional effect is evident in recent research. 

In 2021, Pew Research found a growing share of Americans think billionaires are bad for the U.S. 

Another study from Vox and the Center for Progress found most Americans view billionaires negatively. 

Jesse Walker, an associate professor of marketing at Ohio State University who researches shifting attitudes about millionaires and billionaires, says people tend to have less empathy for the wealthy when they think about them as a group as opposed to individuals. 

"People see Robert Downey Jr. get paid $50 million for the Avengers and they're like, 'Oh, well, he deserves that, right? I mean, Robert Downey Jr., he deserves that, right?' And people complain at the same time, like, 'Oh, actors get paid too much money.'" 

And Steve Gimbel, a professor of philosophy at Gettysburg College who studies the ethics of humor, says those making jokes may feel like the victims got their "just desserts," while adding that feeling is short lived. 

"It goes back to this phrase, a temporary anesthesia of the heart. And there is nothing wrong with a temporary anesthesia, especially for a heart that is breaking," Gimbel said. "What did the joke do? It gave you temporary relief, temporary solace, from hurting for people who are suffering in a way you can't help." 

Gimbel also warns that humor can cross a line when it strays from exposing uncomfortable truths into causing intentional harm. 

"If we make jokes of the suffering of others, are we creating a culture that is less empathic and thereby less moral?" 

Right now, Paschall says he's staying away from the online fodder, focusing instead on letting the world know who his stepfather really was. 

"It's just been such a tremendous experience to be his stepson and to have him in my life."

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