Most of what I know about the Coliseum comes from entertainment – yes Gladiator, I’m talking about you. I haven’t seen it in person yet. I did read about ancient Rome recently. My takeaway after my admittedly cursory review of articles I followed down the Google rabbit hole is this: the games were a clever idea. They gave the government a place to torture slaves and criminals, they helped promote Rome’s leaders, and they distracted the population from the problems of daily life. Knowing that those were the goals, can we really say that reality shows and social media platforms (a different kind of reality show) are that much different?
You might want to argue that reality shows don’t involve torture, but I’d disagree. It’s not to the death but it can get pretty bad. The bullying, abuse, and lack of civility on social media can be pretty tortuous too.
Reality shows and social media may not glorify our leaders directly – unless you’re on Twitter – but they do help fuel the cult of celebrity. And in the world today, celebrities are definitely leaders of a kind. And leaders are starting to act like celebrities. It’s a weird world in many ways.
Like the games of old, reality shows and social media platforms are distractors. They designed, at least partly, to keep you from paying attention. They take up time you might otherwise spend elsewhere. Yes, a living wage is important and we should probably get the politicians to talk about that but did you see The Real Housewives last night? Entertainment ensures people remain distracted; ensures they don’t pay attention to harmful things being done by those in charge. Yes, corporate democracy is a problem. Yes, climate change is a concern. But, did you see what happened on The Bachelor last week? Are we not entertained?
As history shows us, entertainment has long been used to keep the masses occupied while important and impactful things happen in the background, unobserved and unchallenged.
Before there were reality shows and social media networks, there was the Coliseum. It was big. When you’re distracting and intimidating the masses, it’s important to makes sure said masses can be accommodated. Luckily, we no longer have to worry about finding an acceptable venue. Televisions, computers, tablets, and smart phones means we can be distracted twenty-four-seven wherever we are; nobody has to pony-up a pile of money to acquire the necessary real estate.
In ancient Rome, construction of the Coliseum began about 70 C.E., under the direction of Vespasian, following a period of civil war. It opened ten years later in 80 C.E. under Vespasian’s son, Titus. Initially three stories tall, at the height of its popularity it was as tall as a twelve-story building and could hold upwards of 50,000 spectators. It was a marvel, a thing of beauty and an example of engineering and architectural greatness.
Events at the Coliseum were free and available to all. Drinks and snacks were often free as well. It’s important not to cheap out on the little things when you’re keeping a population complacent and distracted. You may notice that we pay very little for reality shows. Social media platforms are free and there are cool free add-ons in the form of apps. You have to want the population to want to be distracted and the more it costs, the less likely they’ll be to embrace the offered oblivion.
If there had been an appropriate slogan at the Coliseum, it might have read something like this: Step up! Watch the spectacle of ritual murder and be transported. Forget about the problems you’re facing. Be entertained.
We don’t watch ritual murders like they did in the stadium but is the spectacle of reality television really so far removed, at least in principle? Instead of emperors we have often-vicious judges. Instead of standing en masse with thumbs down to express our disdain we text our preferred outcome for only ninety-five cents a shot. What if we invested the time spent on The Bachelor, Big Brother, or American Idol on something important? What if we paid attention to what governments and businesses get up to while we sleep?
What if we started to challenge the impossible premise of endless growth in a world of limited resources? Plastics and pollution threaten to overwhelm us; regulations designed to protect us in various aspects of our lives are being discarded as inconvenient to business; fossil fuel emissions pollute our atmosphere and GHG are a significant problem.
Then there’s the other problem. Who are these shows and platforms turning us into? Who do we become when we partake? When did it become so acceptable to mock and scorn, berate and belittle? When did racism and bigotry become staples in mainstream entertainment? We criticize it of course – how awful – but we keep watching. Keep observing. Joining in.
And, our version of the Coliseum is getting worse. Heaven help us if we are judged as a species by the content and interactions found there. People are irate, they mock and insult, they’re snide and aggressive, they’re bullying and violent. There’s good in social media and television too, of course, but the bad is starting to outweigh it and I’m not entirely sure it isn’t designed that way. Because you have to keep the people in their seats. Keep them entertained. Keep them satiated and diverted. And going low seems to achieve that better than going high.
And while we’re watching, life goes on. Decisions are made. Directions by governments and corporations are set. Life goes on even if we are seduced into, if not abandoning then temporarily ignoring the field. Those who are not seduced by the system of distraction and attempt to speak out are ridiculed and vilified. Pay no attention to the madmen in the corner.
What will the world look like, I wonder, when we finally stop partaking, poke our heads up and look around?