Journalist Hasnet Lais explains how the entertainment industry has become the new opiate for the masses.
In a chapter of the Qur’an entitled ‘Al-Mu’minun’ (The Believers), Allah reminds us of important traits of piety. One of these is to refrain from ‘Al-Laghw’ which the classical scholars of Islam interpreted as useless pastimes and idle speech which serves no purpose except to distract us from worshipping the Almighty. Muslim jurists throughout history opined on the dangers which trivial conversations could pose to our God-consciousness and fulfilment of social and moral responsibilities towards others.
This tendency for distraction was also the subject of an unsparing indictment by American social critic Neil Postman. In his groundbreaking polemic Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman railed against our addiction to infotainment and vast descent into triviality by comparing the different dystopian worlds envisaged by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley:
“What George Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Aldous Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture…”
Recently, I was reminded of both the Quran’s admonition against heedlessness and Postman’s prescient commentary on the corrosive effects of entertainment on our public discourse when reflecting on two very contrasting realities: The slaughter of 17 unarmed Palestinian civilians by Israeli snipers and Cristiano Ronaldo’s bicycle kick goal against Juventus earlier this month.
Compared to the massacre of those unarmed protesters, Ronaldo’s shearing movement to strike an airborne ball rearward sent the Twitterati into a tizzy. The social media metrics generated in the wake of both highlighted the tragedy of the current human condition: our appetite for junk and indifference to human suffering.
I was outraged by the deafening silence of liberal interventionists who could not muster the courage to take Israel to the guillotine. My immediate reaction was to supplicate for the besieged Gazans and invoke Allah for a swift reckoning against the occupying Zionist forces whose track record for human rights violations is well-known. The plight of those undergoing hardship in conflict zones weighed heavily on my conscience for a couple of days before that regrettable habit of the human condition kicked in. I became distracted.
As much as the despair of Palestinians pulled at my heartstrings, I easily stepped back into the comfort of my own world. The volume of tweets and hashtags glorifying Ronaldo’s feat of athleticism was now competing for my attention.
For a moment, I was caught up in the very frenzy which I find myself condemning. The ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and my indignation which followed the Afghan children decimated by an airstrike in the northern province of Kunduz had quickly faded into obscurity. In its place, a moment of sporting brilliance began to resonate more profoundly than a people’s fight for survival. The consensus quickly emerging on social media highlighted our skewed priorities. Ronaldo was capable of arousing our collective solidarity. The death and destruction of innocent civilians could not.
The quickness in which a bicycle kick can trade places with genocide as a trending topic on the blogosphere is testament to our degeneracy as a civilisation. How did we become so decadent? Why are we conflicted between empathy and a desire to retreat into blissful ignorance? Why, in our shallow understanding of the human predicament, do we resemble the citizens of the Capitol in Hunger Games?
It brings to mind the phrase “panem et circensis” (bread and circuses), an expression coined by Juvenal, a Roman poet and satirist who decried the Roman practice of appeasing the populace with food and entertainment to distract them from more pressing humanitarian concerns.
The bread referred to a basic level of sustenance granted to the masses. The rationale was to keep the populace in a state of economic purgatory, ensuring that government subsidies would help the common man scrape the barrel and nothing more. After all, if survival was a full-time occupation of the working classes, the Romans figured they would face minimum resistance to their excesses and enrich themselves at the expense of the masses.
Entertainment would also have an enslaving potential, pacifying the public’s discontent. Juvenal’s contempt for the circus maximus eerily echoes our relationship with entertainment in the contemporary age.
Our indulgence in fun and games is deserving of the same critique which his social commentary elucidated two millennia ago, as the enthralling spectacles offered to us explains our proclivity for diversion and abdication of responsibility. This is an age where entertainment trumps all, detaching us from our humanity, so much so that the mass murder of innocents is incapable of galvanising us into action. After the initial outpouring of grief, their individuality is lost because there’s too much emotional distance for our empathy to bridge.
It’s time we realise there’s nothing uniquely Roman about bread and circuses as we are reliving that part of Roman history which led to its downfall. A simple interrogation of our lifestyles will reveal the striking parallels. Like the gladiatorial duels and chariot races which were marquee attractions at the Coliseum and essential for placating the population, today’s trillion dollar entertainment industry has a similar narcotising effect which lulled working class Romans into inaction. From sporting extravaganzas and blockbuster movies to the next television series we’re intent on binge-watching, we are passive spectators wanting immediate gratification in this technology-driven world, who can hardly pass a moment without blurring the lines between reality and fantasy.
There is no denying that entertainment is the new opiate of the masses. As we are so wired for distraction, a coherent and meaningful engagement with the real and present dangers confronting mankind seldom takes place, be it nuclear war, poverty or other humanitarian crises. The bread and circus is killing our compassion, leaving us atomised, fragmented, desensitised to human suffering and in the clutches of an oppressive bureaucracy to whom we have granted absolute powers and a carte blanche for imperial expansion, ala citizens of ancient Rome.
Unlike Orwell’s prophecy of doom, Huxley’s premonition, it would seem, stands vindicated. Most of us are controlled by inflicting pleasure. Look around you. Palestinians are dehumanised. Afghan children are consigned to their graves. Syrian families are left foaming at the mouth. And here we are like Skinnerian rats, desperately seeking our next dopamine shot.
May Allah help us to shake off the complacency.
You can follow Hasnet Lais on Twitter @haznet1