As a fun thought experiment, let's compare how violence might be justified as guilt-free entertainment by today's Netflix viewers of the popular violent show 'Squid Game' and past spectators of the deadly Colosseum games. First, let's look at a few things to consider as background.
How many people watched?
Although it's difficult to determine how many people in total watched the deadly shows in the Colosseum, we do know that between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators could be seated (1). By contrast, the unique convenience and comfort of watching anywhere Netflix offers it's viewers has made it possible for about 142 million households to watch 'Squid Game' (2) and Netflix approximates that 89% of people who started watching the show saw at least 75 minutes and 87 million people finished watching the series in just the first 23 days (3).
What was the purpose?
The emperor Vespasian wanted the Colosseum to serve as an entertainment venue for all Roman citizens to see gladiator fights, animal hunts, and naval battles reenacted (4)(1). By contrast, Netflix has a larger audience in mind. Here is Netflix's statement:
"At Netflix, we want to entertain the world. Whatever your taste, and no matter where you live, we give you access to best-in-class TV shows, movies and documentaries. Our members control what they want to watch, when they want it, with no ads, in one simple subscription. We’re streaming in more than 30 languages and 190 countries, because great stories can come from anywhere and be loved everywhere. We are the world’s biggest fans of entertainment, and we’re always looking to help you find your next favorite story." (5)
So why do so many people choose to watch 'Squid Game' out of so many options available to them on Netflix? What is so appealing about this show in particular? If you aren't familiar with the show, here is the description you can find of it on Netflix:
Hundreds of cash-strapped players accept a strange invitation to compete in children's games. Inside, a tempting prize awaits — with deadly high stakes.
There are several details I'm leaving out for the sake of brevity, but suffice to say, the episodes are full of violence as the description suggests, the game involves death. A good suspense story line always has a way of keeping us wanting for more, however the question we might want to consider is: where do we draw the line when creating and consuming entertainment? Where did entertained spectators at the Colosseum draw the line?
Some may argue, "Well, that's simple to answer. The Colosseum were real events whereas in Squid Game no one is really being harmed." This answer I believe is what makes us feel a sense of being free from guilt for watching violent entertainment. Others may argue it is a necessary evil in order to learn a more important message embedded within Squid Game, such as how capitalism makes life hard for some people rather than others. However, if we could create a Netflix show with real footage of Jews being killed during the Nazi regime, would it really be necessary for us to understand the cruelty of those events that occurred in history? Would we really want to turn something real and cruel into entertainment, where we long to see what's the next evil thing that we'll see happening to the Jews?
Behind the enjoyment of the 'Squid Game' and the deadly entertainment offered in the Colosseum there lies a justification for why it's okay to be entertained by violence. The thrill of the unknown and the enticement of seeing something violent can make entertainment like these a success. It is estimated that as many as 400,000 people died (gladiators, slaves, convicts, prisoners, and other entertainers) in the Colosseum over about the 350 years it was used for human bloodsports and spectacles, as well as millions of animals (1).
Are we any better as a society around the world today when we can also be so easily entertained by violent images so long as we know it's not real? Might they not have justified their own entertainment as: "I deserve this", "Everyone else is doing it", "Those entertainers want to be there", "I'm not responsible for the events that happen", "They're only animals", and "Those people deserve to be executed"?
If we saw the same events in real life happening as the Squid Game, would they be immoral? Is what is happening in the hearts of people watching this show relevant to morality? Is there an enjoyment involved while choosing to be a spectator of the Squid Game violent scenes? The real danger is for people to develop a lust for violence in their heart. It can begin with a simple Netflix show and escalate to sad times in history repeating themselves or worsening. Let us not be a society that becomes hardened and desensitized to violence. Let us instead use entertainment to communicate a story or a message leaving out the purpose of enjoying violent tragedies within those stories.