The image above is known as Pollice Verso. Painted by French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme, you may have seen it before, or perhaps some version of it. It depicts a Murmillo, a type of gladiator favored during the Roman Imperial age, waiting to deliver a fatal blow. Above him, the crowd roils in a frenzy. The raw energy is palpable even through the canvas, or more accurately, our monitors.
One quirk that’s easy to see is that the onlookers have their hands balled into fists with their thumbs turned down; the eponymous gesture for which this artwork gets it name. Pollice Verso is a Latin phrase which roughly translates as, ‘with a turned thumb’. You might recall the rules of this arcane tradition from your grade school history class; the direction of the thumbs would decide a man’s fate in the arena. Thumbs up and you might live to fight another day. Thumbs down…well they didn’t call it a blood sport for nothing.
With the benefit of time and societal progress, it seems barbaric to peg someone’s fate to the wills and whims of a mob filled with bloodlust and wine. And yet, it’s not such a stretch to draw a link between that crude jury and our contemporary culture. Especially on social media. Don’t we weigh in on the fate of our fellow citizens by soliciting digital thumbs up or down? Don’t we drag people through the mud? Like the Romans of yore, aren’t we just as guilty of desiring blood spilt for our entertainment?
Let me pause right there to make some things clear. Firstly, I’m not convinced that Rome is a good analogue for the US. However, a surprising number of people seem to believe it is, so I’m leveraging that line of thought to make my point. Secondly, the irony of commenting about our current cultural climate on a set of social media platforms is not lost on me. But when the pulpit is there, you use it. And third, this is a commentary on our culture- not on our politics. It’s important to remember that the former informs the latter and it shouldn’t be the other way around. Sound reasonable? Okay, un-pause.
Gérôme’s painting depicts an empire at it’s zenith. Resplendent, in all the trappings and finery that come from hundreds of years of growth and prosperity. The Caesar sits beneath a gilded parasol adorned with imposing articles of his office. By his side, an attendant displays a fasces, a metaphor for the rule of law and strength of government institutions. And for all that beauty and progress, there’s the ugliness of the crowds. Faces twisted in anger, bodies contorted in anticipation; hungry for the kill. You can all but hear their shouts, a rising crescendo just begging for murder. Not to mention the actual death and destruction, the trail of bodies scattered in the sand.
America today, in this moment, seems a lot like this picture. That odd duality of being great, but also less so. On the one hand, there are a number of indicators that confirm life is better now than it’s been in the past. On the other, many seem convinced that we’re in a full-blown crisis. There’s no shortage of anger, hostility, and general divisiveness. Subjectivity seems to trump facts, and we are readier than ever to see someone fall to the sword than offer mercy. It’s an odd time in America, and our culture is suffering as a result.
“…to-day they hold shows of their own, and win applause by slaying whomsoever the mob with a turn of the thumb bids them slay…” Juvenal, Satires (III.36)
Which brings us back to the main point of this essay. Our culture seems to be getting more and more toxic. Good or bad, social media is now the default arena for public opinion. Ideas are sourced there and the public, writ large, can adjudicate via Pollice Verso, or in more modern parlance- “smashing that like button”. There’s a lot of literature detailing how small fringe-groups with differing agendas have dominated the narratives out there. Something akin to that adage about squeaky wheels and grease. I won’t dive into that topic, but it’s worth considering that maybe the rest of us just need to start talking. I think we (that is to say, subjectively level-headed and ‘regular’ people) can all agree the tone and tenor of American discourse needs to be elevated again. It’s not just a matter of our capacity to do better, it’s a necessity. We have to do better for our Republic to continue thriving. A simple concept in theory, but difficult in practice. Just being better.
I’m firmly convinced we’re still the best damn ticket in town. We’ve got 328 million amazing citizens and it seems we are only hearing from a small, increasingly polarizing, segment of the population. We must do better. We need to hear from and listen to the voices who know what they’re talking about, not the throngs of spectators clamoring for carnage. Because if we don’t, and continue along our current course, we may just find ourselves in a coliseum begging mercy from an unfeeling crowd. And I suspect by then- we won’t find any.