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Of bread and circus

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Equipping ourselves with the basic skills to identify and discern these fallacies is of utmost importance. Photo by Nordwood Themes - Unsplash

By: Assoc. Prof. Ir. Dr. Nahrizul Adib Kadri

In my son’s school’s Fun Run Day recently, the school invited The Great British Circus to make an appearance. I am not much of a fan, but the word ‘circus’ does have a tinge of nostalgia to me. I vividly remember watching them on TV on slow Hari Raya afternoons (besides the staple P. Ramlee movies!).

Assoc. Prof. Ir. Dr. Nahrizul Adib Kadri

As a beginner reader in logical reasoning, I found that the word ‘circus’ was also used in a specific saying: “bread and circus” (from Latin: panem et circenses). It is a phrase that originated in ancient Rome, attributed to the Roman poet Juvenal. It refers to a strategy used by politicians to maintain the favour of the people through superficial or trivial means, rather than addressing real and substantial issues.

The concept of “bread and circuses” is not just a historical artefact, but a living and breathing tactic used to distract the public’s attention from crucial issues or to manipulate their perspectives. This method relies on the provision of superficial pleasures or distractions to the people, in order to mask or divert attention from more serious and impactful matters.

In our modern times, various forms of “bread and circuses” are employed to divert attention from critical issues. For instance, during times of political turmoil or controversy, media sensationalism and celebrity gossip often dominate headlines, drawing focus away from profound political or socioeconomic debates.

Beyond “bread and circuses”, several other fallacies of distraction are routinely employed. The “red herring” is a distracting tactic where someone introduces irrelevant information, or an off-topic point, to divert attention from the main issue. It’s a way of misleading others by making something seem important when, in reality, it doesn’t contribute to the core discussion. This tactic aims to side-track the conversation and can lead people away from addressing the actual matter being debated. An example could be during a debate about climate change, when someone suddenly starts discussing the personal life of a scientist involved, completely ignoring the scientific evidence presented.

“Argumentum ad hominem” is another tactic that attacks the person, instead of addressing their argument. For instance, in a debate about healthcare (or sustainability), instead of discussing policies, someone attacks their opponent’s character, saying, “You can’t trust them; they have a history of personal problems.” This tactic avoids the issue at hand by attacking the individual, not the argument, thus undermining the discussion’s focus on the proposed policies.

Similarly, “argumentum ad populum” appeals to popular beliefs or opinions to validate an argument instead of providing evidence or logic. For instance, stating, “Everyone thinks this, so it must be true,” doesn’t offer solid evidence but relies on the idea that a widespread belief makes something true. In a discussion on a contentious issue like politics, using phrases like “everyone knows” or “the majority believes” without substantial evidence can be an example of this fallacy, as it relies on popular opinion rather than solid reasoning or evidence to support a claim.

These fallacies are not merely abstract concepts, but rather tools used to influence and manipulate public opinion and actions. Adapting a critical mindset is crucial in navigating the deluge of information and rhetoric in today’s complex, sometimes unnecessarily so, sociopolitical landscape.

By recognising these fallacies and their manifestations, individuals can make informed decisions that are not swayed by meaningless distractions or emotionally-charged appeals.

I leave it to you to decide if the recent brouhaha on the ethnicity criteria of the Prime Minister, the BM proficiency levels, or even the Cabinet reshuffling, fell under one of these categories or otherwise. Especially so since we are not totally out of the gloom left behind by the pandemic, both tangibly and intangibly. A lot of us are still reeling from the shocks of the socioeconomic impact that it brought.

Therefore, equipping ourselves with the basic skills to identify and discern these fallacies is of utmost importance. In an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world, the ability to see beyond the veils of distraction is essential for us in making well-informed decisions that can shape a better future for us all.

On a side note, perhaps this skill is a good addition to your New Year’s resolutions list!

……

The author is an Associate Professor at the Department of Biomedical Engineering, Faculty of Engineering, Universiti Malaya, and may be reached at nahrizuladib@um.edu.my

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