Why I Found 'Squid Game' So Disturbing

Dr. Hesham A. Hassaballa

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Spoiler alert: There is no way I can’t spoil the outcome with this piece. Read at your own risk.

It is the #1 show in the U.S. on Netflix: “Squid Game.” It is the story of a series of children’s games that a whole host of people play in the hopes of getting a huge cash reward. The key is: each of these players is in terrible debt, and so their motivation to win is very strong. The show is intriguing, captivating, and frankly, very, very disturbing.

Yet why? Why is the show so disturbing? I mean, it is really a Darwinian game par excellence, it is truly survival of the fittest. And so, if we are all just Darwinian animals — as some are wont to call us humans — then there should be nothing disturbing at all about the games that these people play.

Yet, it is very disturbing. If you don’t pass the game, you don’t just “lose” and go home. You are killed. And with each player that gets killed, the cash prize increases. Further, the game masters have no compunction against the players killing each other so as to further increase the cash prize.

In fact, when there are only three players left, they were each treated to an opulent steak dinner. And after the food was taken off the table, they left each of them with the steak knife. Hmm…I wonder why?

And while I was avidly watching every episode, I still could not help feel a deep-seated disgust at how the game was being conducted, at what was being done to these poor people. And when the ultimate winner of the games — who came away with over $30,000,000 in prize money — asked why they did this, the response of the “Front Man,” the main game master, was this:

You bet on horses. It’s the same here, but we bet on humans. You are our horses.

Apparently, there are uber wealthy individuals who bet on individual players just like a horse race. They are truly, as the Front Man said, the horses of these wealthy bettors. Again, very, very disturbing.

But, yet, I ask the question again: why is it disturbing?

It is disturbing because human life has value. There is a dignity to human life, and they way the game masters — and their ultra wealthy bettor benefactors — treated the players is beneath the dignity of human life. It treated human life the same as the life of race horses or other animals. And this is wrong.

In fact, the winner of the games told the Front Man — in the very last scene — “I am not a horse. I am a person,” echoing the truth that human beings have dignity, and human life is precious and unlike the life of other beings in this world. And where does this notion of the dignity of human life come from? It comes from religion.

I remember listening to a prominent atheist talk on television about how some honeybees “cook” intruder murder hornets and burn them alive when their hive is attacked. In his diatribe against religion, he said, “So are these bees going to hell?”

I just shook my head in sheer incredulity. Is the life of a bee the same as the life of a human being? If one were to randomly kill a bee — which is wrong, no doubt — is it the same as randomly killing another human being? Of course not.

Yet, if humans are just “another animal” like all other animals, then randomly killing a human being should be the exact same as randomly killing a bee. But, clearly, it is not, and this is because there is an inherent notion of the dignity and sanctity of human life. And that inherent notion comes from religion, not Darwinian biology.

Now, of course, there are myriad religious people who give religion a bad name: the savage terrorist who bombs a house of worship or the clergy who abuse hundreds of thousands of children. In fact, one of the players Squid Game was a victim of a pastor’s abuse, who was her own father.

But the crimes of the religious — and their crimes are many — are committed in defiance, and not because, of religion. Too many people conflate the sins of the religious with the tenets of religion itself, and this is not right. For many people, religion brings comfort, relief, and a sense of purpose in life. It definitely does so for me.

And what religion has also done is ingrain the notion that there is an absolute sanctity and dignity to human life. Which is why “Squid Game,” and other shows and films like it, are so disturbing.

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Dr. Hesham A. Hassaballa is a NY Times featured Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine specialist in clinical practice for over 20 years. He is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Pulmonary Medicine, Critical Care Medicine, and Sleep Medicine. He is a prolific writer, with dozens of peer-reviewed scientific articles and medical blog posts. He is a Physician Leader and published author. His latest book is "Code Blue," a medical thriller.

Chicago, IL
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