Many years were measurably worse, but problems are now unprecedentedly amplified.
Worst Year Ever:
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So was 2016 really the worst year ever? It has been a popular sentiment on social media for the past few weeks – enough to prompt articles and op-eds countering the notion.
But such arguments are ultimately pedantic. Of course 2016 wasn’t the worst year ever. The Black Death years of the mid-14th century or pretty much any year during the Second World War could easily make a case for that title. Even 2001, when the World Trade Center fell in New York, was demonstrably worse.
Quantitative measurements are besides the point. To a lot of people, the past year certainly felt like the worst. It was terrible in many ways, to the point where exaggerating its terrible-ness can be excused somewhat.
There were the seemingly innumerable celebrity deaths to start with. David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, Muhammed Ali, Carrie Fisher – it was almost like a week couldn’t go by without some iconic, influential artist or personality passing away.
These individuals weren’t just millionaire celebrities. Many paved new roads, kicked down doors and inspired, comforted or encouraged millions. The sheer breadth of the roll call of the departed means it was difficult for many of us little people to get through 2016 without feeling the loss of someone who touched us at some point in our lives on a personal level.
It was also a difficult year for anyone involved in media, especially here in Canada.
Jobs evaporated by the hundreds. Cuts and layoffs came with almost the same frequency as celebrity deaths. If you managed to make it through the year while still employed, you still have a bleak and uncertain future to look forward to.
The calendar has turned over, but the journalism industry’s implosion is by no means over.
All of this pales in comparison to how the world turned geopolitically. To anyone who has studied history, 2016 looked very much like one of those dire precursor years – the scary harbinger that sets the table for something terrible to follow.
For many – myself included – the year bottomed out on Nov. 9, the night Donald Trump was elected U.S. president. It wasn’t so much that Hillary Clinton lost, it’s that everything Trump represented won. Hatred, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism and misogyny all triumphed by proxy.
Clinton was a flawed candidate, compromised and even potentially corrupt, but she was at the very least none of those backwards things. Americans, who are supposed to be enlightened and educated, voluntarily chose to go with the candidate who represents the very worst of humanity anyway.
You don’t have to be a bleeding-heart liberal to find that depressing. It was profoundly disappointing to those of us who thought better of the country.
Brexit, in the summer, was rooted in the same phenomena – a rejection of togetherness and globalization, coupled with an embrace of xenophobia and tribalism. Both political events, reactionary to the developments of the past few decades, are clear steps backward in the ongoing quest for unity among all the peoples of the world.
Heading into 2017, we’re faced with the very real prospects of increased division that could ultimately lead to war. Trump’s ominous support for nuclear weapons has renewed apocalyptic fears we haven’t really experienced for decades and his ignorance on climate change is enough to stoke worries about the planet’s long-term future.
On a personal level, this year’s events made me doubt the very premise of my latest book, Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species. Published in 2015, it was the product of two years of research into whether the world – and humanity by extension – was in fact improving. My conclusion was that it was, and that we were.
A set of charts that backs up my findings has been circulating online over the past week. It’s well worth checking out, as it’s a welcome reminder that the world is indeed getting better.
Big-picture problems such as poverty, child mortality, war, crime and hunger are on the decline while literacy, health and even democracy are on the rise. Viewed from a high-enough vantage point, it’s scientifically correct to say the world has never been in better shape than it is now, with the possible exception being the state of the environment.
I’ve given talks on why it’s important to remember these things, and how easy it is to have our perspective warped by the firehose of media, both traditional and social, which gives us a non-stop feed of everything that’s wrong with the world.
Communications professor George Gerbner coined a phrase for this phenomenon back in the 1970s, when television news was beginning to permeate the popular consciousness. “Mean World Syndrome” is when you believe the world is worse than it really is thanks to overstimulation by media.
It’s not necessarily the media’s fault, because that’s why it’s there. The media identifies problems so that society can figure out how to solve and overcome them. Yet, with so much media now, the number and severity of the problems are amplified, dwarfing the actual positive developments.
I know all this well, but it still feels irrelevant regardless. I suspect a lot of people feel the same.
It’s great that the world is getting better, but measures such as improving child mortality or declining global poverty are nearly impossible to perceive on a day-to-day basis. How exactly does the average person visualize a lower crime rate? The streets don’t appear magically safer, even though they are.
If anything, 2016 was a grim reminder of the problems we haven’t overcome – the innate biases that ultimately divide us and make us fearful of others – as well as new ones that we haven’t figured out how to deal with yet.
How are we going to grapple with the possibility that one country can hack another’s elections? What are we going to do about all this media that is beating us into depression with its relentless flood of bad news? How do we equip ourselves mentally to deal with a Mean World Syndrome machine that has grown exponentially in breadth and intensity?
Yes, the world is objectively getting better and no, 2016 wasn’t the worst year ever. But with these new realities and questions remaining unanswered, it’s perfectly reasonable to feel the opposite.
If anything, 2016 was all about the feeling rather than the thinking. Here’s hoping that in 2017, we reverse the course and go back to the other way around.