2016, Celebrity Deaths, and the Toxicity of Wanton Anthropomorphism

Jan 02, 2017 • By • 124 Views

That sigh of relief you heard at 12 AM on January 1st was the world heaving a collective sigh. 2016 finally, at long last, faded into the black. Celebrities everywhere, many of whom were huddled in the dark corners of their safe rooms, were finally able to emerge without fear. The broken back we all suffered by carrying the weight of their fears upon ourselves were relieved. 2016 can’t get to us anymore. And unless somehow, some way, 2016 invents time travel (perish the thought), we’re all finally safe from its evil clutches.

Pinpointing the Source of our Woe

Whether through tongue-in-cheek joking or through serious psychological disorder, 2016 has seemingly taken on a life of its own. Yet interestingly, it’s difficult to point to the exact moment when we began to humanize an entire calendar year. Was it when Harambe became another victim of bad parenting (or bad zoo design, or the ills of animal captivity, or the many other myriad reasons we attribute to the tragedy)? Was it even earlier in the year, not long after we welcomed 2016 as a reprieve for the pains of 2015, only to learn that we would no longer be serenaded by David Bowie?

Or was it just the critical mass of events like big-name celebrity deaths splashed on the headlines weekly, joined with the angst we all felt by divisive politics? It's almost certainly true that all of the above, when combined with exploding cell phones, dead gorillas, and a Trump presidency forced the majority of America’s steeply left-leaning millennials into a deep bout of “I can’t even”.

A Living, Breathing Year of Woe

The stark emotional distress that many experienced in 2016 caused the year, inexplicably, to take on a life of its own. And while in the grand scheme of things the year was certainly not the worst year on record (we can easily point to many years in history that were far, far worse than the last one), it’s easy to forget that history and the human condition do not always easily connect. So when journalists and bloggers patronizingly tell people to think about the world from a rational, historical perspective, they seemingly fail to forget that for humans, experience often takes precedence over rationality.

We live in the here and now as a consequence of what we’ve experienced, not based on what we’ve read others have experienced. This is why so many people in their 30s and below perceive 2016 as more emotionally devastating than any year on record. For many of them, it literally is the worst year they have experienced, even if their rational minds tell them that things have been worse in the past.

Who's to Blame, Really?

But let’s step back from an argument of rationality versus lived experience. Whether or not 2016 was the “worst year ever” or just another year in the grand scheme of things, many people were emotionally strained in during the course of 2016, beyond what they have normally experienced. We can point to an overactive media that continues to its downward march toward covering all things negative. We can point to immaturity among younger generations. We can point to a lot of things, really.

Regardless of the reason, emotional strain leads to a strong need for resolution. That ultimately results in the pointing of fingers, the assigning of blame. In Western society, which increasingly de-emphasizes the divine in place of the material, a population that is more ambivalent toward the idea of a higher power tends to seek answers through other means. That often takes on the form of anthropomorphism or the attribution of human-like characteristics to non-human things. With no single entity responsible for the continuous stream of negative events and deaths, those who believe in no higher power, good or evil, turned to blaming the year itself.

There’s a certain level of safety in anthropomorphizing 2016 as the culprit for all of last year’s woes. The ethereal year can’t fight back. It can’t defend itself. We are free to sling our hatred and anger toward it, or free to joke about it even when we don’t actually believe in its culpability, simply because it’s a safe option. 2016 won’t feel bad if we metaphorically stone it to death for its crimes, after all. And ultimately, it has a calming effect on the human psyche to have something to blame for occurrences beyond our control.

The 2016 anthropomorphic meme persisted in the last few months of the year as a sort of panacea for every bad thing that happened. It was funny, yet still troubling. Humans have always used humor as a salve for pain that we can’t treat with drugs. There’s a large body of evidence to support this fact, particularly in the focusing on how we use laughter and humor as a coping mechanism for emotional distress.

A Toxic Solution

Nevertheless, there is a toxicity in allowing ourselves to do this. By turning 2016 into a sentient entity, capable of malice, we find a convenient out for the real culprit: human brokenness. We blame the anthropomorphized year instead, giving ourselves a way to avoid dealing with an uncomfortable truth of our own imperfections. We know humanity is broken. Yet postmodernism tends to emphasize the “evolution” of humanity, the idea that we as a species are simply getting better. It’s uncomfortable for us to think otherwise. And while it is certainly true that yes, fewer humans are dying from war, disease, poverty and the like, the human condition has not improved. Our tendency toward evil simply finds other outlets. Man is still broken.

There’s a stark danger in shifting blame to a year. In doing so, we ignore the problems that persist within the human condition, our very human failings, and the inescapable truth of our own sins against ourselves and each other. We try to escape from the fact that mental illness not only exists but that we still stigmatize it into oblivion instead of treating it with empathy. We ignore the way we’ve degraded healthy relationships with each other, opting instead to live in echo chambers of own beliefs, spawning hatred of the other. We deny that our laissez-faire relationship with drug policies, both legal and illicit, have done irreparable damage to entire generations.

Blaming 2016 is fun and all. It relieves a little pain. It makes us laugh, and in truth, a good amount of humorous production has occurred as a result. But perhaps it’s time we mature, put on our big boy (or girl) pants, and come face to face with the real source of our problems. 

About the Author

Samuel Cook Samuel Cook

Samuel Cook is a former teacher and freelance writer. He writes for a wide variety of websites, covering diverse topics in technology...

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