On Last Week Tonight’s last episode of 2016, a chorus of celebrities and people on the street echoed host John Oliver’s message for the end of the year: “Fuck you, 2016.” There were a litany of horrors from the year cited as justification for the grand finale—a giant statue of the numbers 2016, blown up in a slow-motion demonstrative fireball.
Over the course of the year, many of these same horrors have elicited the same response on social media, where it’s become a reflex to respond to bad news by flipping the bird to the year. David Bowie is dead? Fuck you, 2016. Prince is dead too? Fuck you, 2016. The Russians hacked the U.S. election? Fuck you, 2016. Aleppo has fallen? FUCK YOU 2016! There is even a “commemorative” book (“hastily put together” by its own description) called F*ck You 2016, slated to come out in March of 2017.
The way people lament 2016 on Facebook, on Twitter, is not just despairing that it’s been a bad year. They anthropomorphize the year, give it agency, and thus make it worthy of blame for the things that happened in it. 2016 took Prince and David Bowie and John Glenn and Muhammad Ali. 2016 gave us Zika, and Brexit, and so many police killings. “Hasn’t 2016 done enough?” people ask above a link to some new large or small injustice. Or “2016: The gift that keeps on giving,” they may say, seasonally. It spreads, as these online language tics do.
“People’s first inclination when things go poorly is to make sense of the situation, and we try to treat things in terms of a framework that we understand—that of what a human being does.” says Adam Waytz, a psychologist at Northwestern University. “We’re constantly in the skin of a human being, we're in the mind of a human being, and so when things go awry, we try to see some sort of human agency in the world, that caused things to turn out the way it did.”
Where there is no sign of human agency, superhuman agency will do. Blaming 2016 is like blaming God, in a way. (Who, incidentally, is more likely to be blamed for suffering than praised for success.) To make sense of a moral injustice, the mind needs to see two parties—the victim and the perpetrator. In the case of something like a natural disaster, or an epidemic, where there is no clear perpetrator, people may foist the blame on God, or the universe, or 2016.
Of course, sometimes there are human perpetrators behind the things that people publicly despair. There are people to blame for the bombing of Syria, or the election of Donald Trump, or Brexit. But when there are a lot of people who are responsible for a situation, and when there are a lot of situations worthy of despair, well, maybe it helps to consolidate a little.
It also makes sense that the consolidated condemnation of an entire year would be happening on social media. Our feeds enable a constant consumption of the world’s hurts in a way that opens hearts but stokes hopelessness. It is hard to look at the world through the lens of social media and still see it as mostly good and ultimately fair. And processing the disparate miseries that stream by requires not just accounting for each one individually, but wondering why so many? Why now? When will it end?
“Maybe what you're looking for is a source of meta-agency in a sense,” says Kurt Gray, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “There must be something pulling all these things together, and it’s hard to imagine some new world order pulling the strings somewhere. I mean for conspiracy theorists I think you'd just be like ‘Yep, it's the new world order, it’s the Reptilians underneath the Denver airport.’ If you don't believe in conspiracy theories, you're like ‘Why did all these things happen? I guess 2016.’”
Why 2016 and not God? Cursing 2016 seems a particularly popular pastime on Twitter, which skews toward young, highly-educated users, demographics that are also less likely to believe in God. Perhaps the secular masses need something else to blame. But also, if people are railing against God for the hardships of 2016, that’s probably more of a private activity.
It makes for a better joke to blame the year, but it also feels less hopeless. A year is less omnipotent; its reign lasts only 12 months. We know of course, that horror and death appear on a rolling basis, that no one year has a monopoly on tragedy. But it’s nice to hope, not that the tragedy will ever stop appearing, but that maybe this next arbitrarily delineated period will hold a little less than the one we’re in now. Often, when people blame God for suffering, Gray says, it helps them feel better because they can believe it’s part of God’s plan. “It’s not clear that 2016 has a plan for you,” he says, “but at least it ends.” At the start of each January, we get a new ruler, one who will perhaps be more benevolent. That’s assuming, of course, that each year isn’t just a new scion in a dynasty of horrible years.
As an attempt to book-end suffering, this effort is doomed to fail. Blood will inevitably stain the coming calendar pages. But their blank-page promise, the beautiful lie of a fresh start, can nonetheless inspire real reflection, and real renewal. “Let’s all try harder next year,” Oliver says at the end of his sketch, walking away from the conflagration. 2017 will be unfair. It will take things people love, and give them things they don’t want. Often, there won’t be anything one person can do to stop it. But if you felt like 2016 was a tyrant, then the only thing to do in 2017 is to resist its tyranny, to use the agency you have to change the things you can. But there’s nothing wrong with shouting “fuck you” when you can’t.