Should We Stop Blaming 2016 For All The Terrible Things?

Photographed by Ted Cavanaugh.
How many times have you and 300 of your closest friends joked on Facebook this year about which great icon will fall victim to 2016 next? When the news broke on Christmas that George Michael died, was part of you nonplussed, given everyone else this year has claimed? Did you tell everyone in a status update to hang on until January, when the slate will be wiped clean and all the icons of our youth will be safe again from the vicious claws of 2016? There's something not quite right about blaming a year for celebrity deaths, various disappointments, and the outcome of political skirmishes. For one thing, very few of these events are related, except in the sense that people who were famous in the '70s and '80s are getting older. David Bowie had liver cancer. It was not, as far as we can tell, caused by some evil poison given to both him and Leonard Cohen at a party for famous people. Phife Dawg's diabetes was not related to Prince's alleged prescription drug problem. Muhammad Ali, Alan Thicke, and Alan Rickman were felled by different ailments, and they weren't Zika. My dog's fatal brain hemorrhage and Hillary Clinton losing the election both wrecked me this year, but they weren't exactly related.
Perhaps we're being silly when we write, "2016, amirite?" It's in the same spirit in which we kinda-just-a-little-bit speculated about the end of the world on December 21, 2012. The same way we read our horoscopes — just in case there's something to that ancient reasoning that science can't explain. It's ascribing powers to some deity in charge of only A-listers and major world events. We have long invoked the "rule of threes" about celebrity deaths, as if the death of two famous people inevitably brings on a third for unknown reasons. It's shamefully dehumanizing, especially if you put yourself in the shoes of the surviving family members. When someone you love dies, the last thing you need is to have your grief lumped in with strangers and made less significant, even as it's crushing you into the earth.
It's also comforting and a very real part of human nature to see patterns, even where there may be none. The phenomenon even has a name: Apophenia. Science writer Michael Shermer posits that early man survived by connecting the dots in our environment. "Unfortunately, we did not evolve a Baloney Detection Network in the brain to distinguish between true and false patterns," he wrote in Scientific American. "[Such] erroneous cognition is not likely to remove us from the gene pool and would therefore not have been selected against by evolution." In short, it's good that we evolved to run away from lions and eat certain plants, but because believing in ghosts, gods, and curses isn't necessarily deadly, we remain wired to do so. Our ancestors passed down this affinity for believing, so it feels good. Who doesn't want to feel good right now?
Terrible things have happened in other years. In 2009, we lost Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, Brittany Murphy, John Hughes, Bea Arthur, Ed McMahon, and Ted Kennedy, to name a few. For some reason, in the year of both the Great Recession and Obama's first inauguration, we weren't in the mood to lump everything together. But we also weren't quite using social media to the extent that we do today. That year, Facebook had 360 million monthly users, compared to 1.79 billion this year. It was part of the conversation, not the whole thing. We digested news elsewhere before turning it into a quip. Now, we do it all at once, pouncing on the trending topic the minute it appears. Everyone competes to have their witty-yet-mournful two-sentence thesis liked to the top of the that much-discussed echo chamber. More simply, there's this: If it's all the fault of this calendar year, maybe it will end at midnight on December 31. If we're wrong, we'll probably just blame 2017.

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