Oh, man. 2016. Fuck this year. It can’t end soon enough.
Or was that 2015? I distinctly remember people saying that about 2015. Maybe 2014 too. Huh.
Yes, 2016 has its unique challenges. Presidential elections don’t happen every year, much less close nomination races. Major parties imploding under the weight of their own racism, sexism, and fascism happens rather less frequently than that. The rock stars who sustained us as teenagers frequently fade away instead of becoming institutions before they die.
Many of this year’s stresses, however, happen all the time. Refugee crises brought on by sectarian violence and climate change have been a regular part of my decades on this Earth. I’ve watched too many national governments fall apart to count. Violent pushback to civil rights gains has been a constant, alongside the erosion of those rights. Sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry–they’ve all been a constant drumbeat.
So why has 2016 been so bruising?
I could talk about the golden age fallacy and say that we’re just getting this all wrong. There’s an element of truth to it, even if it is mostly useless and condescending to tell people they’re feeling stuff badly. But there’s a much better reason that many of us are overwhelmed at the moment. We’re not looking away.
Some of that is political. As we become more aware of our biases, many of us work to counter them by exposing ourselves to different people, different sources of information. When we do, we often pay attention to marginalized populations we haven’t before. We see the ways they’re brutalized. We see the traps they’ve been shoved into. These problems were always there, but now we look at them. We don’t look away.
Some of it is the reach of the internet. Even as traditional news media still struggles to find its feet in our largely post-paper world, English-language media is larger than it’s ever been. We can and should debate quality and trustworthiness, but if you can’t find a publication–even a blog–that covers your community or corner of the world, you may not be trying. These publications document what happens to all of us. Wherever we may be, in words, photos, or video, it’s all shareable now. The internet doesn’t look away.
Some of it is social. Forget Dunbar’s number. Dunbar’s number is merely the upper size limit of a social group that can maintain itself purely through social interactions. As internet tools help us organize around multiple parts of our identities simultaneously, the number of people we have significant interactions with based on shared interests continues to grow. We know more people outside our cliques. We see the events that affect them. We care about these things because we care about these people. We don’t look away.
For lots of reasons, more of what happens right now touches any one of us. That includes the pain. The reasons are good. We’re getting a more accurate picture of the world we live in than the one our televisions have shown us. We need that if we want to move toward equity and justice.
Still, it’s not an easy thing to deal with. More pain is more pain, however good the reasons for it. Our worlds have grown faster than our skills for dealing with them.
We need to work on those skills, though I can’t tell you exactly what they should be. I’m not great at this either. I can say we need to find ways to balance joy and rest with seeing the world’s problems for what they are. I can’t tell you more than what sometimes works for me. The solution might even involve looking away sometimes, if we can figure out how to do it less unfairly and selectively.
I can, however, at least tell you that all this pain isn’t about the world getting significantly worse. In many ways, it’s about us getting better. It’s about us not looking away.