The prevailing narrative of 2020 is how bad the year itself is. Even when there was a significant portion of the year to go, social media and even the media at large had already written the year off as the worst in recent memory. What they didn’t acknowledge, however, was that this narrative has held true for the past half decade, whether it be through memes or water cooler talk.
It’s statistically improbable that the world has come across monumentally bad year after monumentally bad year. Have the years really been getting worse and worse, topping each other like the global temperature or MLB team home run records? Or is this negativity a projection?
The trend of lambasting 2020 is not so much an objective observation as much as it is a manifestation through the minds of a society whose personal lives have been refracted by the media-obsessed hivemind.
The Collective Unconscious
COVID-19 has become such a cultural phenomenon because it has had the unique ability to affect everyone. Everyone has had to make sacrifices, and everyone can relate to the sacrifices others have had to make. However, it would be an oversimplification to say that everyone’s COVID experience has been identical. There is common ground. Wearing masks in public. Diminished social lives. But this common ground pales in comparison to all the variables that are still attached to everyday life.
Negativity is a virus in its own right. People who have been having good years are being bombarded with the idea that their year is awful. America is facing an unprecedented mental health crisis, and much of that can be attributed to this defeatist group think. It’s what many know as a “collective unconscious,” a shared experience of a group of people that transcends the perspective of the individual.
This idea has been around before Mark Zuckerberg enrolled into Harvard, but it has undoubtedly fortified in the wake of the social media boom.
The History of the “This Year is the Worst” Memes
The most accessible starting point to this trend is “me at the beginning of 2016 vs. me at the end of 2016” memes.. Whether it be before-and-afters of Rose in “Titanic” or Laura Palmer in “Twin Peaks,” the period of pessimism had begun.
Many can argue that this past half decade has been notorious, citing the rise of nationalism and civil unrest. On the other hand, there have been several positives to have emerged from the past decade.
For example, terrorism and war have dipped to a low not seen since 2001. The world economy has flourished to an extent not seen since 2008, COVID excluded. Many have lauded social movements like Me Too and Black Lives Matter as pivotal benchmarks in the fight for equality.
How the Media Promotes Groupthink
With all this in mind, it’s difficult to say that the past five years have been objectively terrible in terms of modern history as much as the idea that these five years have been interpreted by a toxic media culture that has warped the reality of our individual daily lives.
Many thought the internet would allow us to come together, pool our resources, and eventually achieve world peace. This attitude was all but extinguished in the late 2000s when cyberbullying entered the mainstream. Where do we go from there? We destroyed each other. The next logical step is to destroy ourselves.
While a pandemic may be the worst case scenario for a society, the idea of conceding the perception of an egregious 2016 or 2017, for example, in light of 2020 has been absent from this whole narrative. The sentiment of “we didn’t know how good we had it” or “this year has made me realize how much there is out there for me” has been prevailing for some, but it has no business in the negativity of our current media climate.
The word “year” is being used in subjective ways as if it were someone’s health or financial situation. When one criticizes a year, it is such a broad criticism that it comes with an abundance of questions. Is 2020 being used as a euphemism for COVID-19? Is it accurate to associate COVID-19 with 2020 when one third of the pandemic will have taken place in 2021 in most countries?
If you side with Black Lives Matter, wouldn’t you say the civil unrest this year was a net positive? Were the wildfires and celebrity deaths exceptional this year, or were they another example of an unfortunate reality that we have to deal with every year? Shouldn’t we move the blame to COVID-19 so we don’t get ourselves involved in the negativity and assert that we still have lives around this virus?
An optimistic 2021
Even since 2016, I was critiquing the criticism of the year at large. My argument was that 2016 was a year to hold onto, not a year to dismiss. Even if the death of many beloved celebrities and the election of Donald Trump occured in 2016, many of the effects of these events wouldn’t “settle in” until 2017.
In the following year, would we really feel the loss of these giants and the then-President-elect would be inaugurated into office. For 2016, at least, we were able to cherish these people that were still with us, and Americans were able to cherish when they still had a democracy.
The reverse could be said about 2020. This year, we had to get through a lot, specifically the majority of COVID and Trump’s handling of COVID. But what will be guaranteed in 2021 is the mass distribution of the COVID vaccine and America’s return to democracy. If anything, 2020 is something we had to “get through” in order to have a superior 2021. While all of us have had to suffer, it’s hard to be pessimistic with brightness on the horizon.