If you’re feeling a bit down as 2016 draws to a close, you’re not alone and, as it turns out, there’s a reason for that. It’s called “cultural trauma,” and according to Jeffrey Alexander, a sociology professor at Yale University, it occurs “when a collectivity experiences an injury to its idealization of who it is.”
Basically, every year has a narrative. Some years simply have more memorable and, shall we say, darker narratives than others. So, when 2016 kicked off in January with the death of David Bowie — a music icon countless fans viewed as untouchable — a narrative about unthinkable and unpredictable tragic events occurring was set into motion.
“With Prince and David Bowie, I think the real surprise was that they weren’t immortal,” dramaturg Anika Chapin tells CBS News. “There was something about them that was so special and so odd and unusual, that it was like, the fact that they were even capable of dying like human beings was in itself disappointing.”
When Bowie’s passing was followed in close succession by more terrible news — the terrorist attack in Brussels, the spread of the Zika virus, the water crisis that turned Flint, Michigan into a disaster area — 2016 evolved into a year many people wished they could simply rewind.
“There were a lot of bad things that happened over the course of this year,” Alexander said. “Events like Zika, the Flint water crisis, terrorist incidents, continuous police-on-African-American violence and then, beginning to be the reverse. So, there’s been a series of frightening events, but it’s kind of the way these events are strung together. The narrative that encompasses them kind of determines how these things are experienced.”
The fact that 2016’s story line was already in place by the time Prince died in April magnified the impact of his passing, according to Alexander. Unlike past years, when their larger narratives were developed and applied in reflection after the fact, people began experiencing the tragic narrative of 2016 in real time.
“Once you have a broader narrative of tragedy — that this is a year of unusual fear and disappointment that we feel could be a fulcrum of history, which is pushing us and the values we have off to the side — then everything becomes much more significant. So, Prince’s death, for example, was I thought given a lot more affect than maybe it might have in another year. There’s a sense of precariousness now, like our sense of order is more fragile than it once was,” Alexander explained.
For the more liberal half of the United States, nothing rocked its sense of order more than the November election of Donald Trump as the 45th president. And because of that event, Alexander believes that thousands of Democrats are now experiencing symptoms we generally associate with personal trauma.
“They have stopped smiling. They feel like crying. They feel tired, listless, as if they’re in mourning,” he explains. “It’s as if somebody died who they loved. And what has died is their vision of the United States and that vision of an idealized society moving forward and having progress and becoming more inclusive and more tolerant of rights, committed to peace and getting beyond certain kinds of masculinity. This is as if somebody struck a dagger into its heart. And even though their own lives are probably fine, they haven’t lost their jobs and hopefully nobody’s died, something big has died and it’s a terrible sense of lost.”
The year 2016 is also unusual in the fact that it unleashed a seemingly constant barrage of tragic events, amplified by ubiquitous news coverage and social media attention. So, while years past might have provided people with a mourning period after particularly tragic events during which they could recover, in 2016, there never seemed to be time to recoup from the last shock before the next one occurred.
Take, for instance, the first week of July. The shooting of Alton Sterling, the shooting of Philando Castile, and the deadly Dallas police ambush occurred on three consecutive days.
“I think you can’t recover unless you have time to recuperate,” Professor Alexander tells CBS News. “But cultural trauma is unlike an individual trauma, which is an immediate happening and then you need periods to work through it and you can be cured. A cultural trauma can be worked on for years and decades afterward, in terms of what it all means. You can’t simply be cured of it.”
If that’s true, then how can we hope to recover?
Well, according to Alexander, the only way out of 2016’s tragic narrative is the creation of a new, more positive narrative in 2017. Rather than experiencing sadness as a group activity, people need to come together as groups to experience the happy things in the world today.
“There’s sports. There’s pop music. There’s movies. There’s ‘Hamilton’!” says Alexander. “There are lots of great things that we can really enjoy together and that give people a sense of fun, irony, happiness.”
In sum, the only way out of cultural trauma is cultural joy. Sounds like a New Year’s resolution for 2017.