The classic philosophical theory that nails why 2016 sucked so much

Ever felt like there was a dark cloud hanging over your head?
Ever felt like there was a dark cloud hanging over your head?
Image: AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps
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You’ve read it over and over again, seen it quipped about on social media, and heard it mentioned in every conversation around the office: 2016 is officially The Worst Year Ever.

But was 2016 really that bad? We should be able to rationally agree that there have been worse years—for example, the various years of our history’s world wars, plagues and most famous genocides. But this viral refrain still seems to be rising in popularity.

To understand why this year felt like such a never-ending dirge, we should look to the past and reacquaint ourselves with existential philosophers’ discussion of nihilism and the concept of radical freedom.

For Jean-Paul Sartre, the dawn of the 20th century brought with it a deep sense of philosophical angst. Religion’s failure to solve the world’s problems, the disorienting onslaught of worldwide wars, and huge leaps in science and technology fueled a deeply individualistic philosophy that we now broadly refer to as existentialism. In particular, Sartre and authors such as Albert Camus explored the more refined (and more macabrely apathetic) concept of existential nihilism, which posits that life has no intrinsic meaning or value—or, as Sartre put it, “existence precedes essence.”

The existentialists noticed that even though many people intuitively recognize the insignificance of their existence, it doesn’t stop them from searching for meaning anyway. This is what Camus called “the absurd,” and he believed there were three main options for dealing with this sense of existential angst: whole-heartedly embrace some religion, commit suicide, or flip it the bird and go back to life as usual. That last option he called “radical freedom,” writing that “the only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”

Contemporary society is currently grappling with a deep sense of existential angst—so it makes sense that a lot of the pop culture that captured our attention this year bears similarities to the novels of the original existentialists. Looking at these hits through the eyes of these philosophers could help us explain why 2016 has been meme-ified as “the worst ever”: Our favorite heroes are now the ones who grapple with the cruel, meaningless world we live in, and come out on the other side radically free. And just as truth imitates fiction, we are reflecting the culture we’ve created by acting like the existentialists’ anti-heroes ourselves.

For example, this year’s surprise hit Deadpool starred a crass, mutilated, ruthless killing-machine antihero whose entire character arc is built in the pursuit of ego-driven gratification, roughly hewn together through a series of fourth-wall breaks and toilet humor jokes. Despite the film’s (relatively) meager budget of $58 million, it grossed a massive $782.6 million globally in cinemas.

Deadpool’s physical disfiguration (and total resistance to pain) alter his personality to be wildly amoral and darkly cynical. His most defining feature is that he just does not give a fuck—his words, not ours. That seriously resonated with 2016 audiences contemplating life in a dark time. Put simply: The world was definitely ready for a Deadpool.

He’s certainly not the first antihero to make it big—in fact, he seems almost inspired by characters from Sartre’s philosophical tale The Age of Reason. In this story, the cast of characters struggle with what it means to be truly free, ultimately finding that not giving a damn seems to do the trick.

Absolute freedom, forced upon us by the absence of meaning, requires individuals to face up to moral decisions and decide for themselves what is actually right or wrong. In one famous scene, Ivich, a frequently drunk, wildly flirtatious character who exemplifies a familiar type of freedom from societal norms, slashes her hand. This inspires Mathieu, the protagonist, to one-up her and take the knife and stab himself. It’s all a challenge to rules—and a gateway for Mathieu to further explore this wild freedom.

He jabbed the knife into his palm and felt almost nothing. When he took his hand away, the knife remained embedded in his flesh, straight up, with its haft in the air.

…He felt benignantly impressive and was a little afraid that he might faint. But a sort of dogged satisfaction and the malice of a silly schoolboy took possession of his mind. …“I’m a ghastly kind of fool,” he thought. “Brunet was right in saying that I’m a grown-up child.” But he couldn’t help being pleased.

Mathieu’s knife might as well be Deadpool’s severed hand flipping the bird; a massive up-yours to the world and its norms, and an ambitious jump into a world without rules. They both act like grown-up children, not only because they do dumb things, but because they live in a world uncontrolled by the rules and regulations that shackle adults to society.

This freedom, as appealing as it is, does come with consequences. In this year’s cult favorite TV series Westworld, humans in the not-too-distant future create a theme park of strikingly lifelike robots to provide radical freedom as a service: Guests can screw or kill whoever (or, should we say, whatever) they want, free from consequences. But much like Sartre’s Ivich or Deadpool, Westworld’s protagonist Billy struggles with the choices he must face, and ultimately ends up unraveling without a strong moral code to guide him.

In many ways, existential nihilism flourished in the land of animations for big kids: titles like Archer, Bob’s Burgers, Bojack Horseman, and Ricky and Morty. These cartoons for grown-ups draw most of their humor from the dark cynicism of existential nihilism. In some ways, watching cartoons as a fully grown adult is in itself a kind of side-eye to society, and this breed of show knows it.

Bojack Horseman isn’t quite Deadpool, but he sure is an antihero who exists to parody the Hollywood machine and examine the consequences of radical freedom. After his famous TV show Horsin’ Around ends, Bojack’s life as a washed-up celebrity has him staring into that familiar void, trying to soothe the absurd with drugs, sex, materialism, and the rest. “I’m responsible for my own happiness?” he asks. “I can’t even be responsible for my own breakfast.”

But the most overt example of this dark philosophy this year has to be the adventures of Rick and Morty, the twisted nightmare version of Back to the Future from Dan Harmon of Community fame and Justin Roiland, which is literally sitting at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes while fans anxiously await season three.

Rick and Morty tells the story of Rick Sanchez—a mad scientist and profane, belching, amoral, cynical, trans-dimensional adventurer, who recruits his timid grandson Morty to explore the universe with him. That means the whole universe—including all the parallel dimensions spawned by an infinite-worlds theory. Casually destroying entire planets and haphazardly ruining lives in the pursuit of science freedom, Rick is another embodiment of Sartre’s philosophy that has captured the hearts of audiences in 2016.

All in all, 2016 hasn’t exactly warmed our hearts, but our darkly cynical, exaggerated refrains about it being “the worst ever” might be a symptom of existential nihilism’s cultural resurgence, not because of the year’s objective events.

Counterintuitively, our flip to the dark side may be prompted by the fact that many people’s lives have actually never been better. In the Western world, our society is prosperous, we live longer. The privileged, at least, have more luxury than ever before. And yet here we are, depressed and listless. We still feel that niggling sense of meaninglessness; that suspicion that we should (and could) be happier. Religion—a place to turn in the face of existential turmoil—seems outdated. (Kanye, a newer god, offers increasingly less solace.) And despite our best efforts to live good lives, we know that nearly every choice we make is going to have a terrible impact anyway.

So maybe 2017 is the year when we give up on our struggle for meaning and reason, and instead learn from 2016’s pop culture heroes by flipping the bird and embracing a life of radical freedom. As Morty says: “Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s going to die—come watch TV?”