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2017

This Year, Chaos Became Normal

In 2017, we started to accept that things might feel weird for a while.

by Angus Harrison
Dec 13 2017, 10:10pm

Top image: background, via / CC0; Theresa May by Chatham House, via / CC By 2.0; Donald Trump by Evan Guest, via / CC By 2.0; missiles by USN, via / public domain

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

There’s a video that went around Twitter last week of a car driving through the mountains of LA. All in front of the highway, stretching off into the horizon like a huge curtain, are the forest fires that have been tearing through southern California this month. The hills are black and bright orange, like a glittering volcano.

California has been experiencing longer and more ferocious wildfire seasons in recent years. This year is on track to shatter previous records in terms of scale. Most people think this is due to the rise of global temperatures leaving the forests drier, and that the trend will continue across future winters. Yet, instead of screeching to a halt, the traffic cruises on. Slowly, steadily marching around the bend and into the jaws of hell.

This feels very on brand for 2017: The year's constant incident became the status quo. The year all of us sat in slow-moving traffic, barely blinking as the walls peeled off the world.

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Every time a pin dropped last year, the reaction was the same: 2016. Whenever someone died or the unexpected triumphed, people blamed the year itself. Whether it was Ronnie Corbett stepping off, or England being pushed backward out of the Euros by Iceland, the culprit was the same: Last year didn’t care about progress, didn’t care about the right thing, didn’t care about us. Thank God it’s over, everybody thought, as they crammed their turkey leftovers into their mouths. Good riddance—there goes one year I really won’t miss.

Which was strange because all signs pointed toward this year being bigger and badder. Sure, 2016 was the year when the UK voted to leave the EU, and Donald Trump won the presidency, but those were the gestures. The acts themselves—the triggering of Article 50, and the inauguration—all happened this year. Only, nobody yelled "2017!" after either of them. Nobody questioned the fabric of time when Jeremy Corbyn stole Theresa May’s majority. Nobody said "what a rough year" when John Hurt died.

Because 2017 was the year we got used to the unexpected. In these strange and changing times, the biggest shift has been within us: Collectively, we’ve readjusted. Whereas last year we greeted each new horror with screams and incredulity, 2017 was the year we gradually settled into our new world order. Like living in the city and growing used to the hum of traffic outside your window, we have reset and acclimatized to the regular disruption.

Photo by Matt Brown via CC by 2.0

In a single two-week period this summer, seven people were killed by extremists in Borough market, the Conservatives failed to win their preordained majority in the general election, and a fire ripped up the sides of a 24-story block of public housing in west London, killing 71 people. The heady swings from horror to celebration and back again, all during the fifth hottest June in the UK since records began. It's been impossible to be shocked by everything this year because it's all been happening at once, and it's difficult to be outraged by something if you barely have long enough to register it's happening.

The current UK government is also uniquely suited to this age of regular disruption, contributing —in fact—to many of its nightmares. Battered by sexual assault allegations, threatening peace in Ireland, worsening the imprisonment of its own citizens in Iran: Since the election, the cabinet has been characterized by constant crisis. Brexit has barely limped forward an inch: "Negotiations" are proving to be an unending march of grinning white men making contradictory statements about how well everything is going. Yet, they're still there, muddling along, dipping up and down in the polls like any government before them.

Perhaps part of 2017’s numbing power has been its constant spread of events—bumpy and uneven, but panoramic—in comparison to last year’s jolts and heel-turns. There has been no June 23, and no November 8. Instead, we’ve been faced with a stream of scary and unknown happenings. Morning news bulletins from around the world have hopped from the brink of nuclear war with North Korea to mosque attacks, like the one in Sinai which killed 305 worshippers. From famine in Yemen—the greatest humanitarian crisis since WWII—to catastrophic hurricanes in Florida, 2017 was the year breaking news became background music.

When the sky turned red over London. Photo by Elle Hardman/Alamy Stock Photo

Strange visions have been everywhere—the skies over England turning orange, the falling-letter farce of the Tory conference—yet, like the charred skeleton of the Grenfell tower, they've quickly become part of the landscape. In among the terror attacks and the cyber attacks, the failing healthcare system and the rising levels of child poverty, we’ve quietly raised our thresholds. You can only look shocked for so long before your cheeks start to hurt.

This isn’t about normalizing through acceptance; we know these things are terrible. It’s not that we don’t care, but the mood of 2017 suggests we’ve acknowledged something, collectively, that we failed to last year. In 2016 we were short-sighted enough to behave as though history would be contained within those 12 months. This year, it seems to have dawned on us that, actually, things are going to feel like this for a while, so we’d better get used to it.

So this New Year’s Eve, as you raise your plastic cup of cheap Prosecco and look up at the stars, in the backyard of a house party you don’t remember arriving at, try to look on the bright side. Sure, gains in life expectancy have slowed to a halt for the first time in more than 100 years, inflation is continuing to rise, every Brexit forecast predicts economic downturn, the government could collapse at any minute, the president is a pervert, and robots are stealing your job. But at least it’s starting to feel familiar. At least we are settling into the new normal.

Follow Angus Harrison on Twitter.

UPDATE 15/12/17: An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that Carrie Fisher died in 2017. She died December 27, 2016. The article has been updated.