That Dress

First there was the dress, then there was the furor, then the sneer: “Yes, yes; context dictates color perception; we knew that. Yawn. Who cares about the damn dress?”

I’m here to say the dress is important.

First, it’s a mistake to simply attribute this whole brouhaha to visual contexts—to point out that we interpret colors in light of surrounding conditions, yada yada. That’s fascinating stuff, but actually it’s not what this is about at all. The point was not whether blue can masquerade as white in some settings—the point was that two people looking at the same photograph at the same time had different answers.

I have a jacket that is one color outdoors and another color by artificial light, and it’s fun to have people try to convince each other of its color, when some of them have seen it only by natural light and the others have seen it indoors. They are initially disconcerted to find themselves at odds. But once they look at it all together, they realize how lighting dictated their perceptions, and they agree on its color.

The message of The Dress is the complete opposite, and the buzz it started is anything but frivolous. Driving this viral conversation is the eternally astounding discovery that other people are truly different from us. Not merely apparently different because of their circumstances—they are different, period. Over and over again, two people looking at the same screen said what colors they saw—then stared at each other and said, “One of us has got to be crazy, and it’s not me.” This harmless garment, appearing on our tiny screens without any distracting moral or political agenda, announced with brazen clarity the existence of irreducible differences between people who assumed they were alike.

If we want to get along we can’t accomplish it just by doing the hard work of learning to meet in the central arena of our supposed shared values. We must also learn to live in a world where some people will always see blue and black, while other people continue to see white and gold. Now that’s scary.

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