Monday, March 2, 2015

La vie en bleu: Life lessons from #thedress

By now we’re sick of the dress, but permit me a little late digression. At first, I had written and lengthy and quasi-academic review of the sociological ramifications of the color-based hullabaloo: some high-minded stuff about the nature of narratives and how they mess with our perception. I had a decent thesis, which I still believe is accurate and useful, and I still think this line of reasoning is interesting and worthy of exploration. But right now I think I’m much more interested in some real talk.

Like most, I started off seeing the dress as white and gold. I couldn’t fathom how it could be anything else, and I was sure the blue and black sorts were strange. It was clearly white and gold and there was nothing for it. I rejected claiming to prove blueness out of hand: the comparison photo was much too dark and saturated to be the same article as the one in the “ambiguous” pic (a belief I still hold—I think it has faded somewhat). I thought it was a prank or a hoax, because when I looked at the picture I still saw white and gold.

Then, later, it changed. It took me by surprise—I thought people were now passing around an altered image from what I had first seen. Asking Crystal to confirm, I was shocked when she said this “new” image was a white and gold dress. It was just as confusing as the Blue Team had been to me when I was looking at it the first time. I have never been able to see it as white since.

This mirrors a lot of ways my opinions have changed over the years. In 2004, I voted for George W. Bush as “the lesser of two evils”. Today, I somewhat regret my 2012 vote for Barack Obama on the grounds that he has not proven to be sufficiently liberal. I remember when my political opinions changed, but they changed like the dress did. One moment, I saw white and could not even make a clear case for blue. While not paying attention to those opinions, they changed radically, and I could no longer even remotely defend the ones I had just held.

There are plenty of other positions I have held in the past that have changed like this, completely and without warning. I can’t imagine what effect this must have on the people who love me most; I might turn out to be a different person tomorrow morning, and for good. It’s scary to me.

But then I realize that most people are equally difficult to understand for a number of other, different reasons. Crystal sees white and gold, has read the articles “proving” that the dress is blue, and will not budge. When I tell her that the owner of the dress says that it’s blue, she counters that we don’t know that that’s the real owner, or that it’s not a hoax. Yet, in the end, she reaffirms that the Blue Team has valid reasons to believe their claims and that she’s not sure her position is the only possible correct one.

And yes, of course, there are other stories. There are dozens if not hundreds of different ways to view this stupid dress, and each of them reveals a little something about us that is scary, inconsistent, or laughable. Even what might be the most straightforward possible story—someone who saw the dress blue, argued that it was blue, saw the articles, and feels vindicated—betrays something a little out of sorts. Remember that most people originally saw the dress as white. With hindsight, that looks like bold individualism and bravery. But in the first, it seems like the man who claims the earth is flat because he can’t see the curve, or at least a jaywalker crossing a busy street against the light.

So the thrust of all this jabber must be that we’re all ludicrous. Which is true. But beyond that, let’s also consider how all of this folly connects us. We may not be very logical on the whole, but when we learn to drop our “serious business” act for half a second, we might find that there are more important things in life than whatever you own individual “blue dress” may be.