What The Dress Says About Us

Yesterday the primary disagreement in the world focused on a single dress and its mysterious color—white and gold or blue and black? #TheDress swept social media and took center stage over news about a potential shut down of Homeland Security, 2000 Christians kidnapped by ISIS, and net neutrality. What does this say about us? I’m afraid to answer, but also not surprised.

I get tired of hearing about how selfish our country is, the growing apathetic majority, and a decrease in civic engagement. Those things might be true, but they are also depressing. I try to be hopeful, rooting for my fellow humans and trusting that things can change. And then the Internet breaks over colors, something we all thought was a definite as black and white—or would it now be gold and blue?

The reason #TheDress caused such an uproar is because it targets our very notions of fact and truth. The United States is a culture polarized by a desire for clear answers. Things are either right or wrong, here or there, Republican or Democrat. You either believe in this, or you don’t. There are some people who try to champion the middle ground, but even that turns into its own separate platform.

In contrast, The Dress highlights the subjective nature of our world and makes us question things we thought were certain. Despite the overwhelming attempts of optometrists and graphic designers to explain the science behind it, many of us skim over those parts of the news story (I know I did). I don’t want to hear that it is “subjective” or “based on lighting” or “fluctuating between our optical rod and cones.” Technical intricacies are annoying. I want a definitive answer.

But that isn’t how the world works. During the semester I spent abroad in India, I was constantly frustrated by the pluralistic nature of things. People were so comfortable with uncertainty, every Hindu god had multiple names, and there was never an easy answer to even the most basic problems. In many eastern cultures this is the case, and people live within that conflict in a way that baffles my American mind. Now I wonder if they would even care about what color that dress is.

As silly as #TheDress phenomenon is, it points out some important things about our culture, beyond our sad obsession with news that is not really news.
  • We are easily upset by disagreement
  • We want definitive answers
  • It is hard for us to accept subjectivity

Even for those who pretend to not care, deep down you wonder how it is possible and what the truth is. Anne Lamott described this sensation well in her newest book Small Victories:
     “Redefinition is a nightmare—we think we’ve arrived, in our nice Pottery Barn boxes, and that this or that is true. Then something happens that totally sucks, and we are in a new box, and it is like changing into clothes that don’t fit, that we hate.”

Sometimes you have to redefine what you think you know for certain. In a culture that clings to absolutes of right and wrong, this truly is a nightmare. Trying to admit that The Dress is a different color than how you see it will be as uncomfortable as actually wearing it (because let’s be honest that dress isn’t the best).

In the end, the color of that dress really doesn’t make any practical difference in our world. But it matters for our sense of self, the security in what we think we know, and how sometimes we need to accept the possibility that something else might be true or someone might see it a different way.

Does uncertainty make you uncomfortable?
What can we take away from this sensational disagreement?

One thought on “What The Dress Says About Us

  1. Thanks, Kellie for your nice comment about the “handshake” article. I was sort of astounded also by this whole dress thing. Mostly it just made me think of how easily we get swept up by trivia and how much media attention something like this can get instead of paying attention to much more critical issues. Of course most of those issues are serious and complicated and, as you pointed out, we just aren’t very comfortable with ambiguity.

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