My best friend is red-green colorblind. Both colors look identical to her and so she will never know for sure whether the color she sees is actually red, actually green, or some amalgam of the two. She memorized the placement of stop and go traffic lights at the age of 15, and since then, her minor disability has not had much of an impact on her life. She finds it fairly mundane. I, on the other hand, find it fascinating.
Every time she holds up a fire engine red dress at the mall or selects a ruby red nail polish at a salon or points to a maroon red paint sample and casually checks in with me to confirm, “What color is this?” – my mind basically bends in half.
“Does it look more like fire or grass to you?” I asked once, determined to get to the bottom of this once and for all.
“I don’t know. Fire and grass look like basically the same color to me.”
“But, wait – does it look more like pink or blue to you?”
“I’m not sure. It’s hard to tell.” She shrugged, untroubled.
It’s not so much the fact of her color-blindness that bewilders and intrigues me. It’s the larger idea that we can be looking at the exact same color and never really be certain that we’re seeing the same color at all.
I can easily accept subjective interpretations of experiences. Sure, two people can read the same book, see the same sunset, participate in the same conversation and both leave with entirely different impressions. And I can theoretically accept that language is subjective too. If I tell you “I love you,” there is no way to confirm with any certainty that the picture of love in my head matches the picture in yours. If you tell me that you believe in God, your inexpressible image of God might not match anything that I would recognize as a god. We might only think we’re communicating when we’re actually in entirely different conversations.
But if something as deeply rooted in concrete reality as color is in the eye of the beholder, it calls into question the very possibility of shared perception.
On a day-to-day basis, I forget all of this. I go through most days choosing to believe that we are all on the same page with regard to the basics of reality, because that’s the only functional, pragmatic thing to believe. But this paradigm becomes impossible to maintain in those moments when my best friend holds up a hunter green fabric swatch or a mint green purse or an emerald green notebook and asks me, “What color is this?”
Maybe that’s why a (spoiler alert) black-and-blue dress scorched the internet this week.
Optical illusions are fairly commonplace, but this wasn’t a typical illusion. There was no way to squint and find a path back to an objective, shared reality. There was just the realization two people could look at the exact same dress and see two entirely different dresses. There was just the implicit question of whether it’s possible to ever know how anyone else sees anything.
Maybe the intense social media reaction was not in response to the idea of this photograph as an illusion, but in response to the idea that our shared reality is an illusion. It revealed a divide rarely contemplated but always lurking. It provoked people to defend their perception as if their very reality depended on it. Because, in a way, it did.