The Dress: Revisited

My family and I don't always see eye-to-eye, and I don't think we're unique in that. I have the variety of family members that regularly go to church but stay out of politics and social issues in the public space, and I also have family members that never talk about their church community but sure as hell talk about the lack of God in this county. (And by "talk about," I mean that they share memes, quotes, and articles that are kitschy clickbait at their best and downright lies at their worst.)

Just by my rhetoric, you should be able to tell which variety gets under my skin. (Isn't it interesting how the way someone says something reveals more than just what they are saying?)

Remember that stupid dress? You know. The Dress.

Sorry not sorry, but we're going back there. We have to talk about this Dress.

So, if you missed this sensation, I'll catch you up. There's a photo of this dress, and due to several contributing factors, the colors of this dress are somewhat ambiguous. Some vow that the Dress is blue and black; others see white and gold. As this argument erupted in the Twittersphere and beyond, some observers even saw the colors change from blue and black to white and gold and vice versa.

(I saw it as white and gold first, and it took at least an hour before I ever saw it flip to blue and black.)

I remember getting a call from my boyfriend in Iowa as I was falling asleep on the couch.

"This Dress thing is ridiculous," he said.

"What dress thing?" I asked.

"How have you not heard of this? It's literally all over social media."

"What is it?"

"I can't explain. Just go to Twitter or something and search for the Dress."

"What dress?"

"Doesn't matter. Literally just 'the Dress.'"

So, I did, obviously. Even as I failed to understand how a significant chunk of the population was freaking out over an optical illusion, I also freaked out.

Full disclosure: I studied neuroscience in college.

Fuller disclosure: I did take neuroanatomy, but mostly I took cognition and philosophy courses.

When that Dress business exploded, so did my mind. Sort of. Having studied color perception and philosophy of language, I had thoughts going all directions, from being fascinated by my own experience with the Dress to being thrilled that so many people were talking about this cognitive phenomenon—even if few people were talking about it in quite that way.

What I was really excited about, however, was the fairly respectful, a priori conversation revolving around the Dress.

You see, I work as a social media manager. I am on social media platforms day in and day out, and it really sucks sometimes. I get to see all the rhetoric put out there by news sites, not-so-newsy sites, keyboard warriors, angry people, sad people, boastful people, people with agendas, people who are well-meaning, people who don't mean anything, offensive people, defensive people… mostly just people who don't realize what they're doing with the words they're sharing.

It means that I see nearly every Facebook post from my conservative relatives down south. (This may sound derogatory, but I live in Chicago, so everyone in my family lives south of me, those lucky bastards. Except for that one cousin in Finland.)

In an early philosophy class—like Philosophy 101, or something—we learned about logical fallacies. Wait, no. In my high school composition class, we learned about logical fallacies. Everyone should know what they are, because they're important to avoid if you want to create a sound argument. According to the interactions I see on social media, a good number of people like to demand a sound argument when sparring with a dissenting user—but not everyone understands what a sound argument is, and this misunderstanding further deteriorates an already unstable conversation and, thus, the quality of communication.

I don't trust you people to look up what logical fallacies are, so I'll list some.

Slippery slope (If we allow this small thing, we are effectively allowing ALL THE THINGS.)
Hasty generalization (This happened this one time, so it must always be true.)
Post hoc ergo propter hoc (Yay, Latin. X happened right before Y, so X must have caused Y.)
Genetic fallacy (This idea came from this horrible person, so it must be a horrible idea.)
Begging the claim (Stating things as if they are already proven to be true.)
Circular argument (This thing is awesome because it's cool. Synonyms are not reasons, people.)
Either/or (This one is used a lot. Things are rarely as simple as "either this happens or that happens.")
Ad hominem (More Latin! It means "against a person" and refers to attacking someone's character instead of their actual ideas or claims.)
Ad populum (This is when someone uses either positive or negative emotion appeals like "If you were actually a feminist…" or "If you were a true American…")
Red herring (Answer the question with another question, thereby avoiding the actual issue. "Yes, THAT may be the case, but what about THIS?")
Straw man (Step one: oversimplify your opponent's argument. Step two: attack your simplified version of the argument instead of the one they're actually making.)
Moral equivalence (Comparing a minor action with a disastrous action, like when people compare anything to Hitler.)

I know what you're thinking. But there are so many! Hardly any argument I see or hear is free of one of these fallacies!

Yes, I know. This is why my job sucks sometimes. I see people arguing at each other (at, not with), and their rhetoric is riddled with these fallacies. Half the time, the argument degrades so that they are arguing against each other's fallacies instead of against the meaningful issues at hand.

People are arguing about arguing, and they don't even know it.

So, why was the Dress so damn important to me? Because I care about the way people talk to each other. It's as simple as that.

People had different experiences when they looked at the Dress, and people had no fallacies to fall back on. They had to take complete responsibility for the way they saw the world.

"When I look at the Dress, I see white and gold because I see the Dress as being in shadows, and in the context of shadows, those colors must be white and gold."

"When I look at the Dress, I see blue and black because I see the Dress as being in regular light, and in the context of regular light, those colors must be blue and black."

"When I imagine the Dress as being in shadow, I can see the colors as white and gold, and when I imagine the Dress as being in regular light, I can see the colors as blue and black."

"I can't see the colors as anything except white and gold, so I can see how someone else might not be able to see them as anything except blue and black."

This last one is really important to me. It takes an unbelievable amount of courage to say the equivalent of, "I can't see things your way, but I realize that's because my reality appears different than yours, not because your way is inherently wrong."

Obviously, this isn't how people really talk, but this is the level at which conversations were happening. There was no, "You can't see it as blue and black? Well, you're a moron, so you must be the one who's wrong," or "Maybe I don't see it as white and gold, but at least I don't see it as green and red."

Can you identify the fallacies in those statements? They sound ridiculous in the context of the Dress, but they're thrown around all the time in just about every other context.

I allowed myself to engage with one of those meme-sharing, fallacy-riddled family members about this subject, and tried to outline the bigger meaning of the Dress.

She said she could see them both and that the issue was all about perception.

"What if you were only able to see it one way, no matter how many people told you it could be both? Then would you say it was about "perception" or about right and wrong?" I asked.

"Damn good question," she replied.

It is a damn good question.

-Megan Boedecker