“The Dress” as A Metaphor for Partisan Political Discourse in America

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If you are among the likely overwhelming majority that didn’t give up social media for Lent, then you’re bound to have stepped into what amounts to a virtual Civil War on Twitter a few weeks ago on Thursday evening of February 26th. That night, thousands of users were up in arms over “Dressgate,” after a bizarre photo of what is only referred to as “The Dress” surfaced online. The reason behind the viral nature of “The Dress” was attributed to the fact that segments of the population saw the color of the image as gold and white, while other segments of the population saw the exact same image as blue and black.

Within just a few hours, dozens of articles sprung up online explaining potential theories and science behind this unusual phenomenon. The general consensus in the visual sciences community boiled down to differences in the way our eyes and minds perceive images, color, and light. While many, such as news and media sites, consulted vision professionals, the majority of the Web decided to take a different approach instead; argue each other into believing that their own colors were in fact the correct ones, while the others were “full of it.”

By midnight, #whiteandgold and #blueandblack were both trending on Twitter. While I did not engage in argumentation with strangers on social media, I did play the role of a passive observer. What I noticed that night was some very familiar, angry rhetoric being thrown around between the two “factions.” Here are a few examples of tweets and comments on the divisive “issue” below.

“How could any intelligent human possibly think that this dress is blue and black?”

“It’s blue and black freaking idiots. You need a doctor if you think it’s white and gold.”


After reading through countless similar tweets and comments, the majority being variations of the exact same concepts, I came to the realization that rhetoric surrounding “The Dress” was nearly identical to rhetoric used in political debate between the left and right.

The frequent, hostile, back-and-forth squabbling was eerily reminiscent of partisan bickering seen within the socio-political landscape of our country. One can see the exact same type of conflict on any other topic, whether it be on taxes, Obamacare, religion, immigration, or the economy. In both instances of “The Dress” and political discourse, rather than considering the possibility of other viewpoints being valid, or consider that maybe there are differences in perception of the same object in question, people dismissed the differences as stupidity or deception. During “Dressgate,” many simply refused to believe that they could be wrong about the color that they perceived. What could easily have been explained by science if they had just taken the time to conduct some research or try to logically deduce the discrepancy between different viewers, turned into one giant free-for-all.

How can we start to discuss the problems of our country rationally and in a levelheaded manner, if we cannot even collectively see eye to eye about an utterly unimportant concept such as “The Dress?”

The search for facts or the truth in these instances did not matter. The only thing that did was what was directly within that person’s vision and perception, and thus all other conversation centered on defending one’s own view of the subject. One can see similar rhetoric any day of the week on CSPAN; take a look at Congress, with Democrats and Republicans alike, refusing to cross partisan lines in order to solve issues. Or even in the 24-hour news media, with pundits on Fox or MSNBC yelling over one another to get their point across to deaf ears. Often, they cannot have a simple, civil dialogue because of their natural tendencies toward dogmatic views of what they believe to be the truth, the only truth.

Like our own individual perceptions of the color of this dress, our perceptions of what is ideologically correct in matters of society, government, and morality is just that; entirely our own. And to push that on others, who, due to their perceptual wiring are unable to understand, is inherently flawed. Understanding cannot be achieved in this way. Now granted, a small segment of denizens on the Internet did in fact discuss this “topic” lightheartedly out of curiosity, and in a level headed fashion. But the rest of the irrational Internet engaged in pointless battle, which really demonstrated our collective tendency as human beings to disagree on everything.

What color is the dress? It doesn’t matter. The bigger issue is that “Dressgate” served as a microcosm for the type of dialogue and rhetoric that we so often engage in when debating issues of importance. If people cannot even reach reconciliation over the color of a meaningless, and frankly ugly dress, then the future of our nation’s political discourse looks rather bleak.

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