Relativism’s Failure: Why Anyone Cared about the Dress

–my latest over at The Mirror!

The dress.

The dress

Is it gold and white, or black and blue?

When this picture of a dress became a wildfire trend across social media, no one could agree on its color. Within hours, it went from Tumblr to the New York Times, its meteoric rise in popularity complete with clearly delineated camps of opponents and dozens of proposed theories on why no one could agree on the color of one woman’s wardrobe choice.

One could point out that it’s stupid to get excited about a dress when children are dying in the Middle East. But surely no one would agree that it was as important as tragic news like that. The question is, then—why on earth did it become such a thing?

What the dress controversy highlighted, more than anything, is that human beings care about truth, which they usually equate with what their senses tell them. The dress in a way aroused fundamental questions about perception and reality, and whether reality is the same for all human beings.

the dress

With the tongue-in-cheek hysteria and sense of irony so easily spread across the internet, some social media users used the dress as a springboard (or diving board) for questioning the nature of reality itself. In users’ avowed comments that “if that isn’t gold my whole life has been a lie” and “what is reality” and “this dress made me realize all of life is an illusion,” it’s almost as if we heard Pontius Pilate’s unconviction ringing down the centuries and into our Facebook feeds: “What is truth?”

The truth is, in fact, one that philosophers have struggled with for ages. If we can’t trust what we see, what can we trust? Using science to explain away this little optical mystery doesn’t really get to the heart of the conundrum that sprung up around it. If we can’t agree on what can and should be plain and simple fact—like the color of a dress—what does that say about the human experience? That all is subjective, and that everything is merely colored—excuse the pun—by our point of view? Are we living the nightmare of philosophers? Can we be certain of truth?

The reason #thedress became more than a mere blip on a Tumblr account, the reason it became a “trending” topic, was because, despite all cultural programming to the contrary, human beings care about truth, and we won’t accept mutually exclusive statements as both equally true.

We’ve been taught for years—nay, generations—to modify our speech with the dainty clauses of moral relativism; to passively accept “your truth” and “my truth” as equally true and equally valid, even if they are wildly different. We’ve sunk into a passive approval of all things, a flattening of the dramatic contrast between the goodness of truth and the evil of falsehood; relativism, seeping into our worldview, has demanded a rejection of the very existence of truth and brought about a moral, political, literary, and social landscape that is one boring, equal shade of grey.

But despite this relentless conditioning in favor of moral relativism, human beings have an innate aversion to this kind of apathy, the uninterested neutrality that naturally results in the heart of someone who has really accepted the premises of relativism. The reason it was a controversy at all was simply because human beings want truth, not relativism; we want reliable answers, not a world whose meaning is reduced merely to subjective impressions or opinions that vary person to person.

In that, one could almost say that #thedress, ludicrous as it perhaps was, lays bare an unchangeable—and thus hopeful—trait of human nature. We want truth; we want reality to be clear. Perhaps, then, in the end, we see the reason that relativism will ultimately remain rootless, sown on the hostile soil of the human soul. Despite all social posturing to the contrary, we don’t really think that “it doesn’t matter if what you believe is different from what I believe.”

We want to see the meaning and truth at the heart of life, and we want it to be black and white—or black and blue.

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3 comments

  1. We want to see the meaning and truth at the heart of life, and we want it to be black and white—or black and blue.

    Awesome post! Not much else to add but (what else?) a Chesterton quote which seems relevant to that observation:
    ——————

    “It is morally impossible not to be moral. It is asking too much of human nature to ask it to be merely unrighteous when it has a chance of being self-righteous. There is an insupportable temptation to say the right thing when you are, for once, on the right side…’

    “…A quarrel is always a mutual appeal to conscience. Under the shock of it the most fantastic paradox-mongers put their trust in the eternal truisms. The poet, when in an ecstasy, will cry out that nothing is forbidden, that everybody is justified. But the poet, when in a quarrel, will not so easily cry out that his publisher is justified. The artist may claim all colours in a rainbow subtlety, fading into each other; but the artist, when disputing an arrangement with the art-dealer, will develop an interest in black and white.

    -January 8, 1916, Illustrated London News

    Liked by 2 people

  2. “The artist may claim all colours in a rainbow subtlety, fading into each other; but the artist, when disputing an arrangement with the art-dealer, will develop an interest in black and white.” Love it! Perfect GKC quote, Mike!

    Like

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