Friday, February 27, 2015

Dressing up our perspectives on the world

“The debate about #TheDress is simply a question of color and light. It turns out that perfectly sane humans disagree on this point. Now imagine that the question is about something more factually complex, like, oh, I don’t know, whether Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon or not.” - Dr. Daniel Drezner

I had fun with The Dress yesterday. Every now and then the internet can be a fun place, and sometimes we just need a day of stupid. First it was the llamas, which were funny in their own right, but the dress? Now that was fascinating.

Three-fourths of people saw the dress as white and gold. I saw five types of people on the net yesterday – blue and black, white and gold, blue and gold, no comment, and those who proclaimed that they were too good to partake in such an idiotic debate. The last are the worst. Definition of buzzkill, unwilling to have fun because they think they’re too cool for fun or too smart for such frivolities. I feel sorry for them.

It turns out that the dress is actually blue and black. Buzzfeed found another picture of the dress, one in which the white balance isn’t skewed to screw with our minds. The dress comes in four color schemes, actually, and none of them are white and gold – although there is a white and black one.

I tried to see the black and blue, but I could not. I put the picture into Photoshop and found that the color in the photo was indeed gold and not black, but it turns out that simply had to do with the white balance in the picture. The woman who took the photo (for a wedding, nonetheless), did not do a good job of capturing the image. The lighting was bad. I thought the dress could be blue and gold, or that maybe the blue only looked blue because of shadows, but I never could and still can’t see the black until the white balance is adjusted.

I trusted Photoshop in the absence of another picture of the dress and was surprised one didn’t pop up sooner. I tried looking for one, but having no information about the dress or the store, I failed in my Google search. So I went with the information I had after my Photoshop “research.” But I was never certain, because with a white balance adjustment, that dress looked blue and black. I was hoping some other “researchers” would come up with another picture, more evidence that the dress was indeed one or the other, and found the Buzzfeed article this morning.

Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, looked at the macro level, applying The Dress debate to the bigger picture of how we perceive and debate more important issues. I was thinking about this same thing when I went to bed last night, confused as to why people saw the dress as black and blue and wondering why I didn’t see it that way no matter how much I tried. I wanted more information, needed more sources, before I could come to a conclusion about the reality of the dress.

Most people did not. They saw it one way or the other and that was that. Moreover, they considered the other side as wrong. There is no better example to explain politics than The Dress debate.

Arguing with Americans about Israel-Palestine or Islam in general is like this. I have stood in the store and have held the blue and black dress in my hands and have seen it with my own eyes, but there are those who have only seen the skewed picture and swear it is white and gold despite never having seen it in person. They view the dress only through the media and swear they are right even though I tell them that I’ve held the dress and I know it is blue and black.

That’s how the “I Stand with Israel” or the anti-Muslim crowd is. They’ve never been to the Middle East, but they’ve seen it on TV so they think they know it. Those who have been there are wrong because the pictures say otherwise. They may have read a book (like my Photoshop example) and so they think they have the answer, but they don’t pursue other sources that may give a different view of things. Mostly they rely on propaganda – their friends say it’s white and gold, so they think it’s white and gold, too.

I’ve lived in the Middle East. I know that most Muslims are no different than you or I as Americans or Westerners or whatever label you want to give to distinguish “us” from “them.” Most people in the Middle East, even those who live under oppression, want the same things as we do – steady jobs, good schools for their children, good health care, safe environments for their families…In the US, all we see of the Muslim world is death and destruction. That’s a skewed white balance thanks to the media. That’s not reality. Islam is not inherently more violent than Christianity, as anyone who has actually read and understood the Bible knows. Socioeconomic conditions have given rise to fundamentalism, conditions brought about by accidents of history, the results of our world wars, imperialism, the discovery of oil, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a host of other occurrences that can probably be explained more by chaos theory than anything else. Islam is just a convenient ideological banner under which these maniacs operate, and there’d be far fewer maniacs if socioeconomic conditions were better.

Regarding The Dress, I used the Photoshop, too, but I also did some other experiments, adjusting the white balance and finding that I could see how it could be blue and black.  I never picked one side when I was learning about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, either, always seeking more information from more sources, reading a lot of books from all perspectives, traveling to the Mideast, talking to real people whose lives are actually affected by the conflict, visiting refugee camps, and learning what color the conflict really is. I know that one side or the other isn’t right, that both sides have good and bad arguments, and that the only way to fix the problem is to get both sides to actually listen to the other’s perspective for once and take a look at all the evidence. It’s not “Team White and Gold” and “Team Black and Blue.” Look at all the evidence, and you’ll find out that both sides are right and both sides are wrong, too. The picture really is white and gold because of the white balance, but the dress really is black and blue in the store.

Unfortunately, as the simple example of The Dress shows, most people aren’t willing to consider alternatives to their own perspectives. This is why we can’t solve our problems. We choose conflict, because it’s the lazy thing to do. We choose sides based on a lack of or unwillingness to learn from all the sources available to us. We choose labels, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why that is, though I suspect it has to do with our insecurities and feelings of vulnerability. These choices make life so much harder than it has to be and create so much unnecessary suffering in this world. Why do people always need an enemy?

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