For the Love

Remember The Dress?

That’s the question that’s prefaced many a fluffy thinkpiece in the last 48 hours as the purported audio version of The Dress was unleashed upon the Internet: a three-second sound-clip which sounds, of all things, like either Yanny or Laurel depending largely on one’s computer settings, natural hearing range, and possibly age. Like The Dress and its somewhat milder heir The Shoe, this is dividing people militantly, virulently, and pretty much evenly based on their innate perception of reality.

For the Love of Dichotomies!

by: Storey Clayton

Unlike The Dress, possibly, and maybe unlike The Shoe, this audio clip seems to have been deliberately crafted to elicit the ensuing divide. After all, in what world would anyone say Yanny? Or even create a clip that merely consists of a vaguely electronically sounding Laurel? “Stella!” this is not. Like so many things in today’s world, this has been put in front of us to make us disagree.

And disagree we do! The sheer certainty and verve that people are bringing to this debate would be shocking were it not present in so many other online fora. As yesterday’s Vox piece which seems to have carried a lot of the viral load in promoting this story cheekily concludes: “But even though the generosity of these strangers is proof that the internet is an open and weird and great place where we can connect with people who don’t see or hear the world the way we might, the voice is clearly saying ‘Laurel.'” Posts on both sides have accused the other of engaging in an elaborate prank, trolling for attention, even being the stooge of Russian hackers determined to tear the nation apart.

The vitriol, while often overtly overblown and exaggerated for effect, is somewhat understandable. Whether artificially concocted or not, The Dress and Yanny/Laurel strike at the very heart of our understanding of reality. We believe our empirical data about the world to be obvious and incontrovertible – what we see or hear is the founding premise of our understanding of existence and everything else we believe stems from this. Such experiences are understood to be objective and universal and this universality creates foundational premises from which we can go on to make other, more complicated agreements. This eventually makes its way to laws and contracts and political affiliations and is the whole basis for society itself, for the acknowledgment of shared humanity. If we aren’t even experiencing the same world, what hope do we have left for figuring out how to live together in it?

Philosophers among you may be considering an age-old question about the nature of color and, by extension, perception in the midst of this. How do we know that what I experience as green is the same as what you experience? It’s utterly conceivable that my color spectrum is a precise photo negative of your color spectrum and what I’ve learned to call green, while being attributed to the same objects as what you call green, actually looks physically nothing like what you’ve learned to call green. Since color is entirely a perceived reality, which not all sighted beings share, this problem presents thorny questions about the reality we purport to share. If those perceptions could be different, what else could be different about our disparate realities?

I’ve never been terribly compelled by the challenge posed by the Color Problem, largely because, as a devotee of language, I believe we would end up with different associations with colors were we perceiving them differently. Would red, yellow, and orange be described as warm colors if some people were seeing it in photo-negative, while blue and green would be described as cooler colors? This may be question-begging, because if you always saw the sun and fire as something that looked, to me, the inverse of what we call orange and yellow, then you would associate those colors with warmth. I guess. But I feel like the warmth property of red and orange actually speaks to something innate about our perceptual yellow/orange/red and speaks to a greater universality than we fear. But I must admit that interactions with colorblind people give me pause in this conviction – a close friend growing up had trouble differentiating red and green pieces in our Risk set. When I asked which color he was seeing both red and green as, he couldn’t answer. Because, of course, that was what he perceived the colors as and how can you describe that distinction based on your own reality? The Dress and Yanny/Laurel take that one step further and terrify us that there’s some greater natural divide between us and at least half of the rest of us.

(For what it’s worth, a current poll on Twitter by Vox gives Laurel a 55-45 edge. I am solidly in the Yanny camp and can’t hear Laurel even if I try to will myself into it. A small quotient of the population appears to be able to go back and forth or hear both, just as was true with The Dress and The Shoe. I’ve never been able to trick my mind into hearing or seeing anything besides my initial gut-check.)

You may think this divide is all a distraction from the real and important issues of the day. And, whether deliberate, inadvertent, or a necessary break from even more intense dichotomous vitriol, it is. But it also illuminates something vital about these other bipartisan conflicts that bedeck our lives, especially online. Recently, a lot of effort has been made to research the difference between liberal and conservative intuitions in an effort to explain why people disagree so fundamentally and apparently irreversibly on critical issues of the day. Is there something in our genetics? Our upbringing? Our experiences? We are not at home with the notion that people can strenuously disagree with us on things we find to be obvious and vital, so we prefer to explain it in a way to show that there’s no helping it. So often, our only alternative explanation is that the other side are monsters, deplorable, not even human, and so if we have an immutable characteristic to explain it, then we can at least make peace with our enemies in our own heads, if not in reality.

One of the most discussed versions of this explanation is summarized here. Many of the conclusions drawn from this study are intuitive – conservatives are more likely to feel fear and self-sufficiency, while liberals tend toward feeling secure and communal. There’s a link to the concept of “purity” in the study, which ties into religion – and relates to the original research (see here) that attempts to scale everyone on five basic value sets: Harm, Fairness, Ingroup, Authority, and Purity. As someone who scores off the charts on Purity and maintains a staunchly left-wing perspective on most everything, I find myself skeptical about the conviction of these explanations, but there’s surely some weight to the more obvious conclusions. Certainly the relationship between fear and conservatism is time-honored, though the recent spate of hand-wringing about nuclear war and Russian spies in the wake of Trump’s election has made me question the consistency of this conclusion. Hillary Clinton tried to win almost entirely off of fear of Donald Trump, a strategy Democrats are unlikely to ditch anytime soon. Of course, Trump has hardly averted from fear, still citing the dangers of foreigners, immigrants, journalists, and Democrats in equal measure to push his agenda.

As divided as our country may be, few people have died in direct clashes over the 2016 election or even the ideology of Democrats and Republicans writ large. The same cannot be said for the conflict in Israel and Palestine, nor the proxy war between Iran (and friends) and Saudi Arabia (and friends) in Yemen. While the latter will probably never capture significant American attention (despite attracting American drone strikes for three administrations and counting), the former continues to captivate and militantly divide Americans, recently thrown into sharp relief by the moving of the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, resulting in Palestinian protests quashed with lethal force by the IDF. Just as Trumpers are dismissed as deplorable and Democrats are dismissed as idiots or shills, so too does the name-calling rise to a fever pitch in the Israel/Palestine debate on North American shores. Those who question the slaughter of Palestinians are anti-Semites bent on the destruction of every Jewish person; those who question the tactics of Hamas are proponents of apartheid and genocide. I certainly have sides I tend to favor or lean to in all of these conflicts, as does most everyone, but I am sufficiently far removed from loyalty to an American political party or a side in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to be able to see how unreasonable everyone is being. And lest you, as do most Israelis and Palestinians, believe this is only because I don’t live in Gaza or Tel Aviv, let me remind you how I feel about my own home country. Probably half the posts on this page in the last couple years are about my disdain for the nation where I was born, still live, and unfortunately pay taxes to kill Yemeni children.

It is so much easier to believe the other side are (like octopi?!) mere aliens, have different genetic codes, are veritably inhuman and thus cannot be reasoned with or understood. They’re just trolling us, they don’t possibly hear Yanny in reality. They are built so differently that they think The Dress is black and blue. How could we ever see eye to eye with such people when we literally can’t see the same thing?

This is a cop-out.

The cop-out is related to the other great cop-out of our emerging era, which is best summarized by the appellation “fake news”. The notion that journalism and fact-finding is distinct from spin and opinion has been corroding for decades in the country, but never has the blur been more prevalent than with the advent of mutual accusations that everything reported by someone from the other side, be they a reporter or politician, is fake news. The upshot is that no one can even agree upon very basic elements of reality from which we might hope to debate about more nuanced decisions like what we should do in the future. Indeed, why go through the painstaking work of trying to win a debate about environmental policy, healthcare, guns, or foreign affairs if one can instead just alter the reality to prime the pump of perspective before the debate even begins?

Social media, perhaps rightfully, gets most of the blame for the advent of the territorial fight moving from opinion to fact itself, this pre-emption of the question at hand with the distortion of what is even true or being experienced. But I think that’s a bit misguided, or at least incomplete as a picture. To me, advertising long predates social media as a culprit for shifting the sands of reality beneath our feet, for throwing questions of objective truth out the window in favor of shakier, uncertain ground. It was advertising and its accelerated hyper-capitalist success that taught us to fear new maladies and sources of social isolation that were largely invented in order to sell us products. It was advertising that created “false advertising” well before “fake news”, paving the way for us to question anything we heard from an authoritative voice or alleged expert. It was advertising, admittedly within social media, that is blamed for the proliferation of falsity in the 2016 election and even during the Obama administration, targeted ads bought and paid for that led the public to believe lies. Indeed, few have questioned in the wake of recent scandals the absolute sanctity of lying in advertising on Facebook or anywhere else. The distinction people seem to want to draw is that it’s different when there’s a political motive, while a commercial motive is just fine. Given that people are largely more directly impacted by their own financial blunders and misdeeds than whoever wins an election, I question this prioritization. After all, Facebook was merely acting within the boundaries of the almighty corporation pursuing the almighty dollar at all costs. Why is this sauce for all the geese in the land save the gander of our quadrennial popularity contest?

Surely the root of all lying cannot be attributed to the mere profit motive, as inclined as I am to bring all roads back to capitalism. While the profit motive best explains the bulk of both Trump and W Bush’s decisions, as well as corporations denying the lethality of everything from carbon emissions to smoke inhalation to drone strikes, it doesn’t necessarily answer all the questions behind Israel and Palestine. Or even North and South Korea. Some conflicts have become so entrenched, so riddled with hate and retaliation and revenge, that we would not even accept a large sum of cash to settle our differences. We are, as they say, out for blood. Only the most thorough and complete dehumanization of our enemies will suffice to slake our injured anger.

But remove the history, remove the threats and hateful rhetoric, remove the extensive track-record of corpse creation, and what do we have left? We have Yanny and Laurel. We have black and blue or white and gold. We have a fundamental, seemingly immutable, difference in opinion on the basic facts on the ground. This land is ours. No, it’s ours. We are right and you are wrong and we can’t possibly let ourselves see across this divide. Ultimately, dig your heels in sufficiently and you’re willing to kill for it.

I’m not here to scold you for retweeting the Yanny/Laurel clip and arguing with excessive bravado over the insanity of those who hear differently than you. It’s all in good fun, mostly harmless. But a word of caution about practicing how we play. The more we convince ourselves that the world is unbridgeably dichotomous, that those on the other side are crazy at worst or wired differently at best, the more we get in the habit of dehumanizing disagreement. As a species, we already have far too much practice with that.

Perhaps the better lesson of The Dress and its colleagues is to turn the criticism or questioning on ourselves. In an era where we will soon be able to manufacture clips that provide tangible video evidence of anyone saying anything at any time, whether or not the apparent visual evidence depicts reality (see here), we will soon all have to become much more adept self-critics. Is my perception the reality? Is what I see actually what happened? Is what I hear actually what was said? This self-critical perspective, long overdue in America, may be our only hope of getting out of actual conflicts alive and, more importantly, human.


Storey Clayton is a writer, debater, poker player, and non-profiteer. He spent nine years as an academic debater, winning the 2001 North American Championship for Brandeis University. He spent five more as a coach, guiding the Rutgers University team to second at the 2014 National Championships. He is the author of three novels (one published) and the creator of the popular online quiz site The Blue Pyramid. Originally from the West, Storey just moved from New Jersey to New Orleans, where he is reporting for Clarion Content on politics, philosophy, and life in the South.

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