Saturday, 28 February 2015

Harriet Harman's Dress And The Ritual Castration of Reality

All the best smart-takes take the form of 'X isn't actually about X'. School isn't about schooling. Jaws isn't really about a shark. Vangate wasn't about a van. #thedress is actually just about a dress, but thankfully this post about the dress isn't really about the dress. This post is about Harriet Harman, what she wants people to think she thinks, and why. 

Everyone knows by this point the dress is actually blue, it's an optical illusion, and there are plenty of middlebrow articles out there explaining the psychology behind it [1]. This was established pretty early on in the game. Harriet Harman jumped on the bandwagon a long time after this, yet she says the dress is white and gold (twice). She is on team white and gold. Long past the point where the facts were established, she wants people to know that she is wrong. Why? [2]

For something so obviously frivolous, we actually have quite a bit of data to examine. Yougov polled the country [3], and the results are below.

Next, the number of people using the hashtags #whiteandgold and #blueandblack respectively.

Isn't this interesting? The vast majority of people are correct, the dress is blue and black, yet the vast majority of tweets about it are wrong [4]. People are more keen to let others know they are wrong than that they are right. #whiteandgold is the big one. We want other people to know that we are wrong. We see the beginnings of a community forming around it, people stapling it to the identities they build for themselves. We'll return to the question later, but first some background.


Groups require people to signal their loyalty and membership. This is what separates a group from a bunch of people. These signals can take many forms. Gang colours, football shirts, initiation rituals, The best signals are those that cost something, a cheap signal is easy to fake. Simply telling someone you love them is too easy, you may have several other saps on the go, a massive ceremony and expensive ring are costly, showing dedication and loyalty to something higher than yourself.

The most successful groups, those that keep people involved and grow, are those that demand something of their members. Without these investments, free riders can reap the benefits of social organisation without paying the costs. Members may sacrifice almost anything - time, money, dignity, humans, testicles, all that matters is that it costs them something. Just look at religions. Scientology built a business empire based on the tributes of its adherents. Islam has its five pillars. Even within Christianity we see Catholicism and evangelical branches growing, while liberal Church of England attendances fall through the floor. Why? Because they demand something. Without sacrifice they're just a bunch of people.

We can even sacrifice knowledge. Knowledge is not exactly the same as other commodities, but it is still something we try to collect, and something that is valuable. Turning away from the truth is more often than not costly, we will make less accurate predictions and decisions in the future without it. Believing something that is not true, therefore, can be viewed as a cost to pay in order to join a community and reap the benefits.

In politics, the most ridiculous and outlandish stories are the ones that divide people, because they offer opportunities to sacrifice knowledge and show loyalty. Campaigners against sexual assaults on campus devote their attention to the outlandish, the cartoonishly evil, and therefore, the likely untrue. Talking about those that are depressingly mundane doesn't offer the same opportunities. Declaring #ibelieveher, always and everywhere, is a costly signal, when the facts are fully revealed I will look stupid and naïve, paying in terms of reputation and status. However, it shows to everyone else I don't fear this, that my loyalty to the group is more important, and therefore keeps the group strong. A free-rider on feminism would be unwilling to pay the cost, this sorts them from the true believers. [5]

On the other side, we may consider Republican presidential candidates attitudes towards evolution. Denying it, in the face of all mainstream scientific opinion, is costly. It makes many view them as ignorant [6], they pay in perceived intelligence and credibility for the privilege of being seen as 'one of them' by the conservative base. It is difficult to build a strong community around reality. The self-described 'reality based community' went on one one march as a joke once. Liberals are a coalition of minority interest groups with some broadly aligned ideas, but all have their own separate knowledge sacrifices. Conservatism is a more cohesive singular movement.


The dress thing won't last very long, it's not going to turn into a political or religious movement, we'll all have forgotten it in a week. It's an interesting case study in how movements and religions form though, and which ones will survive and thrive.

The two of us think that the dress is blue. We have nothing in common. We will never speak of this again.

The two of us think that the dress is white. The dress is not white. On some level we both know that this is not the case, and know the other person knows this too. But it binds us. We're both willing to be wrong for the sake of the group. We're signalling that we're part of something bigger than ourselves. 

Harriet Harman knows this. She wants to jump on the bandwagon, show she's down with the kids, but simply mentioning it isn't good enough. She's got to pick a side, and blue and black isn't a side, it's reality. By going white and gold she is joining a ready made community, the people who are enthusiastic precisely because they're wrong. She ritually sacrifices reality on the altar of community, just like everyone else.


[1] For what it's worth I can't see the white and gold. I've really really tried, I understand the psychology of visual perception, I usually have pretty high openness to experience, but I just can't grok it. It doesn't matter though, loads of people can, and they seem pretty vocal, in spite of all the evidence otherwise.

[2] With regards the rest of the tweet: I don't care about the pink bus. Conservative outrage over it is something I like to call 'doing a Mensch'. The right taking on the language and clothes of the left in order to bash them, it always looks insincere. The gender pay gap is a little more interesting.

[3] Commissioned by buzzfeed, because late capitalism.

[4] This isn't to say these people don't actually see or believe the dress is white and gold. I don't know if they do or not, but your signalling is probably more reliable if you actually believe what you're saying.

[5] See more on this here.

[6] Though whether these people would ever vote for them anyway is debatable.