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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #55, 12/28/2006

How Do You Explain Color to the Colorblind?
— or —
The Problem of Human Communication

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

Some people, through no fault of their own, are born colorblind. For example, they may not be able to distinguish green from red. It is not a devastating disease. They can still see; they just can't see the world the same way other people can. In fact, many people with colorblindness go through life without ever recognizing their deficiency.

How would you explain "red" to someone who has never seen it? Language is of no use here. You could say, "The color of a cherry," but that wouldn't convey much to someone who thinks a cherry is the same color as an avocado. If you ask them, "Can you see red?" they would say, "Of course I can," because they have seen everything that has been labeled as red. It just happens that, to them, red and green are the same color, while to the rest of us they are different.

You face the same challenge when trying to discuss certain emotional concepts with people who have never experienced them. For example, how do you describe a loving mother or father to someone who never had one? It may seem simple to us, but the basic skills of parenting are almost impossible to explain in words and very difficult to train in others.

The clearest example of emotional colorblindness is autism. If you know an autistic, then you understand what I mean. You can discuss concrete things with them, like objects and actions, but they are never going to grasp your underlying emotions. They might go to a wake, see refreshments on the table and be totally unaware of all the complex emotions swirling in the room. "Mmmm, cookies! My favorite kind!"

Autistics use the same language we do, but it has a different meaning, and this makes it virtually useless for explaining emotions to them. If you ask them, "Do you know what love is?" of course they do. Love is someone taking care of them. It is not the same reciprocal love that we might mean when we use the word.

There are many kinds of emotional colorblindness that are not so obvious but are almost as debilitating. How do you explain a healthy romantic relationship to someone who has never seen one? Of course they know what love is—They have seen it on TV.—but this is not the same as a real-life role model.

Television gives you the fantasy of falling in love, but it doesn't show you the mundane nitty-gritty of how to make a relationship work. The best teachers in this regard are your parents. If their relationship was reasonably healthy, then you will have a good idea of how to go about it yourself. If their relationship was dysfunctional, then your perception of your own relationships will inevitably be colored by it.

Words aren't terribly helpful for conveying emotions between people, because each person has already defined their words in a certain way. "I love you," for example, can mean something totally different between the sender and receiver. The sender is defining it through his own experiences, and the receiver is hearing it as she chooses to. There can be a massive gulf in-between.

More powerful than words are the knee-jerk emotional reactions that were developed early in life. If you were betrayed in your childhood, then you instinctively expect it to happen in your adulthood. You may have an ingrained inability to trust. It is a sort of colorblindness that could prevent you from seeing what you should see and that may end up sabotaging your relationships.

To be politically correct, you could say that colorblind people aren't "deficient"; they are merely "different." In fact, all of us are colorblind to certain wavelengths of ultraviolet and infrared light that other animals can see. Why should some of us be labeled as disabled and not others?

There is one point, however, where such political correctness can become deadly: when you approach a traffic light. Is it red or green? Traffic lights evolved based on certain common understandings between people. If you are unable to share this perception or at least grasp your deficiency, then your life and that of your passengers can be in grave danger.

With emotional colorblindness, we could just say that some people, due to their upbringing, have certain "emotional styles", "personal tastes" or "sexual preferences." That's okay as a diplomatic position, but it doesn't mean you can afford to disregard any blindness in yourself or others. If your relationships fail one after another, ending in bloody car crashes, maybe that's not a harmless color shift.

Autistics can find their place in society, but that doesn't mean you should marry one. Colorblindness, visual or otherwise, is not something that is likely to go away, no matter how willing you are to "work with" the person.

This lies at the root of many divorces. You married someone believing that they could see "red" and knew "love," when in fact they had no knowledge of these concepts. When they told you, "My love is like a red, red rose," they weren't lying; they were simply expressing themselves as they knew how, based on their limited vision.

The only way to determine visual colorblindness is through a non-verbal color test. This usually consists of series of cards containing figures that can only be seen if you can perceive certain wavelengths. For emotional colorblindness, the test is often an actual relationship—which can end up being a high-cost, multi-year diagnostic procedure not covered by most medical plans.

The emotional problem is more complex than the visual one, because there are always going to be problems of communication between people. No one sees quite the same emotional wavelengths. Men and women seem to perceive emotions differently, as do men and men and women and women. The question is, at what point do the differences become terminal?

Maybe a real relationship is the only way to find out. One thing that you should not believe, however, is that there is a magical solution to colorblindness. If, for example, you are frustrated with your current relationship, then "more commitment" probably won't fix it. If your partner is colorblind before the marriage, then he will be colorblind after, except now he will have less incentive to address his deficiency.

—G.C.


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Reader Comments

“The phrase "emotional colorblindness" came to me today when trying to describe my most recent relationship. I'm so pleased you've explored it so fully! Too bad there aren't any diagnostics other than trial and error....” — 10/24/09 (rating=4)

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