With smartphone cameras and digital message trails, ‘what actually happened’ is more available to us than it has ever been. So why is public life saturated in both illusion and delusion?
When Melania Trump recently visited the detention centres at America’s southern border while wearing a jacket printed with the words “I really don’t care do u?”, the responses of Washington pundits were sharply divided. For one side, the jacket was a message; for the other, there was no message. As the MSNBC journalist Chuck Todd joked: “Perhaps this is like Laurel and Yanny and gold dress and blue dress … each opinion is right yet somehow also completely wrong.” Those two globally popular memes produced a lighthearted, absurd sectarianism that reflects the polarised nature of our times.
It took about three years for us to find a worthy successor to “that dress”’, whose true colours split the planet. Was it blue and black or white and gold? The illusory garment provided what is often called now a “teachable moment”. One implication for those in the wrong – the dress is actually blue and black – was obvious: we can’t trust the stubborn certainty of our perceptions. It also offered clear proof that others’ experience of reality can be at odds with our own. That dress was like a miniature morality play about the vulnerability of our beliefs and the subjective inner lives of others, all captured in a meme.