Why is the colour blue like arguments on Twitter?

Instead of throwing around words like "mansplaining", we should try to understand each other's experiences - which are as unique as our individual perception of colours.

I happened to be reading up on qualia, recently. For those familiar with the term, please forgive my short and inevitably inaccurate explanation of this deeply complex philosophical concept. Qualia are those personal experiences which depend on subjective perception to such an extent that knowledge of them cannot be properly shared.

A common example of a quale, is the perception of saturated colour. Colour does not exist objectively and independently of our perception of it. The cone photoreceptors in our eye send a message to the brain, depending on the wavelength of light reflected, and we interpret that as red, or blue, or whatever. There is, however, no way to confirm that what I see as blue is what you see as blue. Try to explain blue to a person who was born blind and you will find it is impossible without resorting to analogies which rely on other sensations, or referencing other colours or other things which are “blue”.

Pain is also a quale. Imagine explaining the sensation to an alien race which has never felt – and is incapable of feeling – pain. This doesn't mean your pain isn't real, of course. It just means that, like so many other things, it is a singularly personal experience.

These unshareables are an important component of what makes us who we are. And since it is a philosophical impossibility for us to feel things as someone else does, communication is the only viable route to try and explain them, to foster empathy. I believe this is precisely what empathy is; an openness to information (and a willingness to understand it) which allows one to approximate what blue might look like through someone else's eyes.

This brings me to the recent debate about Twitter abuse, the possibility of censorship, misogyny, silence and speaking out. I have long felt that one of the biggest obstacles to understanding each other, to empathy, is the attempt to aggregate our qualia; to generalise about what is universally offensive and try to define it on behalf of an entire group. Each abuser is an individual with their own agenda, their own motivation and their own baggage. Each recipient of abuse, ditto.

It is entirely true to say I haven't walked a mile in a woman's shoes. Except for a few months in 1989 when I was trying something out. But each woman's journey is different, as is each man's. Nobody has walked in anybody's shoes. We are uniquely alone in our perception of the world around us. I was dismayed as I watched the debate somehow mutate from how to deal with abuse on social media – together – to how all men hate and want to hurt women.

Granted, there are shared experiences which might make it marginally easier for a woman to explain her colour blue to another woman. But it is still a mammoth task and it still just empathy, not actual shared perception. And it doesn't mean it is impossible for her to find a different common frame of reference which might allow her to explain her colour blue to a man. Trying to do so is incredibly worthwhile, not only for the explainee, but also the explainer. Each time we struggle to find the right words to describe our qualia to someone, it facilitates the next time someone struggles to explain theirs to us.

I read Dan Hodges' blog on modern feminism, and it is a good example of the knots into which we tie ourselves, when we try to generalise. He puts forward a world view in which men in general somehow get together and decide - or instinctively know - how to react to women in general. I have never gone up to stranger and broken the ice with “so. . . you have a penis, too”. Except for a few months in 1991 when I was trying something out.

Some of the reaction to Hodges's blog was equally disappointing – it was dismissed as “mansplaining”. A quaint little term with a very nasty subtext, meaning that anyone with a particular chromosomal combination could not possibly have anything of value to offer. The very same narrow-mindedness which kept women oppressed for millennia.

This world view of them-against-us simply doesn't tally with my perception. It is not the blue I see. I have felt many things hinder, annoy, anger or threaten me at one time or another. The possibility of gender equality has never been one of them. I welcome it. I fight for it. I stand shoulder to shoulder with my sisters, my mother, my nieces, my girlfriends, my female colleagues and cannot wait for it to come. To be told, quite consistently, “no, really, you want to rape them” is deeply upsetting.

I was similarly dismayed to see people I admire lay into each other on the subject of whether silence was the right approach. So far as I could see, nobody forced anyone to be silent as a protest. Some people decided, based on their experience, their colour blue, that it was an appropriate response and did it. Others decided to talk about inspiring women. Others decided to ignore it altogether and not allow abuse to derail them from normality. I say hurrah for them all. Why must it be one-size-fits-all? It is completely within our gift to allow each other freedom of expression.

The other day, someone accosted me on Twitter and wrote: “Muslims left alone would still be living in caves, Africans in trees and Arabs in children.” This gentleman was crystal clear about his intent to offend and upset and effective at expressing it. To him, I am the troll. Then, just as I was about to type something, someone else replied to him about “Arabic numerals”, someone else said to that person they were “actually Hindu”, a third person butted in etc. On top of the people (men and women) hurling abuse (to men and women) with wicked intent, why must we troll each other with oneupmanship?

The only true distinction I can see is between people of both sexes willing to put in the hard graft to understand each other and those who are not; those who want to evolve and those who do not. They are the only two clear camps I can discern. And they are fluid, as perception is. The idea that all those people who want to go forward are prevented from being effective allies for each other, based on what is between their legs, seems daft to me. It seems small-minded and antiquated. It seems to exclude fifty percent of shades of the colour blue from the palette.

Technological advances and increasingly shared linguistic and cultural experiences mean we are very close to an era where we might actually be able, all of us, to communicate with each other. Perhaps, even act in tandem. This will not have occurred since we were a small tribe of a couple of hundred homo sapiens in Africa, 195,000 years ago. I can hardly fathom it. The ability to share information across our entire species. It is a prospect that the “establishment” is terrified of. Anything is possible. Wouldn't it be tragic if we fucked it up because we went into it with a penchant for misunderstanding each other's uniqueness? Especially when, ironically, that solitude of perception and our need to share it is the only thing we all truly have in common.

Maybe #TWITTERSILENCE should become something we shout, when everyone needs to take five, calm down and get some perspective. 

What do you see?

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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With everything from iPhones to clothing turning monochrome, is the West afraid of colour?

If modern design appears particularly achromatic, it only reflects the "chromophobia" which courses through the history of Western thought.

To many English observers, 1666 – the year that the poet John Dryden christened the annus mirabilis, or “year of miracles” – wasn’t especially miraculous. The country was gripped by plague and, after a hot, dry summer, the Great Fire cut a swath through London. But for Isaac Newton, then still a student, it did prove illuminating. It was in 1666 that he first used prisms to prove that white light was not a pure, indissoluble substance but was made up of different coloured rays. This was such a profound challenge to the prevailing world-view that even Newton was shaken. “I perswade my self,” he wrote, “that this Assertion above the rest appears Paradoxical, & is with most difficulty admitted.”

The belief that colours are inferior and therefore naturally subordinate, rather than fundamental, was not new in Newton’s day, nor did it end with his discovery of spectral colour. A pattern of chromophobia – an aversion to colours – courses through Western thought.

Writing in the fourth century BC, Aristotle argued: “The most attractive colours would never yield as much pleasure as a definite image without colour.” For Renaissance artists, this idea was defined by the division between disegno, drawing or design, and colore. Disegno was the foundation of any serious artistic endeavour. The preference for achromatic, “intellectual” form is also evident in architecture. Despite rock-solid evidence from the 19th century proving that Greek marble buildings and statues were once brightly painted, the classical ideal has remained anachronistically bleached. And while modernist and postmodern architects have made some use of colour, the primacy of form is unmistakable in the work of everyone from John Pawson to Zaha Hadid and Toyo Ito.

A broad cultural dislike of colour is curious because, speaking in evolutionary terms, our ability to see it has been crucial to our success. Colour vision in primates developed between 38 and 65 million years ago and makes us better able to find ripening red and yellow fruits amid green foliage. Neurons devoted to visual processing occupy much more of our neocortex real estate than those devoted to hearing or touch. Estimates vary but the Optical Society of America has suggested that it may be possible for humans to distinguish between up to ten million different shades.

And we have put this skill to good use. Bold colours have been used by many cultures to mark temporal and spiritual power. Tyrian purple, a rich, reddish dye said to resemble clotted blood, was made using an extract from two different kinds of Mediterranean shellfish and was beloved by emperors in the ancient world. A single pound of dyed cloth would cost a skilled craftsman three years’ wages and became steadily more expensive as the shellfish became rarer.

But even as such saturated colours were coveted, they also elicited disgust. The manufacture of many, including Tyrian purple, involved ingredients such as stale urine and dung. Dye and paintworks were relegated to the urban fringes. Increasingly, the wearing of bright colours was seen as vainglorious and ungodly. Protestants indicated their humility by whitewashing over jewel-coloured murals and smashing stained-glass windows in churches, and by restricting their sartorial palette predominantly to black. An echo prevails today in men’s suits: colours are largely confined to small accessories such as ties and white shirts are held up as the ne plus ultra of refined sophistication. (The late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs went one better, opting for a uniform of identical black turtlenecks.)

One reason for this distrust is that colours are difficult to conceptualise. Do they exist physically, or only in our brains? Does everyone see them the same way? Colours have been maligned as chaotic, fickle, irrational and female. The early Christian thinker St Augustine of Hippo accused them of “a seductive and dangerous sweetness”.

Our ambivalence to colour, however, has profited white. Like black, white has not been classed as a real colour since Newton. It has almost become an anti-colour. Take Apple, for example. Although Sir Jony Ive is usually credited with the company’s love for monochrome products (it was certainly Ive who brought this to its apogee), the trend predates his arrival. It can be traced back to the “Snow White” design language developed in the 1980s. Today, as consumer neophilia demands that technology be continually refreshed, Apple’s higher-end products are available in the smallest range of colours – usually just white, black and, for the Asian market, gold – while those lower down come in a slew of fruity brights.

White is not only big business for Apple. In 2014, a Californian man named Walter Liew was found guilty of 20 counts of economic espionage and sentenced to 15 years in jail for selling the secret to a very special shade of titanium-oxide white, used in everything from luxury cars to tennis courts, to Chinese firms for $28m.

Perhaps the final word on the matter should go to Le Corbusier. In 1925, the great modernist recommended that all interior walls should be whitewashed, to act as a moral and spiritual restorative. But he wasn’t just advocating white for white’s sake: although he continued to dabble with colour, he disapproved of it, too. “Let us leave to the clothes-dyers,” he wrote, “the sensory jubilations of the paint tube.”

“The Secret Lives of Colour” (John Murray) by Kassia St Clair will be published on 20 October

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad