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
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
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
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
“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)