How colour blindness taught me that it’s unwise to be dogmatic about gender issues

by Dr John Barry

Like 8% of men and 0.5% of women, I am colour blind. Being colour blind has a significant impact on Quality of Life (Barry et al, 2017), creating problems in everyday activities such as understanding coloured graphs (in lectures and textbooks) and maps (e.g. the London Underground map).

I was lucky enough to find this out when I first started school. Knowing at an early age allowed me to adjust to the fact and avoid a lot of confusion and frustration later on. Children who don’t know they are colour blind can be teased by others if they get confused about colours in school, and might doubt their own intelligence (Todd, 2018).

I was lucky to go to a school that routinely tested for colour blindness. Not so lucky were the billions of colour blind people before 1790, the year scientist John Dalton discovered that he was red-green colour blind. This happened when he realised that he could not tell the difference between a block of sealing wax he was told was red and a block he was told was green. Dalton went on to research the issue and lecture and publish on colour blindness. However, before 1790 people did not realise that colour blindness was a ‘thing’. This no doubt led to all sorts of errors and confusion, from modest people inadvertently wearing outlandishly garish clothing, to people not seeing the signs of serious medical problems (e.g. blood in faeces).

As a teenager, it occurred to me that if I could be absolutely certain that there was no difference between something red and something green, then I in essence had to doubt the evidence of my senses. Maybe there were all sorts of other subtle blindnesses that we hadn’t discovered yet? Perhaps the same gene coding for colour blindness creates blindness for other issues too? A worrying thought that deflated any sense of being 100% correct on any issue. For example, I might look at the facts and be convinced that the solution to crime is to end the causes of crime (e.g. social deprivation), but another person might look at the same facts and be convinced that the solution is to increase punishment for offenders. Who is correct? It would be wonderful if we could just rely on objective evidence rather than subjective views, but the problem is that we view the objective through our own subjective lenses, thus the argument might not move forward at all, and even become more consolidated.

In later years I began to realise that the self-doubt I had learned about my colour vision deficiency was something that many others might benefit from too. For example, despite the same facts being publicly available to everyone, why are some people apparently so certain that gender is the result of nurture rather than nature? Don’t they feel even a little doubt about their opinion? Or perhaps a certain proportion of the population suffer from blindness around gender.

This might explain why although around 75% of suicides are male, male suicide is relatively non-existent as an issue in Psychology or in Gender Studies. When this statistic is highlighted, it is often accompanied by a ‘victim blaming’ attitude (e.g. ‘well if men sought help then they wouldn’t kill themselves’) or even humour (e.g. ‘men are better at DIY, thus construct more solidly lethal methods to use against themselves’).

These examples of ‘male gender blindness’ (Seager et al, 2014) and the ‘gender empathy gap’ (Barry, 2016) are a common feature of discussions of gender. Martin Seager sometimes uses the image of the ‘elephant in the room’ to describe the blindness to male gender issues. I like the ‘rabbit / duck’ illusion, which is a good analogy for how some people look at life and only see only issues facing women, and typically don’t see any of the issues facing men in the picture. For example, they see women as being oppressed by they traditional role of housewife, but don’t see men as oppressed in their traditional role of provider (often in dangerous or dirty jobs) and protector (e.g. conscripted to fight in wars). It seems that we can observe a behaviour, but interpret the behaviour in multiple ways e.g. is the man who holds a door for a woman (a) sexist (b) benevolently sexist (c) kind?

Inevitably, my analogy of colour blindness and gender-related cognitions doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the motives underlying cognitions. It doesn’t explain, for example, the process by which people might change their minds about gender issues. One suspects that people who have had a trauma of some kind related to gender issues are more likely to impose a schema upon the world that sees gender issue threatening, and the restricted view of gender is a coping strategy to control their anxieties. My experience is that this schema is often emotionally entrenched and changes only slowly, if at all.

I think what we all need to do is take a step back from our strongly held views and have the courage to ask ourselves: ‘what if I am wrong about this? What if there is another side to the picture that I have not been able to see?’  Applying some healthy scepticism to our own views has the potential to bring more light to discussions, and reduce the heat, and lead us all to a more enlightened place.


About the author

Dr John Barry is a chartered psychologist and co-founder of the Male Psychology Network


Related information

Martin Seager and John Barry will be presenting their views on ‘male gender blindness’ and other cognitive distortions at UCL on Nov 22nd

Cognitive distortions around gender are discussed in this blog, in this animation, and this book chapter: Seager M and Barry JA (2019). Cognitive distortion in thinking about gender issues: Gamma bias and the gender distortion matrix, in Barry JA, Kingerlee R, Seager MJ and Sullivan L (Eds.) (2019). The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health. London: Palgrave Macmillan




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