Ray McAllister doesn’t always hear music. But he does see it: “a bright flash of lavender getting dimmer and dimmer; now we’re going over a pink staircase, some lavender violins.” Ray was profiled in a 2002 “60 Minutes” episode about synesthesia, a condition in which people have two senses that are overtly linked. Some synesthetes may experience color as a blend of ethereal musical tones; others may hear the names of places, objects or situations and feel the trace of a familiar taste on their tongues.
The most surprising thing about this condition is that it’s relatively common. Even by conservative estimates, synesthesia is found in 4.4 percent of the population. According to Wikipedia, “it has been suggested that synesthesia develops during childhood when children are intensively engaged with abstract concepts for the first time.” So if my pseudoscientific research can be trusted, it seems that synesthesia is a result of the brain struggling to grapple with the complexity of the world.
Even for those of us who don’t experience such a direct crossing of senses, red is never just an abstract concept. To me, red is the most abrupt and yet the most lingering color. A flash of red is startling, almost unnatural, but it stays in the mind until it slowly fizzles out. It’s abrasive. Perhaps that’s why it’s the color associated with anger, the color Trump used for his “Make America Great Again” hats, the color that screams at us to stop in one context, and to hurl ourselves unabashedly into a violent conflict in another.
Red is a political color—it’s the representation of political movements as disparate as communism and U.S. Republicanism. Our writers picked up on all sides of the spectrum. Jack Truesdale ventured to a meeting of the Colorado Springs Socialists to give us a real-world example of Oscar Wilde’s one-sentence critique, “The problem with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings” (p.16). Leo Turpan’s accidental encounter with the Cuban military reveals a close-up look at the inner workings of a communist society (p.32). Helen Griffiths explores the hypocrisy underlying liberals’ judgements of the GOP in the age of Trump (p.8).
But, as some of our writers point out, red isn’t always an explicitly symbolic—it’s just as often obscured from view. Maggie O’Brien explores and questions our disgust at the natural process of menstruation through perspectives from women around the world (p.36). Nia Abram investigates the dynamics of the patriarchy within an online panty-fetish site (p. 44). A few other writers go right to the source of a niche community: the sometimes hilarious, sometimes disturbing world of LARPers that Cole Emhoff gets caught up in (p.20), and the borderline-life crushing video game that, as Catherine Sinow shows, we can probably all relate to (p.12).
That’s what ended up tying this issue together: our writers dove into topics we never knew about, or thought we understood but didn’t. That brought me back to my initial assumption: who was I to assume that the only version of red was the bright, imposing flash that comes to my mind? In a way, this issue is an answer to that ever-creeping philosophical question of whether your red is the same as mine. Of course it’s not. Even if it looks more or less the same, red means something different to everybody. This issue gives us a glimpse into what red might mean for someone else.
So here’s to whatever you see here,
Sara Fleming and the Cipher Editors
Part of the Red Issue