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Lessons from The Emperor Has No Clothes

Soon after the election in November, I heard someone read Hans Christian Anderson’s short story “The Emperor Has No Clothes” aloud.  We know the story as one about an emperor who thinks he has a beautiful new set of clothes, but does not so he walks around naked.  The people of the city are aghast but no one says anything until a child calls out, “The emperor has no clothes!”  But what this summary leaves out is all the ways that fears of not appearing wise contribute to the fiasco and make fools of the whole community.

In the story, two swindlers appear in town and say they make the most amazing clothes, clothes that only wise people can see.  They appear to be swindlers about cloth, but their swindle depends on the first failure in this story, that the advisors did not trust their own judgments.  Advisor after advisor see nothing on the loom but instead of reporting that they see nothing, they pretend that they do in order to seem wise.  The advisors question their own sight, rather than the possibility that no cloth can appear only to the wise.  “Are you going to believe me or your own lying eyes?” — the cheater’s question — would seem to the guiding mantra of these swindlers.

The second failure that allowed the swindlers to succeed is that those around the emperor wanted to seem rather than to be wise, and therefore refused to admit what would appear to be a sign of their lack of knowledge.  The emperor himself clearly was not wise given how much more he cared for clothes than for business of ruling (note the gendered disparagement of those who care for appearances).  But he shows himself to care about appearances not just in his clothing but in his having wisdom when he is willing to walk down the parade route with no clothes on rather than admit that he cannot see the clothes.

The third failure is in the people of the town who support the fiction that the whole community is under that these clothes can actually be visible only to the wise.  Having accepted that as a community, they each think admitting their inability to see would show them unfit for their jobs rather than in challenging the reigning assumptions.

With nothing to lose, no reputation at stake, it’s the child who can speak the truth.

“But the Emperor has nothing at all on!” said a little child. “Listen to the voice of the child!” exclaimed his father. What the child had said was whispered from one to another. “But he has nothing at all on!” at last cried out all the people. The Emperor was upset, for he knew that the people were right. However, he thought the procession must go on now! The lords of the bedchamber took greater pains than ever, to appear holding up a train, although, in reality, there was no train to hold, and the Emperor walked on in his underwear.

The final failure is in refusing to acknowledge the truth when it is spoken and proceeding as if the charade must be carried out to its fullest so that powerful people will not be embarrassed.

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