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The Emperor’s New Clothes: A Tale for Our Times

by Izzy Kalman (November 2006)Just about everyone in the western world is familiar with is the Hans Christian Andersen tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” I had never given the story much thought, but I recall learning that the message of the story was that a naïve, innocent child was willing to say what the adults did not have the guts to admit, that the emperor was naked. I just checked Wikipedia and it says that the lesson is “Just because everyone else believes something is true, doesn’t mean it is.” However, I have had a nagging feeling that there is more to the story than these simple lessons, so I decided to give another look, and I believe my suspicions were confirmed. The story has something much more profound to teach us than “children are honest” or “the majority isn’t always right,” and the story’s lesson is especially important for today’s society.

Have you noticed that this story is different from most fairy tales? Most are dramas, with the protagonists encountering serious danger. They may face poverty, death or loss of a prized marriage partner. The Emperor’s New Clothes, in contrast, is pure comedy. It makes a complete fool of the emperor who, because of his vanity, is paraded around naked — about the most humiliating thing that can happen to an adult. It also makes a fool of the rest of adult society for going along with the self-deception.

The fear of nakedness is a common, archetypal fear that afflicts people living in civilization. One of my own recurring nightmares involves being caught naked in public, and I’m sure many of you have had such a dream, too. Nakedness comes natural to infants, animals, and humans living in nature. Nakedness becomes taboo only in civilization.

Why do we wear clothing? In addition to providing warmth and protection from the elements, clothing hides our imperfections and makes us look much better than we would look naked. We all like to look good, but the truth is that few of us look as good naked as do the models and celebrities that garnish our magazines. Even those beautiful people only look attractive in certain sexy poses or outfits. Almost every one of us looks better dressed than naked, and if you have ever visited a nudist colony or seen films of one, you would understand why the masses aren’t flocking to join.

What happens in The Emperor’s New Clothes? (Click here to read the full story of The Emperor’s New Clothes) In short, two swindlers come to a great city proclaiming they are weavers who could produce clothes of “the finest cloth that could be imagined,” material that is “not only exceptionally beautiful, but made of…material [possessing] the wonderful quality of being invisible to any man who [is] unfit for his office or unpardonably stupid.”

The narcissistic emperor is a fashion nut and just has to have a suit made of this beautiful cloth. Everyone makes believe they see the non-existent suit because they don’t want to acknowledge that they are unfit for their position or are unpardonably stupid. As a result, the emperor gets paraded around town stark naked. Finally an innocent child reveals the simple truth that the emperor is naked — the ultimate humiliation for the person with ultimate power. Even when confronted with this truth, the Emperor continues his parade with his head high, not daring to show feelings of humiliation, and his servants go on with the charade as well.

Of course no society in history has been stupid enough to believe that a naked emperor was really wearing clothing. And a naked emperor would certainly not think he’s wearing invisible clothing because he wouldn’t feel any cloth. The story is clearly a social satire, one that I believe may be more relevant today than when it was written. And it is not only about foolish leaders; it is about the fool in all of us.

What is society doing today? As I often have said in my seminar, we are in the process of outlawing humor. We are passing anti-bully laws forbidding people from making fun of each other. The biggest crime today is to make jokes about people’s differences and imperfections. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words kill!” is the new slogan. The government is guaranteeing us a life in which everyone makes believe we are perfect. If I am overweight, exceptionally tall, short, smart, stupid, handicapped, act like a fool, engage in atrocious behavior, everyone else is supposed to make believe they don’t notice these things because I have victim-group status. If you do notice them, it must be because you are morally defective, not fit for your status as an enlightened citizen of a modern society. And you had certainly better not say anything about my imperfections or you’ll get punished.

Adults, of course, are less in need of such laws because by the time we grow up, most of us have learned the rules of polite society. We have learned to make believe everyone is perfect and to expect others to make believe we are perfect. That’s why the major target of our anti-bullying efforts are our children, who, like the boy in the story, haven’t yet learned to pretend they don’t see people’s differences and imperfections. We must celebrate diversity, but without humor. Be ecstatic that people are different, but don’t let on that you see there is anything wrong or funny about their differences, or you are an immoral bully and we will not tolerate you.

The efforts to make it a crime to say anything about people’s imperfections are, of course, done with good intentions, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. We want to society to protect our children’s feelings by forbidding anyone from making fun of them. Unwittingly, we are raising a generation of emotional marshmallows, kids who can’t handle jokes and criticism. We think we want kids to learn to be honest, but we really want them to be hypocrites, pretending they see only perfection in each other. In today’s society, the boy in the story would not be admired for his honesty; he would be severely punished!

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