When the Emperor Has No Clothes

Remember the classic tale of the emperor who had no clothes? Popularized in 1837 by Hans Christian Anderson, the story is summarized in Wikipedia like this:

An emperor who cared for nothing but his wardrobe hired two weavers who promised him the finest suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who was unfit for his position or “just hopelessly stupid.” The emperor could not see the cloth himself, but pretended that he could for fear of appearing stupid or unfit for his position. His ministers did the same. When the swindlers reported that the suit was finished, they dressed him in mime and the emperor then marched in procession before his subjects. A child in the crowd called out that the emperor was wearing nothing at all. The cry was taken up by others. The emperor cringed, suspecting the assertion was true, but held himself up proudly and continued the procession.

In this story, with whom can you identify? Where would you best fit into the plot?

Certainly, no one wants to be the self-centered authority figure oblivious to reality. Neither do we aspire to be “yes men” who refrain from speaking the truth for fear of looking stupid or being punished for political incorrectness. Of course, the dishonest weavers would never be our heroes.

But what about all the people who lined the parade route? They went along with the game until someone dared to speak the obvious truth.

Personally, I identify best with the innocent child who demonstrated transparency and authenticity. (He would have loved living in the 2.0 world of social media.)

The little boy was not concerned about what others thought; he just spoke the truth. He was not worried about being ostracized by others; he was just being himself. His intent was not to make stupid people look even more stupid; he was just being honest, never considering the potential consequences of his honesty.

In all facets of life, we encounter people who refuse to see themselves as everyone else does. Their game continues as long as we collectively enable their self-absorbed delusion.

Daily we interact people who don’t want to upset the status quo. Perhaps they are like the “emperor’s ministers” who have too much to lose if things change. Often we find ourselves along the parade route, surrounded by people watching the world go by and pretending that nothing is wrong. These individuals are tempted to think it’s just them. They are afraid to comment on something that no one else apparently observes. Or perhaps they just hope that by ignoring the situation it will go away.

Then there was the innocent boy who curiously watched as the emperor flaunted his “new clothes.” When you think about it, he could have responded in a variety of ways. He had to chose from the following three options:

  1. Say nothing. After all, why upset the status quo? Why not just pretend that nothing is out of the ordinary?
  2. Be amused. Why stick your neck out? Just admit to yourself that something is amiss and then quietly chuckle at the absurdity of the situation.
  3. Speak up. Why not say what needs to be said? What’s to be lost by being honest? Why varnish over the obvious reality?

I applaud the young lad for speaking up. As he grew older, though, I imagine he learned that society will embrace a child for his or her innocence and candor. That same society, though, will likely disdain those same traits in an adult.

2 Responses to When the Emperor Has No Clothes

  1. Doug Knowlton says:


    Enjoyed your piece this morning. It helped to clarify a few things stuck in my pondering.

    I’m reminded of how often the story is used with slipshod application – I may have even been guilty of that use. The story was in my file on cards for a long time, I must have incorporated it on a number of occasions into various presentations. I recall it was a favorite among those I worked with at Charter psych. hospital back in the day.

    So, your approach leaves room for the reader – that is what I appreciated about it. A well-worn fairy tale is like a dream, it suggests that the reader/listener is in fact, on any given day, all of the characters. Today, my self-absorbed delusional me appears to be on the throne. :>



    • Duane Hallock says:

      Doug, thanks for your note. Our paths have taken many turns since we knew each other in college. I’ve been enriched by your writings (http://tvbpoetree.blogspot.com/). I even saw a video of you reading some of your poetry. Life experiences make some of the best poems, books or blog posts. Thanks for sharing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: