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PETERS PIECE: The Naked Emperor

  • Written by  Richard Peters

Once upon a time there was an emperor whose only interest in life was to dress up in fashionable clothes. He kept changing his clothes so that people could admire him.

Once, two thieves decided to teach him a lesson.

They told the emperor that they were very fine tailors and could sew a lovely new suit for him. It would be so light and fine that it would seem invisible. Only those who were stupid could not see it. The emperor was very excited and ordered the new tailors to begin their work.

One day, the king asked the prime minister to go and see how much work the two tailors had done. He saw the two men moving scissors in the air but he could see no cloth! He kept quiet for fear of being called stupid and ignorant. Instead, he praised the fabric and said it was marvellous.

Finally, the emperor’s new dress was ready. He could see nothing but he too did not want to appear stupid. He admired the dress and thanked the tailors. He was asked to parade down the street for all to see the new clothes. The emperor paraded down the main street. The people could only see a naked emperor but no one admitted it, for fear of being thought stupid.

They foolishly praised the invisible fabric and the colours. The emperor was very happy.

At last, a child cried out, “The emperor is naked!”

Soon everyone began to murmur the same thing and very soon all shouted, “The emperor is not wearing anything!”

The emperor realised the truth but preferred to believe that his people were stupid

The meaning of the expression is clear from the story. It is used in contexts where people are widely acclaimed and admired but where others question whether what they have created is of any value. Modern-day examples might be the highly priced work of conceptual artists or the more avant-guard products of fashion designers.

The phrase bears some similarity to another modern-day expression - the elephant in the room. An essential factor with both phrases is the willingness of people to engage into an unspoken contract, to willfully disbelieve what they know to be true.

The moral of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is that people should be willing to speak up if they know the truth, even if they think that everyone else will laugh at them. Another possible moral of the story is that people should not believe things without empirical evidence. A third moral is that children speak the truth.

One of the things worse than a naked emperor parading the streets, is the people who know the emperor is naked but are afraid to say so. If the man is naked, he is naked, period.

 But then there are the people who are very close to the emperor, the courtiers if you will, who are not only aware that the big man is naked but are themselves naked as well. Notwithstanding, they go blissfully along their business in the conviction that the subjects are too stupid to recognize that they are naked.

These naked courtiers, because of their nudeness are not in a position to do much except maybe spend a lot of time comparing the size of what is exposed by their nakedness. 

As a result, the subjects suffer from lack of effective leadership, which the naked leaders attempt to cover up with lies, diversions and condemnation of the subjects who dare point out their nakedness.

The thing is that at some point, someone is bound to lead the charge to let the emperor and his minions know that they are naked, and that their nakedness cannot go unchecked forever.

Their exposed butts in effect, expose all of the subjects to whatever the consequences of naked leaders are.

The subjects therefore cannot indefinitely pretend that their emperor is fully clothed, all the time knowing that he is naked.

Subjects of empires that are governed by a naked emperor must then beware of the dangers and call him out, even if it is a child. However, if your emperor is fully clothed, praise God.

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