The Emperor’s New (Insert Noun Here)

I’ve always enjoyed the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, because it has a number of different readings. We can speak of the tactless honesty of the innocent, the child who sees the emperor as he is, or of the willingness to uphold the status quo when it is imposed from a sufficiently high point, in the people who pretend that the emperor is clothed. We can also look at the villains of the piece, who weave a suit that is invisible to those who are stupid, incompetent or unfit to hold a position. This is, of course, genius because it forces the viewer of the suit into that most difficult of decisions: do I speak up (and force someone to explicitly work out if I have sufficient worth to counter the prevailing interpretation) or do I stay silent (to not be seen to be a fool).

There are some quite entertaining logical issues to wrestle with, starting from some fairly reasonable assumptions. Imagine that you are Courtier X, arriving in the room after Courtier 1, and you observe the Emperor. Now you know, full well, that the Emperor has always been up to this point clothed, and in the finest clothes of the land, and he is not know for his propensity for streaking. Walking into the room, you would expect the Emperor to be clothed. Let us assume that, out of a sense of survival and fellow-feeling, Courtier X-1, the one who arrived before you, hisses “He’s wearing a suit that is only invisible to idiots.” Surviving in the Royal Court would have prepared X for a life of rapid adjustment to changes of circumstance brought about by pique and the accidental collision of coronial concerns, so this information would immediately have shot through his mind and, whether you believed that the suit was there or not, behaving otherwise has some quite obvious downsides. Firstly, the Emperor obviously believes that he is wearing this suit. Secondly, there are X-1 other courtiers in the room who have now gone along with it. Thirdly, you have a family to feed and it’s not as if you could go off to another court.

The child’s voice is unaffected by such concerns. The child sees, he thinks, he speaks. Children are very frank when they deal with difficult matters such as the apparent ugliness or facial eructations of an aged relative, the apparent size or adiposity of strangers, or the details with which bodily functions are announced. (I can, however, see a Romulan reading of the tale where the child is sent into battle for his outspokenness and fails to achieve victory – but cultures always vary in these matters.) However, everyone is now embarrassed – doubly so because not only is the Emperor nude, but everyone around him has lied to him. With any luck the Imperial Executioner was in on the lie as well, so that he can run off ashamed before he has to behead everyone else.

Speaking truth to power is a difficult matter and we often seem to confuse it with “saying any old thing because it’s our opinion” and the two are really not the same at all. I have previously referred to the “just saying'” mentality, where offensive or bigoted commentary is presented because it is truthful, when it is quite obvious that it is designed to be hurtful and the words are hiding behind a pretence of honesty. Telling the Emperor that he is naked is the duty of the Emperor’s staff, because it allows us to deal with the real villains of the piece, rather than the difficult (and more likely) outcome that a small child went to bed that night with no supper. Telling the Emperor that he is fat really doesn’t serve any purpose unless you are genuinely concerned for his health and attempting to reduce his adiposity.

The Emperor’s New Clothes is often used to refer to other situations of social hypocrisy or the collective agreement on something that is not true and, as such, it is so heavily used in some areas that its coinage is seriously debased. One reading that I find fascinating is that we can regard the suit as the “words we may use to cloak our fears” (Naomi Wood, KSU) but these words do not protect us from the reality of the situation. The child is free of adult corruption, certainly, but this is also a colder and harsher world, a situation at odds with our normal thoughts on childhood.

I strongly believe that one of the key problems some of my colleagues have with educational research, and its associated vocabulary, is that some of them are convinced that we are somehow playing the Emperor’s New Clothes with them. After all, we are asking them to look at the old fabric, find it wanting, and then we are talking of a new one, describing it in terms that may not be used that often in the standard discipline. Worse, every so often I bet we make it look like any sensible person would be able to understand that this was a better approach – and this is quite damning of whoever says it, whether they are talking to students or staff. Speaking truth to power is as important peer-to-peer as it is student-to-teacher or peasant-to-king but we must distinguish between being rude and dismissive and genuinely seeking answers. I may not always succeed but I do try to use evidence, published work and, of course, the far more influential work of the real leaders in this field! I am nowhere near attaining expertise here but at least I now know where to look and where to start the discussions. I do not yet have a suit of knowledge, but I have a pair of shorts that I can wear in the company of the besuited so that we can have some discussions without me exposing myself too badly! 🙂

The antithesis of the New Clothes phenomenon also occurs frequently: people are looking at a fully-clothed person and pretending that they cannot see the clothes. Obviously, neither approach is sensible when pushed to the extreme. Sometimes we just have to use our eyes and our brains and tell people what we see. And that can be one of the hardest things to do – as well as the most valuable.

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