Thursday, August 04, 2016

The Emperor's New Clothes: The Power Of Fairy Tales And Of Expectations

From The Classic Reader's version of Hans Christian Anderson's The Emperor's New Clothes:
"Many years ago, there was an Emperor, who was so excessively fond of new clothes, that he spent all his money in dress. He did not trouble himself in the least about his soldiers; nor did he care to go either to the theatre or the chase, except for the opportunities then afforded him for displaying his new clothes. He had a different suit for each hour of the day; and as of any other king or emperor, one is accustomed to say, 'he is sitting in council,' it was always said of him, 'The Emperor is sitting in his wardrobe.'"
Then two scam artists arrive in the capital and declare that they weave clothes out of an exquisitely beautiful material.  But more importantly, only the good and honest can see its beauty.  Those unfit for the offices they hold are unable to see it.
"'These must, indeed, be splendid clothes!' thought the Emperor. 'Had I such a suit, I might at once find out what men in my realms are unfit for their office, and also be able to distinguish the wise from the foolish! This stuff must be woven for me immediately.' And he caused large sums of money to be given to both the weavers in order that they might begin their work directly."
The weavers set up their looms and work late into the night.  The emperor gets curious about how things are going.  While he doesn't doubt himself at all, it seems more appropriate to send one of his ministers to check on the weavers.  The minister goes into the room and is startled to see no cloth on the looms at all.  He begins to question himself.  Am I not really wise?
"The impostors requested him very courteously to be so good as to come nearer their looms; and then asked him whether the design pleased him, and whether the colors were not very beautiful; at the same time pointing to the empty frames. The poor old minister looked and looked, he could not discover anything on the looms, for a very good reason, viz: there was nothing there. "What!" thought he again. 'Is it possible that I am a simpleton? I have never thought so myself; and no one must know it now if I am so. Can it be, that I am unfit for my office? No, that must not be said either. I will never confess that I could not see the stuff.'"
The weavers describe to the minister the intricate and beautiful patterns and colors and he listens closely so he can describe it accurately to the emperor.  They also ask for more gold and silk so they can finish the project, which they get.

The minister returns to the king and describes the magnificent new clothes.  Not much later a second minister is sent to check on the progress.  He too sees nothing and questions his own fitness for the office that pays him so well when he sees nothing and goes back to describe the amazing new clothes.

Word gets out in the city about the emperor's new clothes and everyone is excited, particularly about the fact that only the competent and honest can actually see the material.

When the emperor himself finally is presented the new clothes he is shocked.  What is this?  Am I unfit to be emperor?  When asked by the weavers what he thought, he smiled and said it was charming.  The rest of the courtiers smiled and competed in their praise of the new suit.

A city wide procession was held.  The streets were crowded.  Everyone buzzed and murmured when they saw the emperor.  Then there were shouts of how magnificent the new suit was.  But then the procession passes a child.
"But the Emperor has nothing at all on!" said a little child. "Listen to the voice of innocence!" exclaimed his father; and 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 vexed, for he knew that the people were right; but he thought the procession must go on now! And 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. [emphasis added]

The Role of Fairy Tales

Fairy tales serve a significant function in the development of children and the passing on of cultural norms.  A number of articles, such as this one, talk about how they help children resolve inherent emotional conflicts.  One article I found, that gathers together many of the benefits, was a chapter subheading called,  "The Value of Fairy Tales In Education."  It listed:

  • Fairy tales bring joy into child life.
  • Fairy tales satisfy the play spirit of childhood.
  • Fairy tales are play forms.
  • Fairy tales give the child a power of accurate observation.
  • Fairy tales strengthen the power of emotion, develop the power of imagination, train the memory, and exercise the reason.
  • Fairy tales extend and intensify the child's social relations.

Fairy tales pose moral dilemmas for us along with an array of human qualities to overcome these dilemmas.  Fairy tales pass on cultural wisdom that we can apply to our daily lives as adults.

I'm assuming that some of you have thought about the Republican nominee and his supporters as you reread the Emperor's New Clothes.   And the various stories that are coming out that suggest that he is all hype and fiction.  Such as this Newsweek story that details the fictions of his fortune.  I would caution those looking for proof of Trump's duplicity to remember their own expectations when accepting the facts in the Newsweek story.  But also take note of the auther Kurt Eichenwald who has done groundbreaking financial reporting including the book Conspiracy of Fools on Enron.  

As more and more 'children' are saying out loud that the Donald has no clothes, more and more people are starting to question their beliefs.

The Role Of Expectations

But I want to share an incident that occurred the other day that demonstrates the power of mental expectations. (Or maybe just the declining quality of my mind.)

I drove to the market. I was taking an air mattress bed, something too big to carry on my bike, over to a friend, and getting some food on the way.  When I came out of the market, I walked over to where I had parked my car.  I was looking for my wife's car and couldn't find it.  Instead, there was a car exactly like my own car.  I was so committed to the idea that I came in my wife's Subaru that I thought, "Wow, there's a car like mine."  Then I looked at the license plate.  It was my car.  Yet my mind was tightly bound to the idea that I'd driven over in the Subaru.  (It uses less gas and so, if I need to drive, and my wife isn't using her car, that's the one I take.) And if I had the Subaru, then my wife must have had to use my car.  But why wouldn't she just call me, since she knew I was going to the market.  And as I was listening to the rings on the phone to ask my wife why she'd driven to the market, I suddenly realized - I had driven my car and not hers.  

As I say, this might just be an indicator that my mind is rapidly deteriorating, but even if that is the case, it still shows how powerfully an expectation can prevent us from seeing the obvious.  Whether it's racial stereotypes, political ideology, ego, desires, one's personal interests, or simple habit, we usually see what we want or expect to see.  

[I'd note one of the more literate discussions of fairy tales, by Meg Moseley, who, importantly, notes that often such tales carry forward cultural biases, like the idea that young maidens must wait to be rescued by handsome princes.]

1 comment:

  1. "... young maidens must wait to be rescued by handsome princes" AND the princes have the right to rape the sleeping maiden before she wakes up.

    A lot of fairy tales need updating.


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