A moment of convergence brought up the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. I’m sure you have heard the tale many times in full, and can recall the story without much effort. It is one of the many stories collected and published by Hans Christian Andersen (1837, April). Long habit charged me to read it anew, because I slipped into the belief that I knew it without question. And, as it happens, I missed a few things.
There are the obvious points to the tale which we all pick up on. Such as it is an Emperor, not a King. Kings rule a country or a people. Emperors rule several countries or peoples. Sometimes the cultures are vastly different, but all are under one rule. This tells us the author of this tale is addressing all people, all lands, not just German or French or Dutch. Despite this diversity of peoples and cultures, our Emperor has only one interest, one area he finds important — clothing. Loves those threads, man.
The punch line at the end has always been rather dull to me, until I reread it just now. The ending goes like this (from the original publishing):
Nobody would confess that he couldn't see anything, for that would prove him either unfit for his position, or a fool. No costume the Emperor had worn before was ever such a complete success. "But he hasn't got anything on," a little child said. "Did you ever hear such innocent prattle?" said its father. And one person whispered to another what the child had said, "He hasn't anything on. A child says he hasn't anything on." "But he hasn't got anything on!" the whole town cried out at last. The Emperor shivered, for he suspected they were right. But he thought, "This procession has got to go on." So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn't there at all._
The two points that caught my attention was one: no one is happy with the child pointing out the truth of things.
They aren’t happy because there’s no trans meaning to his observation. The rules they were walled into the ruse by, clearly didn’t apply in a meaningful way. If he saw the clothing, he wasn’t a fool, and was qualified to be a kid? If he doesn’t seen the clothing, he’s a dullard and too stupid to be a child? Neither the offered reward for silence nor the punishment for observation meant what it had for them. This is wrong enough to be uncomfortable for, reasons we’ll get to in a moment.
But if the clothing doesn’t exist, what then?
The easy answer is ‘you’ve been had‘, but no one wants to believe that. Mark Twain once wrote that it is by far more difficult to convince a man he’s been swindled, than to swindle him.
The second and more interesting point is that nothing changes. Everyone agrees, even the Emperor that the child is right. The clothing is a fake. the brilliance a fraud. And they all laugh… but the procession goes on, the Emperor continues nude down the street, ‘proudly as ever’.
This fable is pointing out a concept that was known. and grappled with in antiquity, but not articulated until 1957 — which inside the scale of things — was like, yesterday.
In A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (1957), Leon Festinger proposed that human beings strive for internal psychological consistency in order to mentally function in the real world. That a person who experiences internal inconsistency tends to become psychologically uncomfortable, and so is motivated to reduce the cognitive dissonance: either by changing parts of the cognition, to justify the stressful behavior; or by adding new parts to the cognition that causes the psychological dissonance; and by actively avoiding social situations and contradictory information that are likely to increase the magnitude of the cognitive dissonance.
Hardly surprising that those in antiquity weren’t able to articulate this profound concept. A concept based on the idea that our brains as functioning parts of our body; a part which we rely on to breath, eat, have sex, and live is by far more invested in the consistency of what we know, over the accuracy of what we know — and it will fight with terrible resolve, to maintain a required, and functional consistency. It won’t lift a finger for accuracy.
For consistency, however, it will quite literally knock your ass out.
The disconfirmation (contradiction) of a belief, an ideal, or a system of values causes cognitive dissonance that can be resolved by changing the belief under contradiction; yet, instead of effecting change, the resultant mental stress restores psychological consonance to the person, either by mis-perception, by rejection, or by refutation of the contradiction; by seeking moral support from people who share the contradicted beliefs; and acting to persuade other people that the contradiction is unreal.
If that sounds familiar, it’s only because it is.(just check Twitter for a social war) If it has been a chore to get this far, take a break, but come back. Getting this monster under control will add life and rip depression from your lungs and spine.
You understand what it is saying there but I’m going to show it to you before I write it.
This is cool to do with kids. First you need a card or a piece of paper about six inches wide.
Hold the card at eye level about an arm’s length away. Make sure that the cross is on the right. Close your right eye and look directly at the cross with your left eye. Notice that you can also see the dot. Focus on the cross, but be aware of the dot as you slowly bring the card toward your face. The dot will disappear, and then reappear, as you bring the card toward your face. Try moving the card closer and farther to pinpoint exactly where this happens. Now close your left eye and look directly at the dot with your right eye. This time the cross will disappear and reappear as you bring the card slowly toward your face. Try the activity again, this time rotating the card so that the dot and cross are not directly across from each other. Are the results the same?
The Blind Spot is caused by the place in the back wall of your eye where the optic nerve clusters and passes through. It’s simple to understand when we can see this cluster in a picture, even obvious.
What is not obvious is what you saw when the dot vanished into that spot. No, that’s not obvious at all. Because what you saw was the absence of the dot from the paper, not the absence of the paper as well.
Your brain filled that in… it made it up… it lied to you. It doesn’t want to know that there is a huge hole in our vision, so it constantly fills that space in — and it does it well — can you see a big empty spot now? Because you should. But no, you don’t. Even if you look from the floor, across all of the color and texture changes to the ceiling, you won’t experience that hole. In fact, change the paper you used to blue, or red or striped. It won’t matter, Anything you can find, the brain has the illusion for.
Now, return to that paragraph quoted above, and read it again –it won’t be confusing now.
It means exactly what it says:
If you persist in insisting that what you know is wrong, in an area where it values the consistency over your truth — your mind will change.
That’s right. You just won’t know that any more. But wait, that’s not all!
Not only will you suddenly be thinking right thoughts in consistent ways, but you will then seek out others to enlist and aid you in the eradication of that knowledge, to alter the public awareness. To demand that what is right in your head is right for all.
…oh yes… yes it will..
Now, is this sounding familiar?
Want to talk about truth now?
This is a Fable. A fable is a particular kind of story. A Fable is a literary genre: a succinct fictional story, in prose or verse, that features animals, legendary creatures, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature that are anthropomorphized (given human qualities, such as the ability to speak human language) and that illustrates or leads to a particular moral lesson (a “moral”), which may at the end be added explicitly as a pithy maxim.
Fables are not Parables, which are close to being the same type of story, only without any anthropomorphizing going on. Animals don’t speak in parables, lutes don’t play themselves, and magic is noticeably absent.
Both present the world ‘as it is’, though. Both show through actions or portrayals and descriptions, the ‘real world’. However, the world is not true, because it is without depth. For example, Emperors who are only concerned with clothing, don’t last long. But you can ‘see’ the story happening. You’ve seen or heard of such swindles, and swindlers, and have met people who are fooled by them.
The ending cuts sharp across the consciousness for me right now. We are faced with such a situation, and we are doing exactly the same thing. Our children, our innocents our clear eyed seers are telling us, the Emperor is nude. Nothing but that damn orange hair to grace the flabby parade.
“But he hasn’t got anything on,“ and the parade continues on, and nobody’s happy about being right or wrong on this one. Maybe that’s why we let the procession proceed. To stop the procession presents the question, why did we allow it in the first place?
There is no flattering way out of this one, for anyone. But it has to end. Soon. Dissonance be damned.