Did you still remember Hans Christian Andersen? Or, to go a bit deeper, have you ever read his short story titled “The Emperor’s New Clothes”? If you have neither read his stories nor known this person’s name (I assume most of you have), I suggest that we spend some time (re)reading his works. The Emperor’s New Clothes, in particular, is a title I think is worth reading. Allow me to summarize his story in case you haven’t read it, although some guys in Wikipedia have already done the plot summary.
Once upon a time, there lived a king who made wearing the best outfits and costumes his primary quotidian activity. Caring not so much about the kingdom and the people, but rather his appearance, or a very thick sense of fashion. One day, two weavers came in, claiming that they could build the best costumes for the emperor. So fantastic, so amazing, so awesome the designs were, that these outfits could only be seen by people who are intelligent, smart, and ‘at least not stupid’. The ruler took the weavers’ words so seriously that he entrusted them the new outfits. Anyone who could not view the emperor’s new clothes would be labelled ‘gravely foolish’.
The emperor finally wore these new clothes, but his ministers – and other subordinates – were so fearful of facing the reality: the clothes were so seriously microscopic that the emperor, apparently, wore nothing at all. But the ministers were also afraid of losing their jobs, or even their statuses, so they had no choice, but to lavish the emperor with praises. There the emperor embarked on his own parade, where every citizen marched to watch the procession, himself almost completely naked. People already knew the fact that the emperor was wearing ‘nothing’, but out of fear of being labelled ‘gravely foolish’, or hopelessly stupid, they would rather keep themselves in silence. A young child screamed out, but the procession went on. The emperor ‘probably’ knew about this, but, anyway, after all, the ruler prevails.
Obviously, there was almost no such historical example of leaders posing themselves literally naked; the moral lesson of the story is there, but its resemblance echoes for the duration of human civilization. We have seen great, wise leaders, but we have also seen bad, horrible leaders throughout our lifetime. What I honestly worry about is when a society, despite having understood some negative traits associated with the latter, would still cling their hopes on these people. Or when there are swindlers in the weavers’ clothing who deliberately exploit and manipulate the situation in such a condition that we ‘seemingly have no choice’ but to praise the naked emperor, given our personal fear at face value. Oftentimes we wish we could be like those young folks, but most of the time, a lot of us did not. Many factors hinder us, and adults understand that the truth is more complicating than what children usually perceive (this story is intended for children, by the way, but adults should learn, too). Still, ironically, we are simply afraid of telling the truth, when the truth itself, obviously, is already out there – and even visible for most of us.
It doesn’t matter whether we live in democracies, hybrid regimes, or dictatorships, but it is simply the reality of human society that oftentimes we are led by persons who have achieved tremendous feats for the greater good, or by others who have implemented disastrous policies. In a democracy, we can elect a person who gave us universal health care, mandatory minimum wages, multiple peace deals, LGBT rights, etc; on the other, we also have the similar ability to elect a demagogue, an outright racist, a bigot, or even a sexual predator to power. In a dictatorship, there were ‘benevolent tyrants’ who have led decades of economic miracle before democratization occurred; simultaneously, there were also tyrants that left a country in shambles, civil wars, or constant civil disorders. There have also been leaders that constantly give certain communities ‘pork’, in exchange of constant support to the leaders regardless of whatever wrongdoing the leaders have committed, be it a massive corruption scandal, serious human rights violations, or probably, something like sexual abuses, ties to mobsters, or racialized threats towards other communities that may be deemed soft spots or convenient targets. Look at history – not just the last two days – and we can see numerous of such illustrations.
History has seen such ups and downs in human society, but the good thing is that when mindsets change, people can change, too. We can choose to be like any other adults watching the naked emperor’s procession – all the while lavishing our pretentious praises at the ruler, or we can respond like the young boy in the story, and if need be, amplify his voices.
After all, I would remain an optimist. Probably a cautious one.