The Emperor’s New Clothes and Workplace Harassment

What does a transparent organization look like? Is transparency an ideal for hierarchical systems of power? What incentives — for men particularly — must be in place to make transparency possible?

Hans Christian Andersen grappled with these questions in his famous short story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” published in 1837 as constitutional monarchies were developing in 19th-century Europe. But one of the ironies of the tale’s afterlife is that the king who parades through town wearing absolutely nothing has become the figure of a fool rather than the embodiment of a political or organizational principle. If we advocate for transparency, should we not praise, rather than ridicule, the king and his courtiers who enable the public to see what goes on in the castle?

“The Emperor’s New Clothes” begins optimistically. “Time passed merrily” in the kingdom, Andersen tells us. The economy is good. Weavers arrive in town and convince the king to wear invisible clothes. The king’s courtiers pretend to see the clothes in order to keep their jobs. The townspeople cheer when the king walks through the town naked.

In Andersen’s original version, the story remains optimistic about the possibility of transparency:

Certainly, none of the Emperor’s various suits had ever made so great an impression, as these invisible ones.
“I must put on the suit whenever I walk in a procession or appear before a gathering of people,” said the emperor, and the whole town talked about his wonderful new clothes.

The happy image appears on the penultimate page of almost every illustrated version of the story: the townspeople like seeing the king naked, which serves to level the distance between ruler and ruled, while also pretending that nobody else can see the king naked. Smiles abound.

But just before publication Andersen deleted the final paragraph and replaced it with one we know well that does not end well. A young boy cries out “but he has nothing on!” and the charade ends. Everyone goes home embarrassed and dissatisfied.

Everyone — including Marshall McLuhan — praises the boy’s truth telling, but perhaps we should rethink this. The king will now go home and cover up. Is this really what the people want?

Allusions to “The Emperor’s New Clothes” are everywhere in the age of Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, and “open secrets.” The tale offers uncomfortable truths about the pressure on organizations for covert behavior. In the midst of efforts to establish more democratic government systems, Andersen recognized a bitter political fact about our discomfort in seeing the imperfections and indiscretions of people in power. Most people prefer powerful people to look and act like powerful people.

The Obama administration was elegantly opaque during its eight-year run. His White House was not known for leaks. The President’s signature health legislation famously passed without being read closely. And much that the American left finds objectionable — NSA spying, drone warfare, police military gear— expanded quietly while Obama was in power.

And during those years, the sordid predations of Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Louis C.K., Bill O’Reilly, Mark Halperin, Charlie Rose, and many others, were an open secret.

Put another way, we lived through Act II of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” in which male courtiers did not allow public scrutiny of the man they worked for.

Now we have a president whose unfiltered comments and tweets are delivered straight to the public ear and eye, whose administration is prone to leaks, whose indiscretions (though not his finances) have long been public knowledge, and who is taking delight at the public uncovering of political opponents such as Al Franken and John Conyers.

To be clear: I am not a Trump supporter. I am a transparency supporter.

Timur Kuran, the author of Private Truth’s Public Lies: the Social Consequences of Preference Falsification, said in October, shortly after the Weinstein story broke in the New York Times, that people who knew about Weinstein’s behavior stayed silent because they were afraid and they did not know that others would back them up. Kuran’s theory is that many people tacitly approve of a corrupt state of affairs out of fear.

Not in the case of sexual harassment of women. While the female victims of powerful men may have stayed silent out of fear, the hundreds of men who knew stayed silent because they had everything to lose by being transparent.

Being one of the few people to see the naked truth of a powerful man is empowering. Billy Bush, co-star of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape is Exhibit A. Andersen’s story makes clear the fact that when everyone else sees the king’s nakedness, courtiers lose power.

Who doesn’t like being seen with a person in power? Evidently even former presidents do. The Secret Service must have looked into The Weinstein Company as a place for Malia Obama to intern months before the harassment became “public.” Either the Secret Service was utterly incompetent or Weinstein’s power was irresistible even to the Obamas.

Hans Christian Andersen tried to warn us that transparency is painfully fragile in hierarchical structures. Power and transparency are fundamentally opposed. The only way transparency works is when everyone works hard to make it happen. Courtiers have to pretend publicly the Emperor is wearing clothes when he isn’t. They have to encourage him to expose himself to the world. Nobody can laugh.

Kuran argues that jokes enable the public to see but not really register uncomfortable knowledge. Everyone joked about Weinstein for years. Louis C.K. long openly admitted to his harassment in his comedy.

Nobody jokes in “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Taking a naked boss seriously is serious business.

Men can’t handle the truth of transparent government, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” tells us. And so, Andersen gives us a consolation prize: a brave little boy who speaks up to reveal a truth that ultimately empowers the boss. Everyone wants to be the little boy, especially male journalists.

Recent news stories have shown us that lone female voices do not have the power of Andersen’s child. It has taken multiple voices, documents, lawyers, depositions, committed reporters, and media companies willing to put fully vetted stories on the front pages of their newspapers for a certain transparent truth about men and power and nakedness to be finally acknowledged.

And what is this truth? Not that men in power will do terrible things to women but that so many good men will know and stay silent when there is no public scrutiny. The effect of sexual harassment in crushing women’s spirits and ambitions is on the whole good for men’s careers. What man wants to look at the job he’s holding and ask if there ought to have been more competition for it?

We may laugh at the illustrations of a naked, preening Emperor and scoff at his fawning male courtiers holding up invisible clothes but the vision of transparency offered in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is preferable to an elegantly dressed presidency or any organization presiding over coverups. Andersen shows us a powerful man completely naked, exposing himself to public view, harming nobody because it would be impossible to. Unlike Matt Lauer, he could not have a secret door-locking button under his desk.

“The Emperor’s New Clothes” is the one brief glimpse of a transparent organization that we have in literature. The “truth-telling” little boy is not a hero but a reactionary problem.

While Politico’s Tim Noah was recently lambasted for suggesting an open-door policy in the workplace, he saw what Andersen understood. Advocating for transparency will earn you nothing but scorn.

But imagine what Andersen at least initially envisioned: a structure in which those who work for the boss encourage transparency. Perhaps women bosses and women courtiers will do this job best.