The Emperor’s New Clothes1 by Hans Christian Andersen is a favorite childhood tale that now bears an uncanny resemblance to the world we inhabit. Its wisdom provides a compass for all social workers in these turbulent times, guiding us back to the core values of our profession. It is a parable that transcends politics and gets to the heart of a value (and virtue) that must be central to all we do and all we teach: the truth.

There is no way to do justice in the retelling of a classic tale, but a review of the characters and their shared drama might serve to position us. The emperor is a vain man, singularly preoccupied with his lavish wardrobe. He ventures out to his people only when assured that admiration for his attire will be bestowed upon him. Two rogues appear in the emperor’s court, masquerading as weavers and exploiting the emperor’s wealth and utter disinterest in anything but himself. They promise to weave a magnificent robe for the emperor out of thread that remains invisible to those unworthy or unfit. The people acquiesce to the fallacy, believing what they are told to believe, denying all reason and perception for fear of exposure. It is a small child whose innocence allows for the truth to finally penetrate the utter nonsense.

The ruse is an elaborate one. The “weavers” set up a loom where they work tirelessly for hours, drawing attention and bewilderment from the gathering crowd. The silent distress grows. After all, how could they not see what they were told was real and quite perfect? The emperor is fearful that he, too, is unfit when he cannot see the beautiful threads. Fearing such exposure, he “dresses” in his new clothing with the help of the weavers, and agrees to a grand procession for all to witness the long-awaited adornments. His unclad body declares, once and for all, how unworthy he is to lead. It is a young child who breaks the “spell,” declaring that the emperor, indeed, has no clothes.

The metaphor needs no interpretation. Deceit and self-interest rule. Supporters continue to support despite abundant evidence that such loyalty is undeserved. There is a refusal to acknowledge that lies – repeated, blatant, and of great consequence – destroy our trust, erode our moral culture, play us as fools, and place us in great danger. The truth cannot be sacrificed in the name of advancing an agenda. Nothing, but nothing, remotely resembles the values espoused by those who support. Why, then, is deceit being tolerated?

As social workers, regardless of the political party with which we identify, we cannot deny that our core values (NASW Code of Ethics2) are being violated by the behavior and proposed policies before us. Social justice, integrity, the importance of human relationships, and the dignity and worth of the person are all sacrificial lambs of a determined many. We cannot afford to be the people in the crowd admiring the beautiful threads that do not exist. We cannot look away when indignities towards others abound. We must think of our clients, whether individuals, families, or communities. They have been lied to, exploited, oppressed, and told that their truth is not the truth. We engage and collaborate with them to heal the wounds of deceit and broken trust. We cannot be duplicitous and turn our heads to the disgraceful misuse of power that becomes a reenactment on a grand scale. We must model for our clients, and for our social work students, that speaking out against injustices is what we are called to do. In essence, have we not all pledged to be the child in the crowd? It is my hope that this voice will grow united, rejecting all untruths, and proclaiming once again that the emperor has no clothes.

1An online version of Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 fairy tale The Emperor’s New Clothes (translated in 1949 by Jean Hersholt and provided by The Hans Christian Andersen Centre at the University of Southern Denmark) is available at:

2NASW Code of Ethics is available at