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CYC-Online Issue 64 MAY 2004 / BACK
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The Emperor’s New Clothes

Jackie Winfield

In 1837, the Danish storyteller Hans Christian Anderson wrote a fairy tale entitled The Emperor’s New Clothes. In this story, the vain emperor loves fancy clothes more than anything else. He pays some tailors bags of gold to buy the finest threads and fabrics to produce the most marvellous set of clothes ever made. The tailors promise him that the clothes will not only be beautiful, but they will have the special quality of being invisible to people who are stupid. For a long time, the tailors work in a room in the emperor’s palace occasionally requesting a little more gold to make the outfit even more splendid. As time goes by, the emperor sends some of his trusted advisors to check on the progress of the clothes. However, they are unable to see anything, not because they are stupid but because there is nothing to see. The tailors are cheating the emperor out of his money by producing nothing and pretending the cloths are invisible. Of course, the advisors do not admit their inability to see the clothes as this would make them appear stupid, so they oooh' and aaah' about the beauty of the tailors' work. At last, the tailors announce the work to be finished, instruct the emperor to remove his clothes and “dress" him in the “new suit". When the emperor looks in the mirror, all he can see is his own underwear and he is greatly concerned. However, he leads a grand procession into the streets to snow oft his new “outfit" and the crowds clap and cheer. After a few minutes, a young child shouts out, “But he’s got nothing on!" This gives others in the crowd the courage to shout their agreement, “The emperor is wearing nothing at all!" The emperor continues his parade through the town while the villainous tailors escape with the gold.

More illusions
South Africa is a country in which millions of people live in poverty. The system of apartheid ensured that the wealth of the minority increased at the expense of the majority who were denied access to opportunities in education, employment, health, housing and a myriad of other facets of life. Despite the tact that we are ten-years old as a democracy (so we still have the upheavals of puberty to contemplate!), the rich continue to get richer and most of the poor continue to get poorer. At the same time, elements of society plant and nurture the seeds of the illusion that we can earn respect and love, and somehow, no more acceptable if we wear the latest fashions, drive flashy cars and carry cell phones with personalised ring tones and a different cover for every day of the week. We think that spending our “gold" on accessories will show us to be more worthy, and of course, those who disagree or who can’t see the beauty of our new clothes are “unquestionably stupid".

The value of money
In a capitalist society, the primary value is money and the goal is financial profit. Yet, how is such profit possible? According to Marxist theory, profit occurs as a result of the exploitation of labour in which people become alienated from their work, from each other and from themselves. Then, what happens if child and youth care programmes are based on the generation of profits? Certainly, somebody gets richer. But who is exploited in the process? Who experiences alienation and how? Can a profession based on human dignity, equality and the ultimate value of human beings ever reconcile itself with the values of materialism? How much is a human being worth in rands and cents? Are some people worth more than others? Are adults more valuable than children? Are the attractive worth more than the ugly? Do we decide on value based on intelligence or sex or colour or compliance or beautiful clothes?

The price of a child
As child and youth care workers, we must remain ever conscious of our values and the values of our profession. When we measure our work, our success, our programmes and ourselves primarily or solely in terms of finances, we are allowing children and youth to be used as means to a monetary end. Young people and their lives become products to be bought and sold ... and someone makes money in the process. What about those products which are damaged during the long and bumpy journey from factory to warehouse? What about those products which have been sitting on the shelves too long and their expiry dates have passed? What about those which are no longer fashionable? Should we just throw them away and find others to take their place? Perhaps, we can find something more profitable to sell.

The challenge
How do you make decisions about your work? When it’s the end of your shift, do you pack your bag and run out the door even though the child you've been comforting for the last half hour is still crying? Or does that depend on whether or not you can claim for overtime pay? As a manager or board member, is the best option always the one which costs less money or generates most profit?

Making profits through services for children and youth at risk, many of whom come from communities where poverty is rife, can never be considered ethical child and youth care practice. Such an approach undermines this profession and dehumanises the young people we have promised to serve. We must watch out for emperors claiming to wear new clothes. We must not be afraid to appear stupid to others just because we refuse to be enthused by the illusions of gold and silver. We need to listen to the voice of the child, shouting against the crowd, But he’s got nothing on!" and be prepared to add our own voices. The alternative may be that one day we look in the mirror and find that we have been “oohing" and “aahing" and walking around in our underwear.


This feature: Winfield, J. (2004) Seeing past the emperor’s new clothes. Child & Youth Care. Vol. 22 No. 1. p.22

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