“A sane person to an insane society must appear insane.”


― Kurt Vonnegut, Welcome to the Monkey House

My wife Kim teaches kindergarten. Some children begin kindergarten already so at risk, so behind, with such severe behavioral problems that their chances to succeed are minuscule. Kim has one right now.

We live in an insane society in which people have agreed that certain behaviors qualify as sane and, so long as you follow those behaviors, you will escape scrutiny.

The terrifying part of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” which likely doesn’t occur to you when you hear the story as a child, is: what if you can’t get the people to admit what you see so clearly?

How long can you keep saying, “But…he doesn’t have any clothes on” while everyone else goes on praising his finery and telling you you’re wrong, you’re blind…

You’re crazy.

How long are you sure you’re right? How long can you stand there being shouted down? What if you see the Emperor on television, day after day, stark naked, and every single day the newscasters tell you “He’s dressed to the nines, astounding what good fashion sense he has, bold and daring yet not overbearing or garish, just…so tasteful.”

But he’s not. Wearing. A damn. Thing.

I’ve lived this before. I’ve been criticized because I wasn’t fitting someone else’s crazy and could not, for the life of me, see how it made sense, how it could possibly make sense. I had my whole life of experience that this was gonzo and joining in wouldn’t make it any less crazy but would certainly make me more crazy.

But even when you know, it’s hard to stick to your guns.

Here’s another complicating factor: to learn, we have to acknowledge that we could be wrong. If you can’t be wrong, you can never learn anything new. If you can’t be wrong, then you better already know everything and be right about everything.

But he still doesn’t have anything on.

I want to be open-minded and humble and educable. But all the open-mindedness in the world isn’t covering his nether regions.

Wisdom and experience, which are cousins, tell me there are certain beliefs I need to carry humbly and hold loosely, while others are more objectively true. Rain is wet. Open-mindedness to counter arguments might appear more diplomatic, but you don’t really mean it because, come on, water is wet.

“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” George Orwell, 1984

But what if they tell you water isn’t? What if they tell you it isn’t and mean it?

Here, then, is our situation, our conundrum, and no, none of this is hypothetical, not one syllable:

What if you know what you see with your own eyes but others insist you don’t see it, including some you once trusted? What if they tell you that you have some condition, some mental problem that causes you to overreact and start to see things that aren’t there (or not see things that are)?

What if they tell you he’s fully clothed and the rain you’re standing in isn’t drenching you?

What did any of this have to do with that child in my wife’s class?

That child I’m describing isn’t hypothetical, either. Kim has a student in exactly that situation and is struggling mightily to find some way to help. That’s real.

I want us to invest our time and energy and resources to help children who should not be doomed at five, rather than diverting these into trying to convince people that the guy strutting around with no clothes on is, in fact, starkers.

Call me crazy.

3 thoughts on ““A sane person to an insane society must appear insane.”

  1. Teri

    Excerpts from a book I just read:

    Levine’s theories are laid out in his book, Duped: Truth-Default Theory and the Social Science of Lying and Deception (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2019). If you want to understand how deception works, there is no better place to start.

    “Truth-Default Theory,” or TDT.

    We have a default to truth: our operating assumption is that the people we are dealing with are honest.

    To snap out of truth-default mode requires what Levine calls a “trigger.” A trigger is not the same as a suspicion, or the first sliver of doubt. We fall out of truth-default mode only when the case against our initial assumption becomes definitive. We do not behave, in other words, like sober-minded scientists, slowly gathering evidence of the truth or falsity of something before reaching a conclusion. We do the opposite. We start by believing. And we stop believing only when our doubts and misgivings rise to the point where we can no longer explain them away.

    You believe someone not because you have no doubts about them. Belief is not the absence of doubt. You believe someone because you don’t have enough doubts about them.


    In Russian folklore there is an archetype called yurodivy, or the “Holy Fool.” The Holy Fool is a social misfit—eccentric, off-putting, sometimes even crazy—who nonetheless has access to the truth. Nonetheless is actually the wrong word. The Holy Fool is a truth-teller because he is an outcast.

    Every culture has its version of the Holy Fool. In Hans Christian Andersen’s famous children’s tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the king walks down the street in what he has been told is a magical outfit. No one says a word except a small boy, who cries out, “Look at the king! He’s not wearing anything at all!” The little boy is a Holy Fool. The tailors who sold the king his clothes told him they would be invisible to anyone unfit for their job. The adults said nothing, for fear of being labeled incompetent. The little boy didn’t care.

    The closest we have to Holy Fools in modern life are whistleblowers. They are willing to sacrifice loyalty to their institution—and, in many cases, the support of their peers—in the service of exposing fraud and deceit. What sets the Holy Fool apart is a different sense of the possibility of deception.


  2. Steve

    This is a great post and comment. Really makes me think about how I tend to be critical of “truth,” looking for corroborating evidence or secondary sources in support of the stated “truth.” Like you, if I see something that is simply way off center false and see people blindly following it as “truth,” speak out as I will, some are simply too willing to accept the deception as true. Great stuff.

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