Matthew Rozsa in Salon:
There are many variations to Hans Christian Andersen’s classic literary folktale “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” but most have the same basic plot points: A vain emperor is duped by two con men into buying clothes that don’t exist. They trick him by saying that the non-existent fabric is actually visible, but only stupid and incompetent people can’t see it. The emperor pretends that he can see the clothes, and then ordinary people follow his lead — whether because they believe him, or because they are simply afraid to state otherwise. It is only when a child blurts out that he is naked that the illusion is shattered.
Andersen was unfamiliar with the psychological concept known as malignant normality, but his tale captures it perfectly. The folktale also teaches an important lesson about standing by one’s own common sense, even when social pressures are insurmountable, and remembering that confidence in your correctness is not enough on its own — particularly if those around you don’t buy in too. And the idea — of a narcissist with power and/or popularity normalizing an “alternate reality” that is patently absurd — clearly has analogues in schoolyard politics, global politics, and everything in-between.
The concept of malignant normality, as explained by psychiatrist Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, is rooted in history — specifically, in our understanding of Nazi Germany. Lifton argued that many Nazi doctors weren’t active ideologues, but were willing to send Jews to gas chambers because this was their job — even though they had taken a hippocratic oath.
The reality of institutionalized genocide, which had not seemed plausible to Germans only a dozen years earlier, had become a malignant normal. Not everyone had to buy into the ideas of Nazism, at least not in full. They simply had to live in a society where actions that would usually be considered atrocious are instead perceived as routine.