The Reality Oprah Helped Us Create: Disempowering People From Changing an Unjust Society

Actress and TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey poses with the Cecil B. DeMille Award during the 75th Golden Globe Awards on January 7, 2018, in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo: Frederic J. Brown / AFP / Getty Images)Actress and TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey poses with the Cecil B. DeMille Award during the 75th Golden Globe Awards on January 7, 2018, in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo: Frederic J. Brown / AFP / Getty Images)

The response to Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the recent Golden Globe ceremony proves yet again that President Trump makes people with emotional intelligence look good. Yet despite hopes that Winfrey might be his 2020 opponent, enthusiasm for her candidacy has been widely critiqued. Objections have been raised to Winfrey’s lack of political qualifications; her support for establishment agendas, such as the Iraq War (which she promoted); her billionaire status; and her resulting failure to critique the inequities of capitalism. Given that in modern US history, charismatic people in high places have perpetuated unending war, corporate overrule, prison privatization and environmental degradation, for a growing number of people, emotional warmth can no longer mask retrograde agendas.

Despite being an important role model for women in general and women of color, it’s ironic that far from modeling effective ways to protect democracy, for years prior to the current rise of the #MeToo movement, Winfrey encouraged her audience to ignore mounting inequity, and instead to buy into the three most famous self-help truisms, promoted by her and many of her guests:

1. “You create your own reality.”

2. “You can’t change anything outside of yourself.”

3. “The only thing you can control is your response to it.”

Winfrey was certainly not alone in promoting these beliefs. Jane Roberts, Wayne Dyer, Rhonda Byrne, who authored The Secret, and Tony Robbins were other proponents. In the US, many middle-class women have internalized these beliefs — without ever questioning whom the beliefs serve, where they come from or whether they bear re-examination given our current political situation. Rather than modeling how to get out the vote or keep fossil fuels in the ground, Winfrey, et al. encouraged people to focus on intentions for success, love, confidence and weight loss. Once women adopted the belief that we could never hope to change outer reality, then protecting democracy was deemed outside of our control and unworthy of our attention.

Instead, these beliefs urge civic disengagement — retreat, withdrawal and work on oneself, along with individual entrepreneurship. In a feature story in O Magazine, cited in the book, Age of Oprah: Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era, Winfrey told students that, “you cannot blame apartheid, your parents, your circumstances, you are not your circumstances.”

Obviously, blame on its own is not that helpful. But teaching people to regard all outer life circumstances as insubstantial discounts socio-economic factors and replaces them with individualistic bootstrap philosophies. When self-help author Tony Robbins declares that, “People who succeed at the highest level are not lucky; they’re doing something differently than everyone else,” he omits education, economic opportunity, health status, debt burden, family responsibilities, social connections, gender, race, and yes, even voting rights, as contributors to (or detractors from) an individual’s access to “success.” Look into the self-help literature, as I have been doing for a book I am writing, and you will never find these factors acknowledged.

As psychologist James Hillman posited in his book, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy — And the World is Getting Worse, psychologically based beliefs that emphasize individualism over the societal and the environmental directly contribute to social devolution. His book, which shocked many when it was first published nearly 25 years ago, seems more prescient and accurate today.

The many current signs of civic inertia in the US, such as low voter turnout and the failure to address climate change (even among those who accept climate science) appear to arise from some kind of disconnect. There are numerous ways that modern technological society promotes disconnection. But telling millions of people within a disempowering and unjust society that one should strive on one’s own for individual success is more fragmenting than “spiritual.”

If deconstructed, the beliefs that Winfrey and others promoted might more accurately read, “If you focus on becoming successful (your own reality), you can live untouched by rising economic and social disparities (outside reality).” Selective philanthropies sponsored by generous billionaires can never replace a society’s gutted safety net.

One choice belief that marketers purveyed was that women must bypass civic action until totally freed from their own negative emotions — an idealistic but highly unrealizable expectation. Today at last, following years of inequity, disempowerment and predation, #MeToo has unleashed a righteous explosion of bottled-up outrage from women. Yet, to overcome systemic socio-political and economic oppression, this outrage must be directed at bona fide infrastructural targets.

Unfortunately, the belief that “sending a message,” means that we’ve been “heard” is yet another psychotherapeutic construction, adapted and promoted by media comforters. Co-opting #MeToo by declaring that it’s “Our Turn” for yet another woman figurehead presidential hopeful supported by Wall Street will neither save the country nor heal the deep wounds of patriarchy.

Given our increasingly corrupted and competitive society, it’s not surprising that some in Winfrey’s audience sought refuge within the self-help subculture. When misogynistic holier-than-thou critics, armed with terms like “anti-science” or “New Age,” use their male advantage to ridicule women’s coping strategies, they forget the extent to which social efficacy has long been denied women, as well as the ample evidence that beliefs and attitudes do influence behavior. The issue is that the implications of all beliefs must be examined, rather than swallowed unquestioningly. That is why it’s time to explore the downsides of this nexus of beliefs, and consider them anew, not for their personal impact, but for their overlooked societal impact.

For example, beginning in the Reagan years, the 1 percent advanced a strategic plan for a corporate takeover of government. As media, publishers and celebrities profited from urging people to abdicate involvement in humanity’s shared destiny, self-help induced quietism enabled the takeover by deterring opposition to it.

Those schooled to regard the greed of our society as “something we cannot change” missed the opportunity to develop political acumen during the series of presidents (beginning with Reagan) that set the stage for the current administration. Having enabled the manifestation of today’s planet-endangering reality — not through “intentions,” but through inattention — those all-too-ready to invest all their hope in the next Wall Street pick become indignant when the rest of the population is bothered by little things like the person’s record.

To this day, when political leaders, activists, young people, independent journalists and disadvantaged populations take action, media gatekeepers and moderate Democrats dismiss the engaged as negative, angry or too extreme. What kind of “resistance” follows the lead of corporate media to denigrate activism, while falling at the feet of the next mediagenic celebrity, newscaster or billionaire? The answer is a politically naïve, easily manipulated and uninformed one.

The opposition to Donald Trump is weakened by the resulting divide between the better-informed progressives and the more compliant moderate centrists (with their loyalty to the donor-driven Democratic Party). A lifetime of civic avoidance is poor preparation for effective resistance in this most challenging epoch. Until the privileged members of Winfrey’s audience face their own historical complicity, it will prefer enthusing over well-groomed charismatics to examining the steady deterioration of the public interest over all recent administrations.

In contrast, admitting one’s own complicity in this history does not feel good. It’s humbling, but it’s the first and necessary step to a unified resistance, not exhorting those who inherit this mess to step in line behind those who complied with the corruption of our society. And the longer people deny that history and avoid the more profound redirection, the worse the reality we are creating.