—   The sharp point of dissent   —

Section: Culture
25 June 2005

Oprah Winfrey and the Cult of Self-Esteem

Years ago, while flicking through Time magazine's special issue on the Artists and Entertainers of the 20th century, I could sense that something-is-wrong feeling coming over me. For while the likes of Hemingway, Yeats and the Gershwin brothers were tucked away in 'they also served' paragraphs, three-page articles were devoted to Jim Henson, Lucille Ball, Bart Simpson and Oprah Winfrey. In short, given twenty pedestals upon which to place some of this century's finest artistic luminaries, Time found room in the pantheon for a puppeteer, a sit-com comedienne, a chat-show host, and a cartoon character. It wasn't all bad, however: Joyce, Elliot and Picasso were all given lengthy articles, although I'm sure they would wonder about a cultural canon which places them shoulder-to-shoulder with Oprah Winfrey.

Georgetown professor Deborah Tannen wrote the Oprah profile: it was like reading three pages of air. Groping for achievements, Tannen could only come up with the observations that 'she makes people care because she cares' and 'when a guest's story moves her, she cries and spreads her arms for a hug'. Is there anything else? 'Winfrey's power is that she tells her own' she explained. Fair enough. Among these accomplishments: 'divulging that she once ate a package of hot-dug buns drenched in maple syrup [and] that she had smoked cocaine'.[1] A true overachiever, then.

Perhaps it seems as though I'm being too harsh. Subjecting Oprah Winfrey to rational scrutiny is, after all, like using an intellectual sledgehammer to squash a peanut. If so, I suppose we can at least take comfort from the fact that Oprah herself would not be in the least affected by what anyone has to say about her. Indeed, her whole philosophy of self-esteem largely revolves around remaining insulated from common sense. One has only to look at her anodyne aphorisms, her ninnyish audience, and her endless stream of guests selling psychotherapeutic snake-oil to realise that critical reflection is not welcome in her world.

The Oprah cult has its own propaganda organ in the print media specifically O, the Oprah magazine. (If you are in doubt about the idolatry, consider that an entire episode of her show was recently given over complete with celebrity guests and whooping audience to lavishly celebrating her 50th birthday.) The Oprah magazine is perhaps one of the few publications which one can safely judge by its cover festooned as it is with diet advice, 'real-life' stories from Americans possessing anything but, and the all-important self-esteem tips.[2] The magazine, named after its owner, also features a smiling picture of its owner on the cover of every issue. Can one imagine even the vainest supermodel stooping to this? And yet there she is every month, Photoshopped to perfection, the world's most self-aggrandizing cover girl. (The satirical newspaper The Onion once ran a story in which Oprah and her followers seceded from the Union to form the state of UgoGirl. I find it eerily easy to imagine such a republic, since the cult of personality it would be founded on is already firmly in place.)

There is a broader, more earnest point to all this. Unless chit-chat and wilful emoting are deemed challenging areas of activity, it is difficult to see how Oprah Winfrey could be considered a luminary of any sort. Her ascendancy in the US, therefore, and her inclusion in Time's pantheon of 20th century cultural icons, may be regarded as symptomatic of the displacement of objective achievement by 'self-fulfilment' in American life. It doesn't seem to matter anymore that you don't achieve anything: what matters is that you feel good about yourself. A whole generation is being indoctrinated to feel self-worth without doing anything to earn that feeling. Jeremy Rivkin, reflecting on childhood memories of a mother who lived through the twilight of the frontier generation, noted the cultural contrasts:
"Believe in yourself" she would say, "and you will be able to move mountains." ... A half century later, when such exhortations began to fade from the collective memory, educators, psychiatrists, and parents began to re-introduce them in a more stuctured if not artificial way, in the form of "self-esteem" seminars and instruction. But, in the new contrived context, the exercise seems a bit too desperate, perhaps because it lacks any kind of historical context or mission. Self-esteem has come to mean "feeling good about oneself", often without any specific end in mind.[3]
It's hardly surprising, with this in mind, that a nonachiever like Oprah Winfrey should become the torch-bearer for such a movement.

One explanation for the erosion of the importance of real achievement may be found in the modern dominance of televisual media. Before the twentieth century, accomplishment was truly the antecedent of fame. Men only became famous by doing great things. When one considers the prodigious accomplishments of a Napoleon ('our last great man' as Thomas Carlyle once lamented), a Shakespeare or a Beethoven, one appreciates the root of their fame. Nowadays things are very different. As the historian Daniel Boorstin lamented: 'Discovering that we ... can so quickly and so effectively give a man 'fame', we have willingly been misled into believing that fame - well-knowness is still a hallmark of greatness'.[4] Today one has only to look at the ascendancy of a Robbie Williams or an Arnold Schwarzenegger to realise just how divorced from accomplishment fame has become.

The ability of the media apparatus to erect a nonentity into a celebrity overnight has produced some interesting effects (and not a few awful talent shows dedicated to this cause). For one thing, fame itself has become the accomplishment, not the result of an accomplishment. Thus we hear aspiring movie stars at auditions telling us that their ambition is 'to become famous'. When untalented individuals become world-famous, they contribute to a spiral of decline: other untalented individuals look to a celebrity, see no great gap between themselves and the star, and conclude that they too should have fame. As the late William Henry lugubriously observed: 'Talent, achievement, practice and learning no longer command deference. Everybody is a star. Andy Warhol said that everyone would have fifteen minutes of fame, and nonachievers by the millions are demanding it as a birthright.'[5] When non-aspirers such as Oprah Winfrey become spectacularly famous and celebrated, and then go on to promote an ethos that is wilfully non-aspirational, one can see how the effect is doubly deleterious.

Another explanation for the prevalence of the cult of self-esteem lies in the peculiarities of America's political and educational scene. Ham-fisted efforts to 'empower' minorities (or pretty much any other group claiming 'victim' status) has wreaked destruction on academic standards. In recent years liberal academics have stigmatized the dominance of a 'Eurocentric' curriculum as a 'tool of white oppression', and have sought to magnify the achievements of 'Afrocentric' culture, with predictable results. Among these arguments, Neil Postman cites 'the claims that black Africa is where science, philosophy, religion, medicine, technology and other great humanistic achievements originated; that the ancient Egyptians were black; that Pythagoras and Aristotle stole their mathematics and philosophies from black scholars in Egypt'.[6]

The other tactic adopted has been to indulge a radical relativism, to flatly assert that the considerable achievements of western civilisation have no claim to superiority over 'minority' cultures, that all cultures have equal merit, regardless of how underdeveloped. As William Henry drily observed, however, 'it is scarcely the same thing to put a man on the moon as to put a bone in your nose'.[7] Once again, we can see enacted on a massive scale the attempt to 'empower' or raise the self-worth of the historically underachieved and outlaw the rational objectivity that would immediately belie their claims to historically equal worth. This doctrine not only diminishes the coinage of real achievement, but insults the intelligence and capabilities of those whom it purports to 'empower'.

The very first issue of the Oprah magazine I laid eyes on featured something called 'the 'O' guide to self-esteem'. Maybe this is all some kind of subtle satire that I'm not getting as though someone were to publish Self-Esteem for Dummies but if not, then there's something very odd going on. Nobody consults a buffoon for nuggets of wisdom. With this in mind, an Oprah guide to self-worth strikes me as some sort of practical joke. Oprah Winfrey, a woman who can barely track which camera she is on and spews gaffes with every other breath, actually believes she can play guru to the maladjusted masses. Contrary to her Weltanschauung, however, women are not uniformly dumb, diet-obsessed, emotionally friable or mawkish. The idea that she 'empowers' the fairer sex by starting with this set of assumptions is outlandish to say the least. Clearly, Oprah Winfrey's sense of self-esteem is based not on knowledge of self but on ignorance of self, and it's about time she stopped contaminating people's lives with junk-food psychology.


A quick parting word on one of Oprah's favourite guests, Steven R. Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, along with sequels for Highly Effective Families and Highly Effective Teenagers. Just recently, he has released a book entitled The 8th Habit. If the manufacturers of Oil of Ulay, following their 'seven signs of ageing' ad campaign, were to promote a skin cream which purported to cure the 8th sign, my guess is that the public would collectively snicker and wonder aloud who Ulay thought they were kidding. This is just how we should assess Covey's racket - a fast-food franchise getting fatter and fatter while spreading while spreading itself thinner and thinner.

Nevertheless, his writings furnish us with an excellent example of what happens when Oprah-fodder undergoes a collision with reality. In Covey's original 7 Habits book, he uses the term 'rescripting', which seems to mean the ability to change one's deeply ingrained perspectives and beliefs. Covey's chosen example par excellence is the apostasy of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Here's what he had to say:

I think one of the most inspiring accounts of the rescripting process comes from the autobiography of Anwar Sadat, past President of Egypt. Sadat had been reared, nurtured, and deeply scripted in a hatred for Israel ... The script was very independent and nationalistic and it aroused deep emotions in the people. But it was also very foolish, and Sadat knew it. It ignored the perilous, highly interdependent reality of the situation. So he rescripted himself.
The 'rescripting process' apparently bore some impressive fruit. Specifically:

[O]ne of the most precedent-breaking peace movements in the history of the world, a bold initiative that eventually brought about the Camp David Accord. ... And from that rescripting, that change in paradigm, flowed changes in behaviour and attitude that affected millions of lives in the wider Circle of Concern.[8]
Impressive? Certainly. Just one problem: we all know what happened next. Egypt became the first country to be expelled from the Arab League; the Israeli government under Menachem Begin used the neutralising of its strongest military opponent to tighten its stranglehold on the occupied territories; the accord's clause which promised autonomy for the Palestinians was discarded; Sadat himself was shot dead in 1981 for his betrayal; and the Israelis invaded Lebanon the following year in a politically fruitless war that consumed 20,000 lives, a war (on which there is a consensus among historians) that Israel would never have dared to embark on had Egypt not been bought off at Camp David. All this, apparently, must also be due to the power of 'rescripting'. It's bad enough that Covey reduces a principled objection to the bruality of Israeli neocolonialism to a mere psychological glitch which can be corrected with a sprinkling of self-help. But that he chooses to ignore the less photogenic and very human consequences of Sadat's volte-face is deeply objectionable.

* * *

I don't want to end on a humourless note so I'm going to quote one more passage from Covey:

Whenever someone in our family, even one of the younger children, takes an irresponsible position and waits for someone else to make things happen or provide a solution, we tell them, 'Use your R and I!' (resourcefulness and initiative). In fact, often before we can say it, they answer their own complaints, 'I know use my R and I!'[9]

Know what I scribbled in the margin beside this? Meet the Stepfords.

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1 Deborah Tannen, 'The TV Host', Time, 8 June, 1998
2 People seem to have stopped noticing the paradox of diet tips (i.e, you're fat) appearing alomgside self-esteem advice (i.e, you're great).
3 Jeremy Rivkin, The European Dream, Penguin, New York, 2004, p. 12
4 Daniel Boorstin, The Image, or what Happened to the American Dream, Atheneum, New York, 1962, p. 47
5 William Henry, In Defense of Elitism, Anchor Books, New York, 1995, p. 12
6 Neil Postman, The End of Education, Vintage Books, New York, 1996, p. 55
7 William Henry, Ibid, p. 14
8 Steven Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1989, p. 103-104
9 Ibid, p. 75