In Which Oprah Subverts the Stories She Celebrates.
January 10, 2018
A couple of nights back, Oprah donned once again her mantle of America's gnostic pope, and addressed the issue of women's equality. No spoilers here, we expected that. She gave a stirring account of both her inspiration as a child in seeing Sidney Poitier's recognition at the Oscars, as well as the little-known story of Recy Taylor.
I affirm the validity of these stories. I lean toward believing, rather than doubting, the women who have come forward. I think systemic racism is a real, proven reality in our country. And that is why I found Oprah's appeal ultimately frustrating and discouraging.
Let's first think back on the movement that led to Sidney Poitier and Recy Taylor's stories - the Civil Rights Movement of Martin Luther King Jr. Here is a brief excerpt - one of many - appealing to the image of God in all of us:
“The whole concept of the imago Dei, as it is expressed in Latin, the ‘image of God,’ is the idea that all men have something within them that God injected. Not that they have substantial unity with God, but that every man has a capacity to have fellowship with God. And this gives him a uniqueness, it gives him worth, it gives him dignity. And we must never forget this as a nation: there are not gradations in the image of God. Every man from a treble white to a bass black is significant on God’s keyboard, precisely because every man is made in the image of God."
King founded his entire civil rights appeal on an ultimate Truth: we are each created in the image of God. Contrast this with Oprah's appeal:
"I want to thank the Hollywood Foreign Press Association because we all know the press is under siege these days. We also know it's the insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth that keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and to injustice. To -- to tyrants and victims, and secrets and lies. I want to say that I value the press more than ever before as we try to navigate these complicated times, which brings me to this: what I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. And I'm especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories. Each of us in this room are celebrated because of the stories that we tell, and this year we became the story."
I have little desire to divert Oprah's argument away from equal rights. But I do want to point out a clear, self-defeating difference between Martin Luther King Jr. and Oprah: Oprah's ultimate appeal is not to a foundational theological principle. Rather, her appeal is to self-expressionism. This is why the phrase "your truth" must be inserted alongside the phrase "absolute truth."
You may say that by "your truth" Oprah merely means each person's personal experience account of The Truth. But any cursory glance over Oprah's teaching over the years will reveal this is patently false. "Your truth", for Oprah, is whatever truth makes you feel most personally fulfilled and happy, especially in the theological realm of Ultimate Reality. This also means that, unlike Martin Luther King Jr. she is restricted from making any clear appeal to Truth as a foundation for justice.
The question that Oprah - and other gnostics - are never then able to answer is: "What happens when my truth conflicts with The Truth?" For example - what if I feel that taking advantage of young women is the way I desire to express myself and find happiness? What if that is my truth?
"Well," Oprah would say, "That conflicts with The Truth." But what does she mean by "The Truth" in this case? The answer: whatever Oprah, and her posse, personally believes is true. Meaning: Oprah's appeal is ultimately an appeal - not to truth - but to power. There is a reason this sort of speech can receive such sparkling reception in a Golden Globes ceremony: there are a lot of powerful people in the same room who happen to agree that Oprah's version of the truth is most personally fulfilling to them. Unlike Martin Luther King Jr., she is not attempting to subvert the narrative of the oppressor. She has no desire to convert oppressors - she is gambling on the raw volume and cash backing her movement. This will inevitably lead to further divisiveness, rather than the true justice for which MLK Jr. aimed. Maybe Oprah knows that. Maybe she doesn't care.
It's no wonder folks like Ta-Nahesi Coates (a self-declared atheist) see no hope for future progress. If Oprah Winfrey's appeal to "your truth" is the voice crying in the wilderness, there is no hope. Will some women feel personally empowered by Oprah's speech? I hope so. Will some young minorities be inspired to see an older black woman being recognized publicly for her achievements? I hope so. Did that speech continue the movement MLK Jr. started 60 years ago, which Oprah heralded in her speech? No. In fact, it cut the legs out from under it. If that's the best we have going, things are going to get worse. I'm with Coates on this one.