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|In Defense of Oprah|
Jan. 28th, 2009 at 6:37 am
Several months ago, an email petition was circulated asking people to voice their protests to Oprah Winfrey regarding a show she did about sexuality. For the show in question, Oprah conducted a survey of visitors to the oprah.com website, and asked them to reveal the nature of their sexual practices and relationships. Quoting from the show,
I know people who were shocked by this show’s discussion of pornography, open marriages, “friends with benefits,” etc., but I can’t say I was rattled by these ideas. In my first job out of BYU, my work team was a group of guys that were very open about their enjoyment of pornography, and the girl who worked as the administrator for our project was open about her enjoyment of it as well. At one point, she began dating a member of our project team, and I knew she had a husband in another state. I found out that he dated other people as well, and this was my first exposure to an open marriage.Â In my career working with the military, I have to say that monogamous marriage has not been the norm among a significant number of my colleagues, and pornography has been common in most places I’ve worked.
The thing that was most difficult for me at first was recalibrating my mental image of porn consumers and people in alternative sexual arrangements like open marriages. I came out of BYU thinking that people in these situations must be fundamentally screwed up and have really severe problems with reality and relationships, but the people I just referred to have been, for the most part, decent, kind, intelligent, well-adjusted, caring people.
I am convinced that Oprah’s show offends people because it occasionally does bring these things to light and does not attempt to render moral judgments about these choices people are making. Believing that “wickedness never was happiness,” it is sometimes really hard for us to see people living lifestyles we consider wicked, and seeming to live more or less happily in those situations. When Oprah or anyone else shows us what this looks like, the cognitive dissonance can be maddening, and I believe it is at the root of people’s objections to Oprah.
Other objections to Oprah have to do with her promotion of nebulous concepts of spirituality that constitute a poor substitute for more demanding forms of faith like the one we practice. The problem is, implicit in that criticism is the wishful thinking that if we could just remove the counterfeits and poor substitutes for real devotion to true Gospel principles, people would be more likely to accept the real thing. In reality, a substantial number of people outside the Church associate the Church with insularity, polygamy, racism, and/or anti- gay marriage activism, and none of these image problems would be remedied by teachers of spirituality abandoning their craft.Â There is no mob of converts about to rush into our chapels as soon as Deepak Chopra dies.
Personally, I feel that the only fair judgment of Oprah results from asking ourselves what we would do, and how we would approach life and its questions, if we came from her background. She was born in poverty to unwed parents, molested at a young age, and raised outside of the nuclear family arrangement, and she is criticized by lifelong members of the Church for — shockingly enough — not teaching Gospel principles on her show. In any case, I highly doubt that if I came from her background, I would have even a small fraction of the positive impact she has had on the world. To criticize her because she doesn’t live and teach Gospel standards of sexual morality is to betray one’s narrow, and very false, concept of what it means to be a moral person.Â Oprah Winfrey is a moral person and a force for good in the world, and in the end, like all of us, she will be judged by her capacity for charity, and what she has done with the circumstances and talents she has been given.