Monday 26 April 2021

The Problem of Inauthenticity

Harry, Meghan and Oprah having a chat (Photocredit-HarpoProductions-JoePugliese)
What was the ‘intention’ of  Mister and Missus Harry Mountbatten–Windsor with THAT  interview? You know, the one with Oprah Winfrey in which they spilled the beans on life in the British Royal Family.

As one gushing website put it:

“The dust is still settling from Oprah Winfrey’s explosive two-hour interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on Sunday, and the revelations are devastating. Markle, pregnant with the couple’s second child, described the racist treatment she endured from social media, the British press and the royal family itself.”

Was the intention then to lift the lid on racism in the Royal Family? Certainly it seemed so when Harry revealed about their baby: 

“There were ‘concerns and conversations’ about how dark his skin might be when he’s born.”

The British Royals are a venerable institution, and the Queen’s husband in particular, aka Harry’s grandfather, had a well-grounded reputation for off-colour remarks, including references to “slitty eyes” while visiting China and saying of a messy fuse box in a factory that it looked like it had been put together “by an Indian”.

Was the intention of the interview then to give Harry’s grandad (who would die only a few weeks later) a really bad day? Apparently not, although, of course, neither Meghan nor Harry would actually stoop to naming names. However, Oprah herself did clarify on CBS the next morning that Harry wanted it be known that “it was not his grandmother, nor his grandfather that were part of those conversations.”

Looking at the allegation and subsequent clumsy refinement, it looks to me like the intention was not so much to throw mud at the Royal Family, which after all, for Harry would be rather like throwing mud at yourself, as at some particular individual within it with whom there had been a disagreement. Also called settling scores in public. Is that, however, a worthwhile thing to be doing on Oprah’s highly moral show? I ask because Ms Winfrey has publicly set a very high standard for her interviews. Ever since the occasion in 1988, when she interviewed white supremacists in order to “gain insight into the source of their hatred”. 

To be honest, so venomous was the interview with Harry and Meghan, Oprah could almost have offered a similar motivation here. Alas though, truth is more prosaic, and it seems only that the two wealthy celebrities were being interviewed by the third wealthy celebrity merely as a way to promote themselves. Is self-promotion a worthy, moral endeavour? I suppose we should be careful not to be too puritanical about such things. After all, a celebrity is someone who gives the public some kind of pleasure. But there's a point where celebrities celebrating themselves, and attacking lesser figures, becomes rather dodgy. 

After Winfrey interviewed the racists on that long-ago show, she publicly regretted it and vowed that from then on the watchword would be “intention”. What’s that all about then? Well, the term, signifying the search for spiritual values, is central to the new age philosophy of Gary Zukav set out in his book, The Seat of the Soul. In the book, Zukav, who was already famous for his new-age investigations of personal psychology and quantum physics (including one of my own favourite reads, The Dancing Wu Li Masters), offers a grand cosmological theory: 

“Each soul enters into a sacred agreement with the Universe to accomplish specific goals, or take on a particular task. All of your experiences of your life serve to awaken within you the memory of that contract, and to prepare you to fulfill it.” 

For individuals this means one thing. Every action, thought, and feeling is motivated by an intention, and “that intention is a cause that exists as one with an effect.”

This is part of a broader theory set out in the book that humanity is evolving from a species that pursues external power into a species that pursues spiritual values. Zukav argues (rather predictably) that the pursuit of external power generates conflict—between individuals and lovers, within communities, and between nations – while “authentic power” infuses the activities of life with reverence, compassion, and trust. 

“Reach for your soul. Reach even further, the impulse of creation and power authentic, the hourglass point between energy and matter, that is the seat of the soul.” 

Huston Smith, professor of philosophy at MIT, praised the book as “remarkable” and complimented Zukav, calling him “one of our finest interpreters of frontier science”, able to explain and understand the human spirit.  

Anyway, the principle became a guiding light for Winfrey. “The number one principle that rules my life is intention,” Winfrey has said adding that  after reading Zukav’s book, she called a meeting with the TV show’s producers and announced a new strategy: “We are going to be a force for good, and that is going to be our intention.” 

Winfrey has also revealed that there had been plenty of times where she’d heard ideas for the show that had no positive intention, and so from now on she would turn these down. Nor, she said, would she accept ideas where she felt people were manufacturing an intention that they themselves didn’t believe in. She’d no longer accept this sort of inauthenticity.

But looking at the sight of a wealthy princeling, who once dressed up as a Nazi at a rave, and a model who in her brief visit to England was accused of bullying and humiliating staff, using her show as a vehicle to cast aspersions against friends and family alike, I can’t help but feel that either Zukav’s philosophy is worthless, or Winfrey’s adoption of it is, well, inauthentic. Or maybe both, of course!


Thomas O. Scarborough said...

I have seen inauthenticity as, call it a reduction of the texture of life. Rather than someone pretending to be what they are not, I think of it as a thin movie plot, which does not contain the fullness of life, but traces artificial points in the whole picture. In this sense, Zukav's philosophy does not seem to be worthless. One does wonder how the interview fits with it.

Keith said...

Mine is admittedly a minority view; I get it! But, frankly, the notion that ‘the British Royals are a venerable institution’ bothers me a bit. Why?

Well, although Britain’s monarchy might have served the country’s history in various capacities — let’s grant them that much at least, even if the claim is itself worthy of debate — in a twentieth- and especially twenty-first-century world, it strikes a privileged, archaic pose. Relevance and justification seem thinning gruel.

The inexorable march of globalisation — where the irresistible forces of cross-seeding along many societal dimensions melt international borders — makes Britain’s monarchy all the more obsolete and removed.

Sure, bling attracts. And voyeuristically and fawningly, royal watching never quite goes out of style. Accordingly, I suggest that a disproportionate chunk of the institution’s gravitas derives from optics and ceremony. What may actually be accomplished substantively could be fully met by simpler means.

But the fact remains that Britain’s monarchy, no matter how benign the veneer in the form of diplomacy, spotlights the inequalities deeply burrowed into society: economic/financial, racial and ethnic, political, social, educational, healthcare, human rights, judicial, other. These seem to get conveniently sidestepped.

I wonder what it will take to eventually wean ourselves off the need. We’ll get there; but dismayingly apparently not just yet, as evidenced by the audience draw of Oprah’s deftly manipulated mega-interview.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Keith lives in a federal republic, where inequalities are far more grievous than in the constitutional monarchy the UK.

I would have thought that a monarchy makes better sense in our time. It symbolises personality in the midst of increasing rationalism.

docmartincohen said...

Ah, the narrow issue of the British Royals intentions for their appearance on Winfrey's supposedly ethically guided chat show have been skipped over, to debate the merits of a monarchy. I'm with Keith on this, actually. The idea of a family inheriting power, palaces and prestige because of birth is something we need to resist. Thomas's counter argument that the US is much more unequal than the UK is actually wrong. The UK has become a highly unequal society over the years, and I'm sure, per Keith, that having society structured around inherited wealth and power (thinking of things like the public school system feeding into the 'elite' universities) is a big part of it. This is from an academic paper on the UK's inequality problem, author Danny Dorling: "The UK is now the European country most similar to the USA in terms of income inequalities. Along with Sweden it was least like the USA in the 1960s."

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

I was relying on this as my source.

Keith said...

Nice deflection, Thomas. ☺ To my point: The fact remains the monarchy exudes archaism, classism, entitlement, birthrights, shiny baubles, superficial ostentation, license, and privilege. It’s long overdue to be removed from the contemporary world and set on history’s dusty, musty, fusty shelves.

Keith said...

Perhaps ‘a force for good’ is extravagant, given the primary intent arguably being to titillate and entertain. In my view, however, like or abhor Oprah, she is extraordinarily adept at reaching in and drawing out her guests.

She settles them down, Zen-like. She makes them disregard the heaps of viewers mesmerized in front of their TVs, hoping for a revelatory crumb or two. She offers a peek into the hidden sanctums of the rich and famous and infamous. She radiates empathy, real or feigned. She mysteriously causes surrounding distractions to fade to black, creating a cone of communication. She couches the interview as just two off-stage, disregarded acquaintances yammering. And she does this in a seemingly nonthreatening, reassuring manner.

Whether all that reduces to the heady business of ‘each soul enter[ing] into a sacred agreement’ perhaps assigns the process a too-mysterious shroud. Or maybe the process, in Oprah’s deft hands, really does mine that authentically deep: ‘reaching for your soul’.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

'Deflection' and its word family are more recent buzzwords in the USA. It is not a kind word. My previous comment was not a deflection. Rather I was seeking to answer discreetly the claim that I was 'wrong' with regard to income inequalities. I do not think I was, and offered a link to a European policy portal to support that.

There are several constitutional monarchies in Europe, and these govern some of the most equal nations. Monarchy does not necessarily equate with inequality. One may ask, too, how much a monarchy costs. In the UK, much less than other monarchies. As an example, less than 10% of Norway.

What should 'archaic' mean? A constitutional monarchy in the UK which, as best I can see, appears to have been reducing inequality of late, or a system such as that in the USA, a federal republic, where inequality has been going from bad to worse, in fits and starts, since about Nixon. Are these the 'simpler means' we are to use?

This is not to justify any particular status quo, but to bring some perspective. It depends on definitions, too, most importantly 'inequality'.

Keith said...

The deflection, Thomas, I was (whimsically) referring to was this: ‘Keith lives in a federal republic, where inequalities are far more grievous than in the constitutional monarchy the UK’. And not, as you thought, to your ‘’ source. For the record, I might add that ‘deflection’ is neither kind nor unkind. Context matters; whimsy matters. The word also has a vastly longer, complex, and undulating lexical history than just, as you suggest, ‘a recent buzzword in the USA’.

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