The cult of Oprah

Shut up, Oprah Winfrey.

I don’t hate Oprah Winfrey per se. As a talk-show host, entrepreneur, magazine publisher and giver-away of cars, the woman is undeniably impressive.

And, obviously, the entertainment tycoon has done much good for society. During her 30-plus years on TV, Winfrey is credited with, among other things, advancing mainstream acceptance of a gay, lesbian and transgender issues; promoting literacy; and supporting global philanthropy.

But there’s a darker side to Oprah, too, one that’s amassed a cultlike following by pushing a consumer-driven lifestyle and promoting a self-help pabulum that is feel-good fuzzy at best and, at worst, downright dangerous.

In recent years, Oprah has encouraged fans to embrace alternative cancer treatments, hormone-replacement therapy and the power of positive thinking via The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle’s multimillion dollar self-help industry that espouses “living in the now” and positive thinking as a means for bringing spiritual enlightenment, wealth, health and happiness into one’s life.

I’m all for the power of positive thinking, but I also believe in the power of hard work, ambition and purpose—not to mention reasoning, logic and critical thinking.

And that’s the real problem: The public bestows Oprah with an unquestioning sense of reverence as though her word was the gospel truth.

The writers over at Skepchick, a blog that explores science, skepticism and pseudoscience, recently took aim at Oprah’s pop-culture spirituality with its “Oprah, Chopra or the Pope-a?” poll that asked readers to guess which spiritual leader (self-appointed or otherwise) said or did what.

I only scored seven out of the 17 questions correctly, but maybe that’s because it’s easy to mix up bits such as “God is a feeling experience and not a believing experience” (Oprah) with drivel such as “synchrodestiny” and “No one really knows what a gene is or how it works” (Chopra).

Winfrey’s latest campaign, coincidentally, is for Deepak Chopra’s book The Shadow Effect, which promises to “bring to light the parts of ourselves we deny but that still direct our life” by helping us “discover the gifts of our shadow.”

(Also: Shut up, Deepak Chopra.)

Newsweek magazine, which in 2009 criticized Oprah for pushing “risky” and “dangerous” procedures such as “lunchtime face-lifts” and vaginal hormone injections, sums up the media maven’s influence thusly:

“This is Oprah’s special brilliance. She is a gifted entertainer, but she makes it seem as though that is beside the point. Oprah is not here to amuse you, she is here to help you. To help you understand your feelings; drop those unwanted pounds; look and feel younger … nip and tuck your wrinkles, awaken your senses and achieve spiritual tranquility so that you can at last be free to ‘Live Your Best Life.’”

What they left out: Oprah’s incessant endorsement of a consumer-fueled culture. Yes, she wants you to live your best life, but in her world, this isn’t necessarily a state achieved through self-reflection, meditation or determined work but rather myriad books, classes, medications, treatments and trinkets.

Seriously, have you ever checked out the “O List” section of Winfrey’s O magazine? $55 bottles of balsamic vinegar? $500 pashmina wraps? $60 ginger-scented candles? Spiritual enlightenment and happiness, apparently, are in stock and ready for purchase in the gift shop—all major credit cards accepted.

It’s OK to like Oprah, to admire her journey from poverty to world domination, to look to her for inspiration.

But at some point, people need to think beyond the Gospel of Oprah and examine her message because, unfortunately, they don’t always emanate from an transcendental state but are instead based in untested science, driven by mass-marketed spirituality and, worst of all, powered by an unbridled quest for consumerism.

That’s not enlightenment—it’s expensive, dangerously uninformed and hopelessly unaware.