Monday, August 12, 2013

Did Oprah Lie at Harvard?

If you are going to call someone a liar, you should, at the very least, use the word correctly.

Admittedly, the recent drumbeat of—“Bush lied”—has confused the issue, but still, Leon Wieseltier should know that a lie involves an intention to deceive.

And that is not all. Most if not all of the time, a lie must involve a point that can be disproved by referring to facts. You might hold a mistaken opinion; you might have misinterpreted the data; you might have latched on to some utterly bizarre beliefs. None of these count as lies.

When someone calls you a liar, he is saying that you know your statement to be untrue and that your it can be shown to be factually incorrect.

In any event, Wieseltier seems slightly torqued that Oprah Winfrey, of all people, addressed the Harvard graduating class. Doubtless, he would have happily found them a more erudite speaker, a serious thinker who could impart pearls of great wisdom to the graduates. Guess who?

So, Wieseltier wrote a column in which he called Oprah a liar. In what matter, pray tell, did she lie?

He reports:

At Harvard not long ago, Oprah Winfrey spoke to the graduating class and, “address[ing] my remarks to anybody who has ever felt inferior or felt disadvantaged, felt screwed by life,” uttered this memorable sentence: “There is no such thing as failure.” She immediately explained her strange assertion: “Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.” 

And then Wieseltier provides his own exegesis:

The experience of defeat, in other words, is an error of interpretation. Nothing is bad that is followed by something else. Nothing is bad unless you call it bad. Only death, on this account, is a defeat, since it is followed by nothing, though I suppose that in her quackery Winfrey believes in an afterlife in which she dwells for eternity between Tom Cruise and Maya Angelou at God’s Oscar party.

But, if you are trying to show that the Harvard graduating class would have done better to hear your thoughts than those of a phenomenally successful businesswoman, you should at least read her correctly.

What piece of wisdom was Oprah imparting to the graduates?

She was not, I daresay, claiming that failure does not hurt. She was not saying that failure is only failure when you call it a failure. She was, as I read her, offering some motivational advice, a pep talk, some remarks that you might hear from a good executive or manager.

Keep in mind, Oprah is an enormously successful executive. She has demonstrated an exceptional ability to manage people. Critics and other itinerant intellectuals who have no experience in that field should screw up their humility before they slander people who can do things they can’t.

Of course, Oprah was saying that failure is real. When you discover that you have been moving in the wrong direction, you feel like you have failed.

If failure tells you to move in another direction, it must also have told you that what you were doing something wrong.

Oprah is speaking to the difference between failing at a task and seeing yourself as a failure. She is trying to teach the graduates, as she teaches her staff, that failing at a task and being a failure are two different things. She is telling them that failure doe throw you into the slough of despond. When that happens you might be thinking that you will never get anything right.

What is it, at that moment, that will impel you to lift yourself up, get yourself moving and set yourself on a new path?

More than a few managers, to say nothing of therapists and counselors would love to know which formulation will motivate people to rise above their failures.

You are not going to help them very much by saying that failure is real and inexorable. If you do not provide a way to motivate someone to get moving, you will be telling him to console himself by wallowing in failure. In that way he will show that he is a serious thinker and an intellectual.

Oprah offered her own views, and, even if they do not represent the highest truth, they ought to be read for what they are, not for what you would have wanted them to be.
You may not approve of Oprah’s rhetoric, but surely she did not lie. The term is inapposite. Wieseltier should know better.

When it comes time for Wieseltier to share his own superior thoughts, the results are not very encouraging:

So it is worth insisting that there is such a thing as failure. Our country is awash in it. If the loss of a house or a job in a recession or a hurricane is “just life trying to move us in another direction,” then it is in the direction of pain, difficulty, anxiety, and despair. Except for those with the material insulation to survive it, failure is not a lucky break. Yet we slander the victims of hardship as “losers,” as if they are entirely responsible, or at all responsible, for their fate.

Do you feel better already?

Wieseltier must feel that his view is intellectually sophisticated. It isn’t. Aside from the fact that Oprah did not say that failure is “a lucky break,” the truth is, that when you fail at a task, you should take responsibility. Otherwise, how would you expect to marshal the resources to turn the situation around? If you do not feel responsible for your failure you will be telling yourself that there is nothing you can do to change things. If you make yourself the victim of fate or a hurricane or a bad job market, you will be less likely to rebuild your house or your life.

People who fail do not need to be encouraged to feel more anguish and despair. If they have any moral sense they know that they are in a ditch. They feel very badly about it. The question is, how do they summon up the courage to do what their emotions are telling them is impossible: to rebuild, to reconstruct, to change course and to start getting things right.

To sustain his misuse of the term “liar” Wieseltier suggests that Oprah’s statement was “empirically false.” Add the word “empirical” to the list of words that Wieseltier does not understand.

Winfrey’s merry homily at Harvard was empirically false. More, her edifying maxim was disabling, even cruel: you cannot help people face their troubles by telling them that they have no troubles.

In truth, Oprah did not say that she had never failed. In fact, she explained that when she launched her new OWN network, it was failing. She felt embarrassed, which is a mild form of the shame you feel when you fail. But she sucked it up and revamped it and now it is a success.

Apparently, Wieseltier seems to believe that Oprah is simply speaking out of her own false class consciousness. She is so rich, he is saying, that for her there is no such thing as failure. Thus, she has no right to speak on the topic.

But why, you ask yourself, would Oprah’s success merit Leon Wieseltier’s contempt. After all, Oprah Winfrey earned what she has. She has worked very hard to earn her success. To say that she no longer cares about her reputation is to miss the point entirely.

Obviously, the money no longer really matters. What matters to someone like Oprah is precisely her reputation. She does not want to be seen as someone who got lucky. She wants to be seen as someone who has earned her success. She started a network because she wanted to show that her success was really hers, that it was not a fluke, that it was not an accident, that she herself had accomplished what she accomplished.

What is Wieseltier’s solution to the problem he believes he has discovered? He believes that the vast majority of us should accept that we are average, as in, mediocre.

He seems to believe that embracing your mediocrity will make you more humble. Apparently, he does not understand that strength of character is an excellence, not a sign of mediocrity. Add “humility” to the list of concepts that Wieseltier does not understand.

Nevertheless there is some truth to his statement. When all is said and done, most people are average. Of course, being average and being mediocre are not the same thing.

But if you tell graduating college students that they should look forward to mediocrity what motive would they have to improve, to advance, to work harder and to strive for excellence. Effectively, they would have none. What motive would they have to pick themselves up after failing and to set out in a new direction? Effectively, they would have none.

And ask yourself this, is America an average country? Are the people who built America into a great country as average as everyone else on the planet?

One appreciates the humor in Garrison Keillor’s statement that, in America, “all the children are above average.” But, it is incontestably true that America is a great and exceptional country and that it got that way by striving for excellence, not by resigning itself to mediocrity.


Anonymous said...

The mystic poet, Rumi, said it better. Once, when God was very drunk on wine, he let slip a great secret ... that there is no such thing as sin.

Dennis said...


To live is to learn. To live is to grow.
Most people have a talent for something that will provide them with a successful life. What most people do is that they give up before they find out what that talent is for them.
This is an exceptional country that if one has the wherewithal to work hard, respect one's self and those around them, accept the challenges and see them as a test of one's ability and look at those things that happen as a learning experience, one will do well.

Be positive and never give up on yourself. GOD does not make junk.