Thursday, August 15, 2013

A million little Oprahs

In a recent piece--The post-Zimmerman world--I noted how "outrage" over the verdict in the Zimmerman trial was less about race per se and more about a desire to have it be about race:
The outrage over this particular decision is not a product of injustice due to race, it's a product of people in the media wanting it to be about race, assuming it therefore is about race, and supposing injustice is a given if the verdict appears to favor one race over another. And unfortunately, the general population is all too willing to follow the music of the Pied Pipers, to accept the tale being told by the media and to jump on the outrage train.
And really, the "outrage train" left the station long before the actual trial took place. Once the story of the actual incident became national news, people immediately began to climb aboard, pushing and shoving others who were in their way in an effort to make sure they had a good seat. The mainstream media was a leader in this regard, of course, but it had plenty of help. Blogs, messageboards, and social media sites were positively brimming with people eager to show their outrage, to prove to others how deeply they truly cared about the injustice of supposed racism.

Such people don't need much to stir them to action on the internet (or in real life). Witness Oprah Winfrey's much-publicized flap with a high-end boutique in Switzerland. Everyone knows the story by now: the queen of media moguls was in Switzerland for a friend's wedding (Tina Turner) and went out to do some shopping. At the Trois Pommes Boutique in Zurich she claims to have been a victim of racism when a sales person supposedly refused to show her a handbag because it was too pricey for Oprah (the assumption being that Oprah's skin color was the basis of this determination: she is black and therefore poor, or at least not wealthy).

After Oprah went public with the story, the predictable outrage train quickly followed. The Swiss tourism board--cowed by the negative press--even went as far as to offer Oprah a public apology. Everyone--well, almost everyone--took it as a given that Oprah's tale was absolutely true. Many immediately began to offer up comparable tales that they either personally experienced or witnessed. And let's be clear on one point: this kind of stuff does happen, people make assumptions about others because of things like race then pigeonhole them accordingly.

But did it happen to Oprah, specifically, in the Zurich boutique? Not according to the owner of the store nor to the sales person who waited on Oprah:

Asked to give her version of the incident, Adriana said Winfrey had come into the store and was looking at bags when her eye was caught by a $38,000 crocodile skin number by Tom Ford.  
She told the newspaper, "I explained that this was exactly the same bag as the one I had in my hand. Only much more expensive. I would happily show her other bags, I said." 
Adriana said Winfrey's claim that she told the media mogul the bag was too expensive for her was absolutely not true. 
"That's absurd. I would never say such a thing to a customer. Absolutely not. Good manners and politeness are everything in this shop," she said.
The store's owner has since requested a chance to speak to Oprah and questioned where the idea of racism even came from:
Yesterday Goetz said she wanted to speak personally to Winfrey and defended her employee to the hilt, adding: ‘I don't know why she talked of racism. I am sorry, but perhaps she is being a little over-sensitive here. Maybe she was somewhat offended because she was not immediately recognized in the store.'
Since Oprah went public with her little tale (I'm tempted to add the prefix "fairy"), she's sort of walked things back, not really admitting that she fashioned the charge of racism out of thin air, but rather apologizing for how the story "got blown up." Think on that. Why does it matter if it got blown up if the incident truly did demonstrate racism on the part of the sales person? If so, it would be both just and fair to spread the story around, no? The sales person could rightly lose her job and the store fairly shunned by people who think such racism should never be encouraged.

But this isn't the first time Oprah has claimed mistreatment at the hands of European bigots. Back in 2005, it was the Hermes shop in Paris that mistreated her highness. How? By failing to open the doors for Oprah to shop, even though the story was closed for the day. At the time, Oprah reportedly called the incident "one of the most humiliating moments" in her life. Really? Not getting special treatment is humiliating? And of course, when the story first came out--of Oprah's mouth, I should add--the outrage train began immediately, with cries of racism from pundit to pundit, from blogger to blogger.

In the end, the 2005 incident was hushed up quickly when it became apparent that the facts failed to fit the narrative Oprah and her sycophants were offering. And that looks to be exactly what is now happening with the current brouhaha. Great. Because when famous people misrepresent things in order to garner sympathy and attention, this should be pointed out.

However, the real problem are those millions of sycophants who jump on these kinds of stories as a means to get all high and mighty, as a means to pacify their own fragile egos by getting offended by the actions of others, thus providing an "other" to hold in disdain, to be superior to. That's the genesis of the outrage train, not the words of Oprah herself, but the reactions of those who speak (or write) first and only think later (if at all). Even when stories like this one collapse, most fail to retract their claims. Some continue to defend their outrage with weak arguments about how "maybe it wasn't true in this case, but it does happen all the time."

Lots of things happen "all the time." Lots of things don't. But if one want to be outraged about something, it's a kind of logical first step to make sure that the something in question actually happened. Taking one's lead from publicity-hungry "stars" is both pathetic and stupid in my opinion. Though I lack respect for Oprah--when it comes to her manufactured outrage--I feel even less empathy for her little sycophantic fans, for while Oprah's voice it indeed loud, their combined voices are much louder. And they--as a group--do far more damage.

Cheers, all.

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