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Saturday, 13 January 2018 | MYT 12:00 AM

Why Oprah Winfrey matters

OPRAH Winfrey recently made head­lines for her rousing speech upon receiving the Cecille B. DeMille award given by the Hollywood Fo­­reign Press Association for lifetime achievement in the world of entertainment at the 2018 Golden Globes.

She spoke of a new day on the horizon, where women are respected, girls are inspired to break glass ceilings, and men are honoured for being phenomenal listeners and advocates for women.

I was moved by her speech. This is the talk show queen who has overcome countless adversities to become as successful as she is today. Yet, I can’t help but feel uncomfor­table with how the speech has triggered a cacophony of calls for her to contest the 2020 US presidential election.

Is a stirring speech all it takes to qualify to be a leader of the free world? After all, Donald Trump has proven that one does not need a track record, expansive and eloquent vocabulary, or even high morals, to get elected. Surely someone as progressive as Oprah would do better?

Is changing the head of a country all it takes for good governance to be magically delivered? Or should we ask more from our political leaders, our local councils, our teachers and ourselves?

More importantly, the reaction to Oprah’s speech has distracted us from the intended message – for there to be an end to sexual harassment, for women to have an equal, shared space and to be celebrated on all platforms.

It was a speech intended to lead the conversation and the work around #TimesUp, a movement providing legal aid to women who faced sexual harassment at the workplace and the follow-up to the #MeToo conversation that domina­ted headlines last year.

Coincidentally, this week, I had classes with Prof Eldar Shafir, a behavioural scientist and one of Richard Tahler’s many collaborators. Tahler is the recipient of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work on incorporating insights from psychology into economic theor­­y and policymaking. The work is colloquially known as the “nudge” theory and Tahler’s book was featured in my column on July 15 last year.

In class, I argued with Prof Shafir on my discomfort with the power of manipulating behaviours. I prefer that people are educated and informed so that they can come to rational conclusions.

His response was for us to simply accept that human beings are “just being humans”.

In short, despite our best intellect and supposed rationale, we humans are still prone to making biased decisions and behaving emotively, as shown by our reaction to Oprah’s speech. Rather than taking responsibility to act on the content, we instead want Oprah to be the he­­roine to save us all.

The virologist in me now understands that simply showing graphs and statistics are not the best way to reason with people; the story that is told from the data is what matters.

However, such stories must be told with a sense of responsibility and they should not misrepresent the evidence, or in this case, the data.

This fine line between ‘drama’ and dry data is the cause of my dilemma. As Prof Shafir argued, when those of us who are better informed refuse to manipulate behaviours because we respect in­­di­­vidual’s intellect too much, others will gain as humans are manipula­ted anyway.

Therein lies the power of celebrity. While Oprah’s speech was all that we needed in a time when charismatic leaders are scarce, it must not blind us to the need to clearly evaluate policies and critically analyse governance as we experience it. Nor should it divert from the movement to seek justice on sexual harassment.

This clear and critical approach is a safeguard against us reading news headlines and getting all work­­ed up over unemployment rates or the country’s economic status, without considering the details. It complicates matters that even those of us who analyse the details are biased, as proven by beha­vioural science!

It is our safeguard against celebrating cult figures rather than assessing our requirements and priorities in creating a better world.

Yes, celebrities have the reach and ability to influence far more than policymakers ever can, but when celebrities choose to propagate bigotry and hate or to “nudge” the public towards poor health choices such as anti-vaccination or the fad of ozone treatment, that’s where we should draw the line.

I do not discount that Oprah is inspiring. The hope for a better world that comes with her speech is resounding globally.

Young girls who watched that speech will one day become world leaders, leading scientists, corporate figures, em­­po­wered single women, empower­ed wives and empowered mothers.

What Oprah showed through her speech was the perseverance re­­quired to overcome any adversity. It is for us to realise that we should not depend on our heroes or he­­roines to save us; instead, we must save ourselves.

And when that new day finally dawns, we can all rise as empo­wered global citizens claiming that we have indeed left a great world for future generations to come.

Lyana Khairuddin is a Chevening-Khazanah Scholar pursuing a Master of Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. The views expressed here are entirely her own.