Reuters

On Monday, as Oprah Winfrey’s stirring acceptance speech at the Golden Globes secured a place in the national conversation, Byron Tau of The Wall Street Journal tweeted, “Oprah employed a phrase that I’ve noticed a lot of other celebrity using these days: ‘your truth’ instead of ‘the truth.’ Why that phrasing?” He fretted that “your truth” undermines the idea of shared common facts.

Well, Garance Franke-Ruta replied, “sometimes you know something is real and happened and is wrong, even if the world says it’s just the way things are. It’s a call to activism rooted in the individual story, grounded in personal experience.”

Another Twitter user chimed in to add that, “it’s also a well-known tactic in building leadership in community organizing that allows people who are rarely heard to tell their story, learn that they are, in fact, not alone, connects individual experiences to systemic issues, and helps develop powerful public speakers.”

And yet, others chimed in to ask: What about the people whose earnestly held “truth” is that immigrants are ruining America; or that the white race is inherently superior to all others; or that the rules set forth in Leviticus or the Koran are the only way to live; or that the latest Alex Jones conspiracy theory is correct; or that climate change is a hoax cooked up by liberals to gain control over all aspects of life in the United States?

* * *

It is fitting that Oprah would trigger a debate about the power and the perils of speaking “your truth,” for her tremendously impressive career illustrates both sides of the phenomenon.

Some years ago, marking the finale of The Oprah Winfrey Show, my colleague Caitlin Flanagan recounted Oprah’s poverty-stricken childhood, the physical beatings she took from her grandmother, her traumatic rape at the age of 9, and the early pregnancy that threatened to consign her to a life of deprivation—and persuasively argued that she was able to become one of the richest, most influential humans in large part because of an idea that she was “born for greatness.”

That was among her truths. And she clung to it and fought to manifest it—no matter that she grew up in a culture that told her black women were inferior, and was abused by people conveying the message that she personally deserved no better. Decades later, having become a billionaire celebrity as beloved as anyone in America by going to television each day to earnestly convey her beliefs and experiences—and to urge others to do the same—how could Oprah of all people fail to believe that “speaking your truth” is “the most powerful tool that we all have”?

And yet, “in her earnest spiritual seeking, Ms. Winfrey gave platforms to some rather questionable types,” Mark Oppenheimer observed in The New York Times, in another critical evaluation of The Oprah Winfrey Show published back in 2011 as it was ending:

She hosted the self-help author Louise Hay, who once said Holocaust victims may have been paying for sins in a previous life. She championed the “medical intuitive” Caroline Myss, who claims emotional distress causes cancer. She helped launch Rhonda Byrne, creator of the DVD and book The Secret, who teaches that just thinking about wealth can make you rich. She invited the “psychic medium” John Edward to help mourners in her audience talk to their dead relatives.

The Oprah Winfrey Show made viewers feel that they constantly had to “sculpt their best lives,” Dr. Lofton writes. Yet in her religious exuberance Ms. Winfrey gave people some badly broken tools. Ms. Winfrey nodded along to the psychics and healers and intuitives. She rarely asked tough questions, and because she believed, millions of others did, too.

An overlapping indictment appeared in Newsweek a couple years before. One section recounted Oprah appearances by Suzanne Somers, who was advocating for a highly unusual approach to health and medicine to stave off aging:

“Many people write Suzanne off as a quackadoo,” Oprah said. “But she just might be a pioneer.” Oprah acknowledged that Somers’s claims “have been met with relentless criticism” from doctors. Several times during the show she gave physicians an opportunity to dispute what Somers was saying. But it wasn't quite a fair fight. The doctors who raised these concerns were seated down in the audience and had to wait to be called on. Somers sat onstage next to Oprah, who defended her from attack. “Suzanne swears by bioidenticals and refuses to keep quiet. She’ll take on anyone, including any doctor who questions her.”

Somers was speaking “her truth,” as was another celebrity guest, perhaps the most controversial to ever appear on Oprah Winfrey’s show. As Newsweek recounted:

In 2007, Oprah invited Jenny McCarthy, the Playboy model and actress, to describe her struggle to find help for her young son … “So what do you think triggered the autism?” Oprah asked McCarthy. “I know you have a theory.” McCarthy is certain that her son contracted autism from the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination he received as a baby. She told Oprah that the morning he went in for his checkup, her instincts told her not to allow the doctor to give him the vaccine. “I said to the doctor, I have a very bad feeling about this shot. This is the autism shot, isn’t it? And he said no, that is ridiculous; it is a mother’s desperate attempt to blame something on autism. And he swore at me.” The nurse gave Evan the shot. “And not soon thereafter,” McCarthy said, “boom, soul gone from his eyes.”

… Yet researchers have not found a link between the vaccines and autism. Here is what we do know: before vaccinations, thousands of children died or got sick each year from measles, mumps, and rubella.

But back on the Oprah show, McCarthy’s charges went virtually unchallenged. Oprah praised McCarthy’s bravery and plugged her book, but did not invite a physician or scientist to explain to her audience the many studies that contradict the vaccines-autism link. Instead, Oprah read a brief statement from the Centers for Disease Control saying there was no science to prove a connection and that the government was continuing to study the problem. But McCarthy got the last word. “My science is named Evan, and he’s at home. That’s my science.”

McCarthy was sharing “her truth.” And doing so has undoubtedly been a powerful tool: There are enclaves where so many parents are declining to vaccinate their children that “herd immunity” against devastating diseases is at risk.

* * *

It could be that Oprah has learned something from those bygone controversies about a TV show that was, it’s worth noting, enormously constructive on the whole, with many more uplifting than destructive instances of speaking “one’s truth.”

In fact, Oprah’s speech at the Golden Globes actually used the word “truth” five times. First, she praised the press, observing that “it’s the insatiable dedication to uncovering the absolute truth that keeps us from turning a blind eye to corruption and to injustice.” Next, segueing to the #MeToo moments of recent months, she declared that “speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. And I’m especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up and share their personal stories.”

Those passages suggest a person who values seeking “the truth” as a vital project, even while maintaining that speaking “your truth” is indispensable, inspiring, and empowering. There is truth in both insights. If any observer of the #MeToo moment doubts the importance of believing in oneself—or the cost some abused men and women have paid for insufficient confidence in what they felt to be correct—Salma Hayek’s description of her years-long ordeal with Harvey Weinstein is as powerful an illustration of both points as I can imagine.

As for Oprah’s final three invocations of “truth” in her speech?

She told the story of Recy Taylor, “a young wife and mother walking home from a church service she’d attended in Abbeville, Alabama, when she was abducted by six armed white men, raped, and left blindfolded by the side of the road.”

They threatened her with death if she told anyone about her crime.

But she wound up seeking justice with the help of Rosa Parks, then of the NAACP:

Recy Taylor died 10 days ago, just shy of her 98th birthday. She lived as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men. For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up.

And I just hope—I just hope that Recy Taylor died knowing that her truth, like the truth of so many other women who were tormented in those years, and even now tormented, goes marching on. It was somewhere in Rosa Parks’s heart almost 11 years later, when she made the decision to stay seated on that bus in Montgomery, and it's here with every woman who chooses to say, “Me too.” And every man—every man who chooses to listen.

On reflection, it seems to me that the speech’s take on “truth” would’ve been improved not by eliminating any notion of speaking “your truth,” which has its place, but by phrasing that final anecdote in a way that made one point more clear: that Recy Taylor wasn’t just speaking “her truth,” she was speaking “the truth” to power—and that her unpaid claim to justice is inseparable from that fact.

Rosa Parks didn’t take up her case to vindicate “her truth,” but on behalf of “the truth.” The Jim Crow elites who failed to prosecute her attackers may or may not have been living out “their truths,” but they were utterly at odds with “the truth.”

None of that is incompatible with the claim that “speaking your truth” is a powerful tool. But it makes clearer that powerful tools can be used for good and ill; that they can have ill effects even when used with the best of intentions; and that tools of great power confer great responsibility on all users.

Insofar as Oprah’s speech was aimed at young girls in abject poverty like that of her own youth, the failure to clarify that wrinkle is relatively unimportant; insofar as it was delivered to hundreds of powerful Hollywood celebrities now proclaiming themselves inspired by Oprah’s words, clarity on that point is essential. Going forward, Oprah would do well to assert her full, rightful claims to “the truth” when speaking it—as she often does insightfully—while eschewing untruths (even when they are “her truths,” or expressions that people she esteems earnestly regard as “their truths”) in recognition of the power she wields.