A good idea from ... Oprah Winfrey

  • @alaindebotton
FOR THOUSANDS of years, our ancestors didn't talk about their emotions. They killed bison and elk, returned to their caves and kept it to themselves if they had been afraid of woolly creatures, had felt small and had longed for the lost comfort of the womb. Then, gradually, mental health came to be equated with the ability to reveal vulnerable feelings to others. Over the past two centuries, staying silent about our fears and longings has gone from being viewed as brave and stoic to being viewed as dangerous: a kind of "bottling up", "repression" or, even worse, "denial".

Richardson, Wordsworth, Rousseau and Freud are among those responsible for changing our attitudes to our emotions, but, in the modern age, perhaps no figure has done more to popularise the virtues of a certain kind of emotional outpouring than the US chat-show hostess Oprah Winfrey. Her show, broadcast in almost every country in the world, is underpinned by a faith that if we could only honestly express what we feel (preferably with tears), then our sorrows would be lightened. We would be purged of our sins, and be happy. Oprah's show has over the years allowed an extraordinary range of feelings and actions - jealousy, abandonment, incest, polygamy and matricide - to be explored in public. Guests are often seen breaking down in tears, shouting and embracing, while the genial hostess watches proceedings with a benign eye. Expressing emotions, however distasteful, is, after all, better than denial and repression.

And yet paradoxically, the one good idea we can draw from Oprah concerns not so much the virtues of self-expression (we can get those from Freud or Nietzsche), but the dangers. However welcome an openness about our inner lives can be, after watching a few episodes of Oprah, we come away with a clear awareness of its excesses.

Oprah is the perfect symbol of the risks of personal expression. Her show enables us to refer in a quick and globally recognisable way to a deeply problematic emotional attitude. We can now be understood from London to Taipei if we say of an evening which has spun out of control, "It suddenly seemed like we were on Oprah," or, of a person who has said too much, "She's so Oprah."

By this, we indicate that someone has, by complete loyalty to the idea that emotional openness is good, lost sight of a tragic fact of social life: our feelings are more endearing to ourselves than to others, and self-expression is not always ideal. If we consider emotional outpouring the supreme virtue, we are likely to be very trying.

It is unfortunate that there has to be a golden mean in this area of life too. It would be nice if we could always express our anger and feel our pain publicly in the rawest ways and not prove offensive. But because we can't, we should be grateful to Oprah Winfrey for representing so clearly the risks of self-expression.