Disclosure Culture

How it Rewards Victims, Trivializes Feelings, and Encourages Emotional Infantilism

Oprah Winfrey was the perfect outlet for Meghan and Harry to conduct their emotional tell-all earlier this month. Oprah epitomizes the shift towards a culture of disclosure which associates transparency with authenticity, and victimhood with virtue. As such, the popular television personality represents values that run counter to the historic ideals of the British royal family, but which are increasingly coming to set the terms of engagement for life in the modern world.

Keep Calm and Carry On

The British royal family used to work hard to keep their private and public lives separate. Their emotional thoughts and struggles were especially off-limits. By restraining their emotions in public, they helped to better inform the emotions of their nation. This culture of restraint reached fruition in WWII with the “Keep Calm and Carry On” mentality that mobilized Londoners during the Blitz.

One of the reasons the royal family was able to help British morale during WWII is because they understood that many virtues—perhaps most notably courage—shine the strongest precisely when we do not feel them.

They also understood that over-indulgence in emotional expression is not necessarily a sign of emotional vitality and can even suggest emotional shallowness and infantilism.

From George VI to Princess Elsa

With notable exceptions, the royals have not been stoic or unfeeling, even though they believed that duty sometimes requires a person to put feelings aside, as George VI (1895–1952) had to do following the abdication crisis. In the 2010 film The King’s Speech, Colin Firth portrayed a deeply complex and emotional King George VI who nevertheless ruled over his feelings for the sake of his vocation. Like his royal ancestors, he understood that restraint in emotional expression is an essential ingredient of self-control, leadership, and nobility.

In the modern world we tend to associate this type of self-control with being fake. Our heroes are not men like George VI, but Elsa in the Disney film Frozen, who had to abandon her “good girl” image to let out what was really going on inside her. Elsa’s song, “Let it Go,” explicitly links public disclosure (“couldn't keep it in, heaven knows I've tried”) and self-autonomy (“no right, no wrong, no rules for me”) with personal redemption (“I'm free!”).

We have arrived in Philip Rieff’s therapeutic society, where the restraint of George VI would come as an unwelcome anachronism. We expect disclosure and vulnerability from our leaders, who have obliged us in everything from Prince William’s heart-to-heart with Lady Gaga to the uncensored emotion of Donald Trump’s early morning tweets. Accordingly, if King George VI were living today, he would be expected to go on television and talk to Oprah about how it feels to be a victim of his unscrupulous older brother, Edward VIII.

The Paradox of Disclosure

Our culture of transparency has emerged precisely when there is less scope than ever before for genuine vulnerability in interpersonal relationships. Too busy, distracted, and self-absorbed to give our friends the attention they need, we outsource empathetic listening to professionals. Young people increasingly use social media for undirected emotional disclosure when there is no one to talk to, or when they feel apprehensive about face-to-face communication. Spilling your guts out on Facebook offers hope that someone is listening, and it can thus offer the illusion of catharsis. Yet this culture of disclosure merely buffers us against our real feelings, since it enables us to broadcast a curated version of our emotions in much the same way that pornography presents a curated version of the physical body.

Without a proper destination for sharing, and without a sense of how emotions can be directed and managed, disclosure becomes an end in itself, even a commodity that can be monetized. No one embodies this ethic better than Oprah Winfrey, whose show offered viewers a feast of feelings of all sorts, from sympathy to rage to disgust. But this great hospitality to feeling came at a high cost: in making human feeling an end in and of itself, all emotions became fungible, and the distinction between disordered emotion and rightly ordered emotion receded into anachronism.

Oprah left a generation stranded in their emotions, unable to negotiate any reality beyond their subjectivity, and unable to identify any larger framework in which their feelings could be situated, understood, and managed. For her, expressing feelings is important for fulfilling the self that we choose to establish on our own terms, independent of objective personal evaluation or moral reflection.

The Myth of the Stiff Upper Lip

The culture of disclosure represented by Oprah and Elsa is frequently touted as the way to avoid the specter of the stiff upper lip, which is associated with a stoic bottling-up of emotions. Yet the idea of the British stiff upper lip is actually a misleading stereotype that has been perpetuated by American nostalgia for all things British.

We do not find the stoic bottling-up-of emotion in the Victorian sentimentalism of Dickens, or even in the more refined culture that formed the subject matter for Jane Austen’s novels. For every Elinor Dashwood there is a Marianne Dashwood, and for every Mr. Darcy there is a Mr. Bingley. Some of the greatest icons of twentieth century British culture, from Winston Churchill to C.S. Lewis, have had an incredible range of emotion and expressiveness.

That said, the stereotype of the stiff upper lip is not completely without warrant, for it describes a national defense mechanism that temporarily emerged when Hitler was bombing London. The stereotype has lingered long after wartime conditions subsided, with the result that Americans routinely impute to British culture conditions that more aptly apply to East Asia. Psychologically, the stereotype offers a false problem for which the undirected emotionalism of Oprah is supposed to be the alternative. In the world of Oprah, the restraint of George VI would be repression, while lack of emotional disclosure is the equivalent to the emotional stuntedness of Mr. Stephens in The Remains of the Day.

Significantly, in the recent Oprah interview, Meghan said, “I really tried to adopt this British sensibility of a ‘stiff upper lip’—I really tried, but I think that what that does internally is probably really damaging.” The supposed alternative to the stiff upper lip is exactly what we got in the 85-minute CBS special with Oprah, as the Duchess of Sussex disclosed to the world the private drama of her turbulent emotions trying to integrate into the royal family, including how the role left her feeling stifled, repressed, and victimized.

Encouraging Emotional Infantilism

Oprah spent her career commodifying other people’s emotion, even while denigrating emotion by giving it nowhere to go, and no higher context in which it could be understood, interpreted, and managed. As I pointed out in 2019, Oprah’s aim has not been to help people learn emotional intelligence; rather, her aim has been to encourage emotional disclosure as an end in itself.

Paradoxically, over-disclosure may be just as symptomatic of emotional infantilism as the stiff upper lip bugbear, for it may indicate a person unable to holistically integrate his emotional life into other aspects of his experience, including contemplation and emotional regulation.

The cult of disclosure, now institutionalized through social media, causes important aspects of human experience to be eclipsed, including the fact that sometimes the most powerful messages are conveyed precisely by what is left unsaid, and sometimes non-disclosure prevents our deepest feelings from lapsing into triviality.

is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith 2020) and has a Ph.M. in history from King’s College, London. He is currently working on a Master’s in library science through the University of Oklahoma. He works as a freelance writer and researcher for a variety of publications and operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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