Celebrities, healers and new age gurus transmit the message that normal human beings cannot do it on their own.
To this day I am astonished when I hear that sensible, biologically mature adults allow themselves to be treated as if they were incompetent dimwits by a new army of professional surrogate parents. In days of old, traditional authority figures, like priests, instructed us how to behave in public and told us which rules to observe. Today’s experts are even freer with their advice. They do not simply tell us what to do and think, but also how to feel. A new army of life coaches, lifestyle gurus, professional celebrities, parenting coaches, super-nannies, makeover experts, healers, facilitators, mentors and guides regularly lecture us about the most intimate details of our existence. They are not simply interested in monitoring public behaviour but in colonising our internal life.
Life coaches ‘support’ us with making transitions in our private life while their colleagues feng shui our mundane existence. And every aspect of daily life has become a target of a makeover project. It is sad to see grown-up people needing somebody to show them how to shop for clothes. It is even more depressing when so many of us decide that we cannot make important decisions concerning our personal life without the benefit of a life coach, parenting coach or a high-tech psychic peddling gemstone therapy. This is not just deference to authority but the prostration of the adult imagination.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with expertise. We rely on mechanics to fix our cars and on dentists to extract our teeth. But the posse of 21st-century life experts is not so much in the business of fixing practical problems as in transforming us into needy children. Their enterprise depends on undermining and usurping confidence in our ability to conduct our affairs. The message they transmit is that normal human beings cannot do it on their own. That is why they assume that they possess the moral authority to dictate to us what to wear, how to love, how to parent, what not to eat and, most important of all, how to live. They are in the business of imposing a new form of authority over people’s everyday affairs. At least the message of self-help gurus in the 1980s and 1990s projected the mildly anarchic ideal of ‘be yourself’. In form at least the message was promoted through an anti-authoritarian vocabulary. In contrast, today’s makeover culture self-consciously commands you not to be yourself. On television they make fun of the way you dress, offer sarcastic references about your poor taste in the way you furnish your home and insist that you follow their superior regime of child-rearing. They know best, which is why some of them describe themselves, without a trace of irony, as gurus.
Deference to the authority of the celebrity, makeover guru or healer is underwritten by the decline in the influence of conventional forms of authority. That is why the frequently asserted claim that we live in an age characterised by the ‘death of deference’ bears little relationship to reality. Yes, it has become fashionable to treat traditional forms of authority — monarchy, church, parliament — with derision. Criticism of traditional institutions has become so prevalent that it bears all the hallmarks of classical conformism. Scientists, doctors and other professionals have also experienced an erosion of authority. But the diminishing influence of conventional authority has been paralleled by the rise of a new ‘alternative’ one. We don’t trust politicians but we have faith in the pronouncements of celebrities. We are suspicious of medical doctors but we feel comfortable with healers who mumble on about being ‘holistic’ and ‘natural’. We certainly don’t trust scientists working for the pharmaceutical industry but we are happy to listen to the disinterested opinion of a herbalist. And, of course, alternative food and other consumer products gain our confidence because ...they are alternative.