I can’t remember that last time it seemed like the whole world was talking about a single TV programme. But of course, last night there was only one thing to watch, with 11.1 million people in UK tuning in to view Oprah’s “bombshell” interview with Harry and Meghan on ITV (even though the programme had already aired on CBS in the United States, and so most of us in the UK knew what was coming). The interview was brimming with headline-grabbing revelations, and made my Twitter feed go into melt-down, despite Meghan claiming “I wasn’t planning on saying anything shocking”.
From what I can see, there have been two major types of responses to the Harry and Meghan interview, and they have both been fury! On one side, people have been shocked and incensed by Meghan’s reports of overt racism within the royal family, and the lack of support she received when she was going through a period of suicidality. But on the other side, there are people who have been shocked and incensed by the couple’s disrespect towards the monarchy, whilst Prince Philip is in hospital, and their tone of entitlement.
Racism and Mental Health
Probably the most repeatedly replayed moment of the interview was the stunning revelation that an unnamed member of the royal family expressed concern over the skin-colour of Harry and Meghan’s unborn baby. Here are Meghan’s words:
“In those months when I was pregnant, all around this same time, so we have in tandem the conversation of ‘he won’t be given security’, ‘he’s not going to be given a title’, and also concerns and conversations about how dark his skin might be when he’s born.”
Meghan and Harry refused to comment on which person these conversations were with. However, Oprah confirmed in a later interview that the couple stated to her that it was not The Queen or Prince Philip. Aside from the speculation around who this person was, the airwaves have also been filled with rightful fury that such explicitly racists views are being held and expressed in the heart of one of the most revered and loved British institutions. The couple have often accused the British tabloid press of bias against Meghan due to her skin colour. However, this accusation of explicit racism from within the royal family came as a shock to everyone.
Another one of the issues raised in the interview that made jaws drop was Meghan’s descriptions of a period where she was experiencing suicidal thoughts, and was told by the palace that she could not seek help. This is what Meghan said:
“I knew that if I didn’t say it, that I would do it. And I just didn’t want to be alive anymore and that was a very clear and real and frightening constant thought… I need[ed] to go somewhere [to get help], and I was told that I couldn’t, that it wouldn’t be good for the institution.”
Meghan’s experience is heart-breaking, and our first response to Meghan’s interview ought to be empathy and care. The darkness of suicidality is a torture more painful than most can imagine. And if Meghan’s testimony can help others struggling with depression and suicidality feel that they are not alone, it is surely something we should all support. I can’t help but think back to Caroline Flack- the 41-year-old TV presenter who tragically took her own life, with many blaming the harassment and bullying she received from the media.
The idea that Meghan sought support in a time of mental health crisis, and was told that she couldn’t receive professional help because it would make the monarchy look bad, is absurd and devastating. I hope and pray that this does not deter anyone in a similar situation to Meghan from seeking help.
Slander and Entitlement
However, clearly the responses to Harry and Meghan’s interview have not all been positive and sympathetic. Many people are angry at the serious public allegations made against the much-revered institution of the monarchy, in the knowledge that the other royals are unlikely to defend themselves publicly. All this is occurring whilst Prince Philip is unwell and in hospital. Furthermore, some have argued that in not naming the family member who expressed concerns about their baby’s skin colour, Meghan and Harry have now smeared the whole family with the accusation of racism.
In addition, some commentators took issue with how entitled the couple came across during the interview. They made no mention of having some of the most luxurious and privileged lifestyles in the world. In fact, Meghan compared being stuck in Buckingham Palace to people being locked-down due to Covid- a comment that must have been a kick in the teeth for the many living alone in small flats, or struggling with home schooling, or having to shield alone for several months. There was no acknowledgement that many would dream of being locked-down in a palace! Harry also complained that the monarchy cut off financial support and stopped funding his security detail when he left the royal family, leaving him only with his inheritance from his mother. He failed to mention this inheritance was around £10 million (1). It was surely quite bold for the millionaire to imply that the UK taxpayers should continue to pay for his private security, even though he is no longer participating in royal duties.
Do We Have to Pick a Side?
I am no journalist, and do not have any particularly strong feelings for or against the monarchy or Harry and Meghan. So why am I writing a blog about them? Well, one of the interesting things for me about this interview and the subsequent media storm, is the fact that everyone seems compelled to take a side. Everyone on social media appears to be either furiously in support of Harry and Meghan or furiously against them. Either people are seeing their interview as a call to arms to fight for racial equality and to raised awareness of mental health issues, or they are deriding the couple as entitled attention-seekers who are out to smear the royal family.
I would suggest that this is Critical Theory in action. Critical Theory is the framework of looking at the world in terms of “the oppressors” versus “the oppressed”, with the roots of society’s problems lying in the institutional oppressive biases and prejudices that need to be deconstructed and overthrown. And so in a Critical Theory framework, we are always on the look-out for “the oppressors” and “the oppressed”.
For those fighting Harry and Meghan’s corner, the couple are clearly “the oppressed”- the victimised, mixed-race couple who have been trapped and maltreated by the unempathetic, restrictive, and allegedly overtly racist institution of the monarchy. However, to Harry and Meghan’s critics, they are actually more “the oppressors” in the narrative- the entitled, privileged royals who expect their families to abide by their demands, and the UK taxpayers to fund their lives.
But might it be that it is more complicated than that? Perhaps people don’t neatly fit into the boxes of “oppressors” and “oppressed”. Yes Harry and Meghan are multi-millionaires who have lived more privileged and luxurious lives than many of us could imagine. But Meghan is also a mixed-race woman who has been victim of racism and sexism, and both Harry and Meghan have suffered the pain of mental illness.
The fall-out of the Harry and Meghan interview, shows us that people are more complicated than the simple Critical Theory divisions of “oppressors” and “oppressed”.
Rather, I think the Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal got it right when he described humans as “the glory and the refuse of the universe”. Or to quote my friend and medical ethicist Prof John Wyatt, we are “flawed masterpieces”:
“[People are] wonderful, original artistic masterpieces which reflect the meticulous design and order imposed by a Creator’s will and purpose… [However] the original masterpiece, created with such love and embodying such artistry, has become flawed, defaced, and contaminated”(2)
In the Christian framework advocated by Pascal and Wyatt, humans are wonderful, precious masterpieces who deserve dignity, equality and respect, no matter who they are, what they do, or the colour of their skin. However, we are also fallen and flawed: capable of both mistakes and evil.
So when it comes to Harry and Meghan, do we have to pick a side? Do people have to fall into the neat boxes of “oppressors” and “oppressed”? Or might we all be “flawed masterpieces”? Yes, some are more flawed than others. And that is no excuse to permit abuse or evil, or to cease fighting for justice and equality. But surely people are complicated. To quote Jimmy Fallon in his opening monologue for the Tonight Show, following the airing of the interview: “I have some news to make people feel a little better, and that is: the royal family is just as messed up as everyone else’s!”(3)
John Wyatt, Matters of Life and Death, p121