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New BBC podcast explores this 'golden age of gurus'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Most days, even a quick scroll through Instagram or YouTube might feel like you've stumbled into the self-help section of a bookstore...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATT RAGLAND: Welcome to another bullet journal.

SHAPIRO: ...And the shelves collapsed on top of you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

STEFAN JAMES: My name is Stefan James, and I am the master of my life.

AILEEN XU: Hi, loves. Welcome back to Lavendaire. Today, I'm sharing 10 daily healthy habits for a better you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Now I want to show you my current daily routine.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The top 10 time management...

SHAPIRO: There is a seemingly endless supply of people who will tell you what to eat, who to trust, how to make money, how to get a date and of course, how to start your own YouTube channel.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You just need to kind of besmirch the blank page and get over that fear of uploading that first video.

SHAPIRO: The writer Helen Lewis has a name for these influencers. She calls them the new gurus. That is also the title of her new podcast with the BBC. And she's here to talk about it. Hi there.

HELEN LEWIS: Hello.

SHAPIRO: How do you find a new guru exactly?

LEWIS: Well, I decided there was this class of people who - as you say, they're kind of influencers but a bit more than that, right? They're not just telling you, you know, how they do things. There's a kind of almost spiritual tone overlaid to it, you know, kind of ethic or an ideology or something a bit bigger than that. So that's the - kind of one of the defining features, I think, of a guru. And of course, the word comes from Sanskrit. It means dispeller of darkness, bringer of light. So there is always this implicit promise of enlightenment.

SHAPIRO: You say there's a kind of spiritual tone and aspect of enlightenment. My editor said, wait, so are these cults? And I said, well, I'm not sure Helen would use the word cults. How would you answer that question?

LEWIS: I think most people find the idea of being in a cult very offensive unless it's sort of ironic. And, you know, at their worst, some of these spaces do have some of the things we classically associate with cults, which are, for example, very strong in-group-outgroup boundaries, the sense that everyone is against you, you know, a sense of isolation from other people and other sources of knowledge.

SHAPIRO: You talked to the bioethicist Alice Dreger, who is skeptical of these personality cults. Here's how she described her fear.

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ALICE DREGER: Basically, then we're just going back to little churches, right? We're just going back to what the original system was. Except instead of having one giant church, we have lots of little churches where you pick your pastor and follow them and believe what they say.

SHAPIRO: Is that the basic critique here?

LEWIS: It's definitely one of them, which is that the decline of gatekeeping in traditional media institutions and the rise of social media has encouraged a different type of brand. You know, instead of NPR being the brand, you are the brand. And it does have the inevitable downside that sometimes people do end up becoming, essentially, false prophets. They are leading other people and telling them not to listen to anyone else. And you see that, for example, in, you know, anti-vaccine conspiracy movements...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

LEWIS: ...Or election conspiracy movements - the idea everyone is against us. I'm the only one you can trust.

SHAPIRO: You say that this is kind of in contrast to big media institutions. And of course, you made this podcast for the BBC. You're a staff writer for The Atlantic, but you also have a Substack. You also have a Twitter follower. I mean, I have a Twitter following and an Instagram following as well. Did you ever feel like, maybe I am one of these micro gurus?

LEWIS: I do think that's probably true, and I reject it. Or I'd like to think that I reject it.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

LEWIS: And lots of people I talked to in the podcast had exactly that feeling. But it's inevitable. If you want to be listened to on the internet, you - having a personal following is one of the ways that you absolutely do that. So I don't think it's like the case that the traditional media is filled with selfless human - altruistic human beings, and the gurusphere (ph) is filled with, you know, charlatans and narcissists and grifters. I think that those things are, you know, innate human traits. And what we should do is try and build media systems that encourage the best and discourage the worst.

SHAPIRO: You cover a lot of ground in these eight episodes, from wellness gurus to productivity and on and on. But I wondered whether it's unfair to lump some of these people together. Like, in one episode an anti-vaxxer says you should drink your own body fluids and in another, a MacArthur Genius Grant winner, a National Book Award winner argues that structural racism is real. Like, do those two guys really occupy the same universe?

LEWIS: So the two you - Will Blunderfield, who has been banned from various sites because, yeah, he's - and he doesn't believe in vaccines, for example. And then Ibram X. Kendi, the very storied, anti-racist educator and a colleague of mine at The Atlantic. And they do belong in the same place because - you know, and I talked to Kendi himself about this - the risk of people being taken as individual authorities. And it was really interesting to talk to Ibram Kendi about the fact that he wants to be a scholar.

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IBRAM X KENDI: All of this has been uncomfortable for me 'cause I'm an introvert. If it was up to me, I would spend all day in the library.

LEWIS: You know, he doesn't want to be turned into this kind of cult-of-personality figure, but there is a push towards doing that. And there are other people who want him to be that. You know, I don't mean guru as always a pejorative. I think in the same way as any position of authority - like a priest, imam, rabbi - it comes with innate dangers. That doesn't mean that everybody doing it is a bad person or a bad-faith person.

SHAPIRO: You say we're living in a golden age of gurus, and obviously some of that has to do with technology, platforms like YouTube, podcasts. But is there also something about this moment we're living in that you think sends people searching for these influencers or micro-influencers?

LEWIS: I think gurus really flourish in times of anxiety and at moments in our lives of anxiety. So who do we look to for advice? You know, we're going online to look for that. You know, new parents are desperate for advice, so there's lots of kind of parenting gurus out there. Cryptocurrency is a new form of money. You know, it is something that has only existed for a couple of decades, so, of course, there is ample opportunity for people to establish themselves as the authority figure in - you know, where you couldn't in traditional finance, which has built up a huge number of institutions and gatekeepers. So I think there's both the kind of idea of a moment of collective anxiety, a feeling that perhaps, you know, the world doesn't feel as optimistic as it did maybe in the 1990s, when I was a teenager, but also people look for gurus at moments of personal change and worry in their own lives.

SHAPIRO: Was there any moment as you were doing the dozens of interviews that went into this series that you found yourself falling under somebody's sway and feeling the gravitational pull to become some guru's follower?

LEWIS: Oh, I definitely felt that the people I was interviewing were - even by the standards of, you know, people online - unusually charismatic, fluent, compelling. I mean, I'm kind of old and cynical enough that I recognize that tendency in myself.

SHAPIRO: You've got the armor, the tough skin. But at no point in reporting this did you think, maybe I will start taking elderflower supplements or investing in crypto or whatever?

LEWIS: (Laughter) No, I - cryptocurrency was an interesting one to report because we were doing it at exactly around the time that, you know - but we started...

SHAPIRO: Right, the implosion.

LEWIS: ...Before Bankman-Fried's exchange collapsed. So it was an interesting one because we were worried that people weren't - would think we would be too skeptical of it. But actually over the course of reporting it, even people within crypto communities began to acknowledge there was some problems there. And I think one of the things that's really interesting for me is, you know - I was raised Catholic; I'm now atheist - is about people falling out of love, falling out of religions, falling out of followerdom (ph).

And Episode 5, which is about the intellectual dark web, this group of heterodox intellectuals and what happened to them, is a story of somebody who was absolutely captivated by Jordan Peterson and his growing disillusionment as Jordan Peterson became more and more a sort of straightforward conservative and a culture warrior. And that's really interesting because, you know, by and large, most people stay in the religion that they were brought up with, right? They stay in the political milieu they were brought up with. So I'm always really interested by people who make the journey across...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

LEWIS: ...And they move from one thing to another because that's - I think that's probably rarer than we would usually think.

SHAPIRO: Helen Lewis' eight-part podcast for the BBC is called "The New Gurus." Thanks a lot.

LEWIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.