A Few Thoughts on Tony Robbins and #MeToo

I have always found Tony Robbins distasteful. I grew up in the evangelical community and have a very finely tuned meter that detects “inauthenticity,” or in plain language: total bullshit. Robbins, in those huge rooms and with that “raise your hands” vibe, has always pinged my bullshit-meter hard. Why: because I recognize a man who is more invested in maintaining his own ability to shape reality and force that vision of reality onto others than he is invested in speaking his truth or hearing others speak theirs. Over the past couple of years, as I completed coach training and certification, I’d occasionally glance his way and — yep — reconfirm really quickly that he is Not For Me.

Before I became a coach, I was a university professor. My PhD is in German literature, and my research and teaching centred on women writers and literature written for children. I did scholarly research on the margins of scholarship and used and taught feminist methodology — methodology which challenges the supremacy of male experience in making sense of the world — to do my work. So, I’m going to do a basic Gender Studies 101 analysis of what is going on with Tony Robbins in this video and in his statement after the video went public.

There are oratorical, physical, and verbal strategies Robbins uses in both of these “documents” that are worthy of attention. I’ll begin with the verbal, because in his speech and writing he clearly articulates who he is and what he is about. Ignoring this and focusing only on his disturbing physical interaction with his interlocutor misses part of the point.

When the woman gets up to speak, she acknowledges her nervousness, Tony welcomes her vulnerability and the loudspeakers play her a song. When she begins speaking, though, he interrupts her, he re-defines the terms of the discussion, he questions her authority, and he questions her legitimate right to even speak. He delivers a barrage of verbiage that delivers the message “no I didn’t say that,” but “I’ve spoken to thousands of people,” and “you’re making someone else wrong in order to feel right.” In other words: before she has even spoken a complete sentence, he has told an audience of thousands that she is in the wrong, that she misunderstands, and that the impulse that informs her challenge is illegitimate.

While he does this, he continually asks the crowd to affirm him. “Raise your hands” and give a yell of support. He towers over this woman; he physically pushes her around the auditorium, and yet he feels the need to add volume to his own voice by requesting the echo of thousands of voices in the room. (The group dynamics of the very few voices who initially echo him; the women’s voices heard to cheer on the woman speaking to him; and the eventual return to the flock, as it were, once Tony steers the conversation away from #MeToo and his grotesquely erroneous thoughts there and onto the secure ground of “it’s all a drug if you misuse it” would be interesting to examine further.) And the voices of the crowd agreeing with him are not enough. In making his point that “pushing back does not make you safe,” he goes straight to the source: Jesus. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” And he asks his audience if any of them has not done something for which they are ashamed; if any of them have not abused their power in some instance.

Tony asserts that there are women out there who are using the #MeToo movement to gain significance and clarity. Significance and clarity bestowed by others, Tony tells us, are like drugs; they are inauthentic cures for what ails us. To illustrate this, he engages in the exercise of physically pushing against this woman’s fist and propelling her with his significant body mass through the auditorium. He appears to believe that he is successfully illustrating that “pushing back” against people doesn’t change them, it just makes them angry.

As a viewer here, I am confused. He is aggressing against this woman. I THINK he acknowledges this in the demonstration, because he mocks “why are you still resisting me? Why are you still pushing back?” as a way to show that he, the aggressor, will not change his attitude but just get increasingly hostile in the face of resistance.

If this is the sense of the illustration, then he is suggesting that the correct (enlightened, choice-filled, Tony-approved) response from the aggrieved and aggressed-upon woman would be to succumb. Don’t push back. Walk away. Because anger and pushing back don’t make you safe.

And this is a man who builds part of his brand around a childhood history of abuse? Just walk away from your abuser; don’t challenge them? Don’t make a big deal out of it?

Wow. For any of you women in the audience who missed the memo: RESIST. CHANGE THE NARRATIVE. DO NOT SUCCUMB. CLAIM YOUR TIME AND SPACE. Whether we are talking workplace harassment or domestic abuse, pushing back does make us, collectively, safer. (Use your own wisdom and spidey-senses in your particular environment; some challenges need to be moved to other arenas and require a few more voices to resist openly. But succumbing is NOT the answer.)

By this point in time, the woman who stood up to speak has repeatedly attempted to make a point that nobody has been able to hear. Tony has taken her platform, her request to speak, and made the conversation entirely about him and his rightness — all the while insisting that you don’t have to agree with him (oh, but please do and raise your hand to indicate that you do!).

Tony continues talking. I’ll remind myself and you here that the only clear point his interlocutor has been able to make is that Tony is mischaracterizing the work and message of #MeToo. As of yet, he has not engaged with that assertion in any way. What he does do, repeatedly, is talk about his authority. He has lots of clients in Hollywood and Hollywood, he tells us, is where #MeToo is most intense. This merely shows us that Tony lives in a bubble. Harvey Weinstein is repugnant, but he is not alone and women calling out his abusive behavior merely created a platform for women from Lowell, Mass to Santa Fe, NM to talk about the casual, every-day, common harassment that average women are subjected to all the time and everywhere. In Hollywood, Tony tells us, he knows a powerful, important, wealthy man who didn’t hire an attractive, qualified woman to do a job, because it was “too big a risk,” and that dozens of men have told him similar stories.

Again, let’s look at Tony’s illustration: powerful man won’t hire pretty woman because it’s risky. What does he mean by “too risky?” Does Tony mean to imply that his client worries that a pretty and professionally qualified woman in his office will misuse the spirit of #MeToo and anti-harassment HR policies at work to get him in trouble?

Maybe. If that is the case, then Tony and his client are making assumptions about what “qualified” means. How did this woman get her qualifications? If she is highly qualified and looking for a new job, does that not mean that she wants to advance her career? That she is ambitious? That she is intelligent and competent? That she did not come to his client’s office to titillate him, but to get him to take her seriously as a job candidate? Assuming that her intentions are dubious, or that she could be easily seduced by the inauthentic significance and clarity of victimhood in #MeToo is a deeply and profoundly misogynistic stance. I can’t emphasize that enough. The minute this powerful Hollywood man identified this woman as attractive, every single other thing about her becomes unimportant and she becomes dangerous.

The other possible interpretation of this anecdote is far more openly misogynist. In this interpretation, the powerful Hollywood boss finds the job applicant “too risky” because he has long ago abdicated any personal responsibility for his behavior. Because he does not see women as fully autonomous beings with independent will and desires, he is in the habit of off-loading his own sexual desires onto them. We all know what this looks like: She tempted me. What would any other red-blooded man in my position do? (Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, indeed.) I cannot be trusted with women, because I will be myself and they will find that harassing and I will get in trouble. Clearly, in this interpretation of Tony’s anecdote, his client is a sexual predator, at least in his mind.

The rhetorical jiu-jitsu that Tony does here is also pretty familiar to anyone who has spent time with serial abusers and emotionally manipulative power mongers. It is classic victim blaming. He blames women for not being taken seriously as employees because women employees have spoken out loud about sexual assault. They are at fault. In fact, he tells the woman attempting to speak to him to “Stop being so sensitive.” If women did not make such a big deal out of sexual assault, then men would feel free to hire them again and well, what then? Commit more assault is what I, as a female viewer of this interaction, am compelled to think. Tony explicitly says that resisting — pushing back against aggression — does not make them safe. And women know that not pushing back against aggression guarantees aggression, so they are not safe. Women are not safe, and in this illustration, have no right to safety.

There is no other way to interpret his line of reasoning here as anything else but incredibly, aggressively misogynistic.

This entire interaction between Tony and this woman is wrong.

And I think Tony’s wrongness comes from a profound blindness to women’s experiences.

He says, in the video that you can find on YouTube: “Freedom doesn’t come from our anger.”

Whether you are a second-wave feminist and stand with Gloria Steinem, or a third-wave riot grrrl, or a 21st-century intersectional feminist, you have to disagree with this statement. Women’s anger at injustice, at disenfranchisement, at harassment, at unequal pay, at rape, at microaggression, at “pretty is as pretty does,” and at a million other things that have defined female experience for centuries is THE thing that has propelled social change and led to increased opportunities for women to find and claim self-actualization.

“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” Gloria Steinem.

And maybe Tony knows that he is on thin ice here with women and misogyny and anger, because at this point in the video he deflects away from women and #MeToo and wants to insist that what he is talking about is how anything we “use” can be misused. He repeatedly brings up technology as a parallel example. Once his audience hears him back on the solid ground of his usual discourse (don’t let things use you), many of them are enthusiastically back “with” him. Although the women whose voices you hear in the video cheering on the brave soul who stood up remain conspicuously silent at this point.

So he talks about technology, and he talks about having talked to thousands and thousands of people all over the world, which makes him the expert that this little woman will never be (he implies). He attempts rhetorical repair with women in general “over 70% of my company is women,” which, if he doesn’t hear the echo of “I’m not a racist, some of my best friends are black,” then he’s more tone deaf than even this video illustrates. So, over the course of ten minutes, he has gone from accusing “some women” of using the #MeToo to gain significance and clarity to spouting disturbing defenses of misogyny in the workplace, to denying women’s lived experiences, to reasserting his authority as the one who can give people true choice in defining their experiences.

His words, his body language, and his continual interruption of this woman all illustrate a man who is deeply and profoundly committed to being right here — all the while claiming that he doesn’t want one person to make other people “wrong.”

And while he does all of this, a part of him knows that he is in dangerous waters. So, in order to hold firm to his authority position as empowerment guru, he reminds his audience that he will not apologize. He is authentic. He is himself. And he is not sorry for who he is.

But then he got in trouble. And he posted a statement on Facebook acknowledging that he had got himself in trouble.

The media has characterized his FB statement as an apology. Be clear — it is not. He said he would not apologize and he did not. He admits to words that did not clearly convey his respect for the women who are part of the #MeToo movement, which is a clear case of “I am sorry if you misunderstood me based on incomplete information.”

He then says he needs to learn more. Fine. I am all for learning and there are plenty of resources (books, videos, movies, documentaries, workshops, worksheets, actual women, Black, Indigenous, and other People of Colour who are doing amazing work and can be watched, followed, learned from). I hope he seeks them out. I hope that his organization hires them.

Then he writes: “I am committed to being part of the solution. I am committed to helping others so that we all stay true to the ideals of the #MeToo movement. I will never stop examining my own words and actions to make sure I am staying true to those ideals. That begins with this brief statement but will not end until our goals are reached.”

My bullshit-meter just spun completely out of control and flew out the window. In his seminar, Tony Robbins accuses women of using #MeToo to claim significance and clarity for themselves, comparing it to a drug that will make them feel good for a moment.

In his written statement, the change of gears from “I need to learn” to “I am going to be part of the solution and work for #MeToo” happened so quickly I got a bit motion sick. Here is a man who realizes he has misjudged grossly the climate of a room (the room that is the internet) and IN ORDER TO NOT HAVE HIS POWER AND CERTAINTY DIMINISHED IN ANY WAY he says “oh, I’m actually gonna jump on that wagon.”

In other words, he latches onto #MeToo in order to maintain significance (I am a powerful man who should be listened to) and clarity (see: I am not an abuser, I am the abused). He uses this statement to remind people of his history of being abused, so that they will not for a moment think that he could be in a position to abuse and manipulate others. The video tells a very different story. I hope Tarana Burke and any other woman who has lifted her voice to say #MeToo sees this scared man for who he is. Keep your distance. Walk away.

Academic Leadership coach working with emotional intelligence & positive psychology to help scholars and administrators flourish.