Lately, I’ve become obsessed with internet apologies.
Let’s be honest, everyone makes mistakes. I tell my daughter that everyone makes mistakes, but when two people make a mistake, an accident happens.
When you’re a regular human being and you make a mistake that hurts someone else, you need to make it right with them. But, when you’re a public figure…your mistakes can hurt your fans, your brand, and total strangers on the internet will make assumptions about you based on how you handle it.
Sometimes an apology is in order, sometimes it isn’t.
I feel like the internet is FULL of fascinating apologies lately.
The first one I want to talk about is Tony Robbins.
At an Unleash the Power Within event in San Jose, this interaction with an attendee named Nanine McCool happened. It’s 11 minutes long, in the conversation, McCool challenges Robbins’s portrayal of the #metoo movement. Robbins claimed that the movement was being powered by anger and victimhood and was ultimately harming the women who are involved in the movement and women in general by making men afraid of hiring them.
A viral video of the interaction makes it look really bad, but the full video is here:
Despite his saying, in the moment, that he wasn’t going to apologize, a day after the video went viral, Robbins posted the following apology on his Facebook page:
At a recent Unleash the Power Within (UPW) event in San Jose, my comments failed to reflect the respect I have for everything Tarana Burke and the #MeToo movement has achieved. I apologize for suggesting anything other than my profound admiration for the #MeToo movement. Let me clearly say, I agree with the goals of the #MeToo movement and its founding message of “empowerment through empathy,” which makes it a beautiful force for good.
For 40 years I’ve encouraged people to grow into the men and women they dream to be. I watch in awe as more and more women all over the world find their voice and stand up and speak out. All of our growth begins with learning. My own started with a childhood marked by abuse. I am humbled that others have looked to the path I have taken in the decades since as lessons in their own journey. But sometimes, the teacher has to become the student and it is clear that I still have much to learn.
I teach that “life happens for you, not to you” and what I’ve realized is that while I’ve dedicated my life to working with victims of abuse all over the world, I need to get connected to the brave women of #MeToo.
I am committed to being part of the solution.
I am committed to helping to educate 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.
I just want to say, that I have read several of Tony Robbins’s books; I’ve purchased one of his audio programs; and I even did a business coaching course offered through one of his companies. And, I have a hard time saying that this reveals that deep down he’s a charlatan and a fake who doesn’t care about people.
Like most things, if you follow his programs, they’ll work. I know his programs have helped me develop a more proactive and positive outlook on my life. I found his books to be helpful and actionable.
Nevertheless, I think that in this moment, he missed the mark. So, I’m in this crazy head space for me. I think that I can acknowledge that Tony Robbins is a person who has put a lot of good into the world and that he made a mistake.
I think that he was blinded by certain factors from his past life experience and his current position that are really instructive for all of us.
Why did he owe anyone an apology?
- Mansplaining: he tries to explain to a woman (Nanine McCool) what it’s *really* like to be a woman working in America (if you need further explanation about mansplaining, I’d recommend this article from the Gottman Blog: Stop Mansplaining: Tony Robbins and the #metoo Movement)
- Bullying: He uses the crowd’s cheering and approval to “show” McCool that he was right and she was wrong
- Defensiveness: He tries to defend his position rather than acknowledge that he might be wrong or giving Nanine McCool credit for her point (he tries to say *she* isn’t misusing the #metoo movement, but “other women” are using their anger to gain significance and are addicted to victimhood)
- Failure to acknowledge systemic issues with oppression: Tony Robbins work is all about empowering individuals and changing yourself and your mindset to change your life, but the downside of this individualist mindset is that it prioritizes the individual over the group, and we do have collective problems that we need to solve together.
I think Robbins is making some assumptions that allowed him to speak in a hurtful and insensitive way about the #metoo movement.
- He doesn’t take the time to establish that he thinks sexual harassment is wrong, which he probably doesn’t think needs to be said, but we really can’t hear that too much right now
- He references his power-broker friends, and really sets himself up as being on the side of men.
- As a victim of childhood abuse himself, Robbins assumes that he is included in the chorus of victims, and that he has used his pain in the “right” way, rather than acknowledging that everyone has their own path to healing.
- He relates to the CEOs who are afraid to hire women as an example of how women are hurting themselves rather than using his position and voice to call his fellow men out on their fear and discriminatory behavior.
- He assumes that since he has hired and promoted many women in his own businesses that he’s immune from criticism.
At one point in the conversation, he refuses to apologize for his comments. He asks the crowd: “Should I apologize because she [McCool] misunderstood?” They cheer in response.
The problem, as I see it, is that Robbins is the one who has misunderstood. Even in his apology (which he did release after McCool’s video went viral). He doesn’t specifically state that there is a widespread pattern of women actually being victims of sexual assault, harassment and abuse in the workplace, in public places, and everywhere else that has made the movement necessary. He talks about individual empowerment, listening, and being a part of the solution.
The Timeline Problem
Robbins says a lot of nice things in his apology, and strikes a conciliatory tone. He takes responsibility for his behavior, and vows to change. The problem (to me) is that this event happened in February. He apologized after the video went viral in April. There were 8,000 people at the event, surely his team knew beforehand that this would get out. I would certainly hope that someone on Robbins’ team at the event said something about how Robbins’s comments missed the mark. They could have preemptively addressed this by reaching out to McCool privately after the event to apologize. They could have done something to support victims of sexual violence in the interim.
Instead, Robbins’ promise of changing behavior only came after the public humiliation. And it hasn’t really been followed up on. I follow Robbins on social media…he has been hosting seminars, hanging out with famous people, posting podcast interviews about how to take your business to the next level…but not really promoting female voices. He hasn’t been producing content about creating work environments in which everyone is safe to thrive. He hasn’t visibly or specifically been giving back to women who have suffered. I mean, for goodness sake, he could have given money to Times Up to support their mission to give legal support to women who face sexual harassment in the workplace. Maybe it would have been a token thing, and some people would have surely criticized it, but at least he’d be putting his money where his mouth was.
Coming back around, to why I’m interested in public apologies.
What I think is at the nut of this, and other viral outrages that take over the internet for a day, week, or news cycle – is that it tells us something about our moment. As, I say to my daughter, it does take two people to cause an accident.
It’s clear to me that Tony Robbins made several mistakes – he wasn’t the right messenger because, even though he experienced abuse in his home as a child, when he went into the world as an adult, he went into a world where a self-educated white man could transform himself from a janitor living in a 600 square foot apartment to one of the wealthiest and most influential men in the world. What I think he misses is what many of us fail to appreciate, he says that when he started he had nothing. But that’s not entirely accurate. He was handsome, he lived in America, he had a free public education, he was able to get credit to get started, he had access to mentors, he stood out because of his size and stature. Those advantages, which were invisible to him, are not available to everyone. As much as we want to improve ourselves and change our circumstance, victimhood is, sadly, a reality in our world.
Megan Garber articulates this beautifully in an article for The Atlantic called “Tony Robbins, #metoo , and the limits of self help”. :
To claim victimhood is not to bask in weakness or to aggrandize oneself; it is simply to acknowledge reality. The world is unjust. We are all, in some way, constrained by that fact. We are all caught up. We are all connected. We are all complicit. Self-improvement, in that context, is of course an admirable goal; it will be meaningful, however, only to the extent that it acknowledges all the other selves who are hoping and striving and trying their best. It never seemed to occur to Robbins, as he spoke to that stadium full of people seeking wisdom, that those who have come forward to share their #MeToo stories might have done so not because of selfishness, but because of its opposite: the simple desire to help other people, to spare them pain.
I think pain is really the nut of all this. We apologize because we’ve hurt someone. And, whatever our intention or goal, whether there was a misunderstanding or not, most people don’t like to cause other people to be in pain. That is why we apologize: I caused you pain, so I’m going to make some gesture to lessen or take away that pain.
I look forward to exploring this idea in more depth! Because, seriously, the internet is FULL of apologies.