But apologies of this sort are also their own kind of public spectacles, informed by their own brand of pageantry. And this one rings especially hollow, despite the sincerity of its story and the abjection of its tone, in large part because of how deeply it runs counter to the core of Robbins’s philosophy.
Self-help, after all—not all of it, but much of it, and certainly the brand that Robbins sells—is premised on the necessity of the individual working within, and around, the constraints of the status quo. In its paradigm, you are meant to improve yourself (or perhaps, in the current, Silicon Valley–inflected jargon, self-optimize) within a context that is insistent, immutable, inevitable. Your parents, your body, your world: These are things you have been given with very little say in the matter, and you are not supposed to question them so much as you are supposed, with the help of the wisdom imparted by, among others, Tony Robbins, to bend them to your will. Life is always happening for us, not to us: The notion is not simply an observation. It is a call to arms.
In this vision, the logic of systems and structures—the idea that the self is constrained and conscribed by cultural and economic and political infrastructures that operate, generally, with scant concern for the individuals caught within them—has very little place. To acknowledge those external forces outright is to complicate the convenient picture, to question the ability of individual people to become their best selves, to live their best lives, to embrace their own truths. Life happens for you, not to you. Except, of course, when it doesn’t.
Which is to say that Robbins’s commercialized philosophy is in some ways in fundamental tension with #MeToo and its aims. #MeToo is certainly, of course, about the sanctity of the individual story, about the dignity of the self, about—to use Tarana Burke’s phrase, which Robbins echoed in his apology—“empowerment through empathy”; it is also, even more specifically, about the systematization of empathy. The movement is not simply meant to engender catharsis for those who participate in it—and it is very stridently not meant to make people feel “significant.” It is meant instead to enable people to use their stories as tools and as weapons for changing the world. There is, as one entry in the self-help genre has had it, Leaning In. And then there is rethinking and rebuilding the structures that determine the angle at which one will be required to do the bending.
Robbins’s initial, indignant dismissal of Nanine McCool, and of the movement she is part of—“Popular life coach Tony Robbins tried to mansplain #MeToo,” Glamour put it—resonated in part because its logic echoed so many other people’s dismissals of so many other survivors. The guru insisted on perceiving victimhood itself through a libertarian lens, reasoning that it must on some level—because, in this worldview, everything must, on some level—be a product of self-interest. It’s an attitude that is reminiscent of the one held by many of those who have criticized #MeToo on the grounds that it is too angry, too performative, too self-aggrandizing. Too many small people trying to make themselves bigger. Too many “victims” who are aspiring, in the very vanity of their victimhood, to significance.