Column: She challenged fire-walking guru Tony Robbins over his sexist take on #MeToo. He apologized, but not to her
Last month in a jam-packed San Jose arena, fire-walking guru Tony Robbins dismissed the #MeToo movement with an anecdote he should have been ashamed to share.
That he brought up the story at all tells us everything we need to know about the casual acceptance of our culture’s unexamined misogyny and the deep-seated need of some men to close ranks. It also tells us that despite all the progress we’ve made in the last half year, we have so much further to go. Well, men do.
As Robbins told it, a man he knows — “a very famous man, a very powerful man” — interviewed three people for a job, two men and a woman.
“The woman,” said Robbins, 58, “was better qualified. But she was very attractive and he knew, ‘I can’t have her around because it’s too big a risk,’ and he hired somebody else. I’ve had a dozen men tell me this.”
Robbins did not share this story because it was so outrageous and sexist and wrong, which of course, it is.
He shared it as a kind of misbegotten rebuttal to a woman in the audience who had stood up and calmly challenged him for mischaracterizing the sexual reckoning as a counterproductive strategy by angry women.
“You are an influential man,” Nanine McCool, 55, told Robbins, “and you are doing a disservice in my opinion to the #MeToo movement.”
“Anger is not empowerment,” Robbins told McCool before gently pushing her backward with his outstretched fist in a misguided gesture that was supposed to demonstrate the folly of resistance (to what? male dominance?), but which struck many observers as physical intimidation. (Robbins is 6-foot-7; McCool is 5-foot-8.)
“If you use the #MeToo movement to try to get significance and certainty by attacking and destroying someone else,” he said, “all you’ve done is basically use a drug called ‘significance’ to make yourself feel good.”
This constitutes such a cringe-worthy misreading of what has happened in the last six months that it’s hard to believe Robbins has become rich and famous teaching people to “Unleash the Power Within,” the title of this three-and-a-half day, $2,995 seminar.
Has the guru lost his mojo?
That day in San Jose, a California beat box musician, Antoinette Clinton, who goes professionally by Butterscotch, happened to have her phone out.
She recorded the exchange between Robbins and McCool and posted it on Facebook, where it remained for four days until Robbins’ attorneys demanded she take it down.
By that time, however, the 11-minute clip had come to the attention of feminist activist Tarana Burke, who coined the phrase “Me Too” and has become a key player in the new social movement.
On Saturday, Burke tweeted several times at Robbins, excoriating him for his cluelessness.
“If you talk to more SURVIVORS and less sexist businessmen maybe you’ll understand what we want,” she wrote. “We want safety. We want healing. We want accountability. We want closure. We want to live a life free from shame. That’s the reality of the @MeTooMVMT sir, do better.”
One day later, Robbins posted an apology on Facebook.
“…sometimes, the teacher has to become the student and it is clear that I still have much to learn,” he wrote. “...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.”
He singled out Burke for praise, but never bothered to mention McCool, whose courage certainly deserved to be acknowledged. His organization did, however, refund McCool’s seminar fee in full. No questions asked.
When I reached McCool on Monday, she was in a car en route from her home in Lacombe, La., to the airport in New Orleans. She’s doing the media rounds in New York City this week, starting with an appearance Tuesday on “Today.”
She had heard good things about Robbins’ motivational talks and decided the seminar would help snap her out of a bad professional place.
In 2015, after a 15-year-legal career, she had been disbarred by the Louisiana Supreme Court, which found that she violated the rules of professional conduct when she encouraged citizens to contact two judges involved in a custody case where there were allegations of sexual abuse against the father of two girls.
McCool, said the Louisiana Supreme Court, had inappropriately “spearheaded a social media blitz in an attempt to influence the judiciary.”
She refused to acknowledge wrongdoing or apologize and so, rather than accept a suspension, she was disbarred.
“I was kind of stuck,” she said. “I felt like I needed to figure out how to move forward.”
If media interest is any indication, her career as an advocate for women, and victims of domestic violence is back on track.
“I clearly am nervous about screwing it up, and worry that I am in over my head and will say the wrong thing,” she said.
She’s still processing her odd moment with one of the world’s most successful motivational speakers, and is more generous toward him than he’s been toward her.
“I believe he has the potential to understand and grow and become a tremendous force for change,” said McCool. “I know he’s taking a lot of heat and he deserves it, because what he said was improper. But he did a service by saying what he did.”
Yes, he did. He revealed to the world how some of his rich, powerful, male friends are conducting themselves in the post-#MeToo world.
They are punishing women for the sins of their badly behaving brethren.
Somehow, you can’t be surprised.