Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Tony baloney: Buzzfeed's Robbins exposé only a shocker for those who weren't paying attention

By now you've probably heard about Buzzfeed News' investigative series on selfish-help giant (in more ways than one) Tony Robbins. The first installment -- and the one that elicited the most reaction from the news media and even prompted a rapid response from Tony himself -- was published on May 17, complete with a large animation that alternated between an image of a hugely smiling "normal" Tony and that of a sinister, malevolently grinning Devil-red caricature. The headline screamed:

Leaked Records Reveal Tony Robbins Berated Abuse Victims, And Former Followers Accuse Him Of Sexual Advances

Buzzfeed has thus far published two additional and somewhat anti-climactic pieces in their investigative series on Robbins: the second one reporting that four additional women had come forward with accusations against him, and the third installment documenting that a very young Robbins had been filmed using racial slurs. Granted, in context it appears to me after an admittedly cursory review that the racial slur accusation may be stretching things a little bit: however misguided and lacking in application in the real world it may have been, Tony was apparently just trying to lead some event attendees in an exercise to strip racial epithets of their power by shouting them over and over and laughing at their absurdity. But racism, like most serious problems that selfish-help gurus so often try to address via shocky (or schlocky) showmanship, is not that easily solved... so it was still kind of a stupid thing to do.

Immediately following the publication of the first piece in Buzzfeed, Robbins, not surprisingly, bit back,
attacking Buzzfeed in an "open letter" on Medium. He boasted about all of the many millions of people -- including dead celebrities such as Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Princess Diana, and various world leaders -- whom he'd helped over the years. He acknowledged that his "open-classroom therapeutic methods" are not for everyone, but he denied ever behaving in the "reckless, irresponsible, or malicious" ways that the Buzzfeed "storytellers" alleged. He insinuated that most of the accusations concerned behavior from decades ago and were therefore irrelevant. But the main thrust of his response was to attack Buzzfeed and attempt to discredit it. He accused the reporters of engaging in unfair and possibly illegal tactics, and insisted that they had a predetermined agenda to bring him down.

One Robbins follower, who though not explicitly named in the first Buzzfeed story insisted that her info about an intervention incident was misused by the reporters, has hired lawyers and threatens to sue Buzzfeed if they do not remove the content that she says relates to her. In his own "open letter" on Medium, Robbins shared her "Tony is my hero and Buzzfeed is unfair" vid, and he linked to her video not one, not two, but three different times in his missive without indicating that he was using the same source repeatedly. It was all apparently in the service of making the anti-Buzzfeed contingent seem larger.

Not that Tony really needed to do that. He had plenty of reinforcements; also unsurprisingly, his fans rushed to defend him and condemn Buzzfeed,
e.g., on Twitter.

Buzzfeed stands by their reporting. A spokesman for Buzzfeed told The Daily Beast:
“Our reporting is based on records of Mr. Robbins berating victims of rape and domestic violence, and the testimony of former staffers and followers who accused him of inappropriate sexual advances. It does not appear that Mr. Robbins read the story itself before he published his open letter, which contains a number of demonstrably false and defamatory claims about both our reporting and the resulting article.”
The only news is that it really isn't news
When the Buzzfeed story first broke it created quite a stir not just among some of the news and entertainment media but also among many ordinary folks, including some in my own small social media network, who expressed shock and disbelief that such an iconic figure could have been even remotely involved in the alleged misdeeds. How could this be? they wondered, and taking a cue from Tony himself, many of his fans have simply chalked it up to more "fake news."

One friend of mine who is a fan of Robbins' work seemed to be wrestling with the question of whether or not to remain a fan should the allegations be true. I lamely suggested an attempt to separate the message from the messenger, but that was actually a silly response, and my friend Tim called me on it by noting that manipulation, deceit, and scamming comprise the foundation of Robbins' entire shtick. Another person on my Facebook timeline dismissed the whole thing outright, saying that the accusers were clearly just a bunch of jealous wannabes. (But the latter person also thinks that pretty much all rape or sexual abuse accusations are false, so you have to consider the source.)

To some of us, though, the Buzzfeed story came as no surprise. This is not to give short shrift to Buzzfeed's efforts, but c'mon, folks, there have been numerous
controversies and legal issues around Robbins for decades. Granted, Robbins himself has seemed to put considerable effort into quashing critical content in print and online, sometimes via litigation or threats thereof, but he has had his share of critics who have, in their own ways, documented much of his questionable behavior over the years. That "squeaky clean image" that some of the current crop of commentators insist he has maintained isn't all that clean, to those who are paying attention anyway.

And certainly the Buzzfeed allegations that Tony berated sexual abuse victims should be no surprise, in light of last year's kerfuffle over his tone-deaf statements and subsequent bumbling apologies regarding the #MeToo movement.
Here is one of hundreds of accounts of that..

Beyond that, those of us who have been observing selfish-help/New-Wage/McSpirituality luminaries for many years know that sexual harassment and predation are some of the worst-kept secrets in those "industries." There is so little accountability in these fields, and there are so many vulnerable and broken people who are on a constant quest for validation and will gladly accept it from even the dodgiest of sources.

Of course these problems also exist in numerous other industries and institutions involving unequal power dynamics: boss-employee, schoolteacher-student, film producer-actor; traditional religious leader-parishioner/congregation member; politician-aide... you get the drift. The temptation to take advantage of one's position of power is often too great to resist, and when celebrity is added to the mix it's quite often even easier to take advantage. Grab 'em by the pussy,
as someone infamously said...

This is not to deny that sometimes the "less powerful" parties are the initiators; even minor celebrities have groupies and obsessed fans who aggressively pursue them, and the selfish-help industry is no exception. Women as well as men can be very aggressive in their pursuits when they are obsessed. (As well, women in positions of power can and do take advantage of "less powerful" men, so don't think that I am framing this as simply a #believewomen issue.) Nor am I overlooking the fact that many interactions are, however distasteful or ill-advised, consensual. And I'm certainly not trying to deny that even those who strive for lofty positions of leadership are imperfect human beings, as Robbins described himself in his open letter, as sort of a blanket exoneration of any of his own dickweedish behavior. But as I've noted in other contexts, the onus is on the "more powerful" party to avoid taking advantage of fans or groupies or students or aides or parishioners or other obsessed, vulnerable, or broken people.

Moreover, even absent actual sexual harassment/predation, the egotism, arrogance, and sociopathy of many in the selfish-help industry is pretty well documented. I've addressed some of these issues previously on this blog; see additional links at the end of this post.

And beyond all of that... as I mentioned in passing above, Tony Robbins is an inveterate huckster and a serial scammer, pure and simple, and if you do not see that by now, I am not going to expend much effort trying to convince you. Do your own research. Suffice to say that Tony has his huge fingers in a lot of pies; in addition to his own progressively more pricey shticks, which you'd think that would be enough, he also isn't above
promoting the frauducts and flopportunities of far lesser but no less scummy scammers. That link in the previous sentence leads to a 2010 post by my long-time friend and blogging colleague (and now working lawyer) Jason "Salty Droid" Jones, who has documented some of Robbins' scams in exquisite detail. Here's a link to a list of all of his posts tagged "Tony Robbins." I'm guessing that Jason is one of those who was not at all surprised by what Buzzfeed uncovered.

Another person who was completely unsurprised not only by the Buzzfeed series, but also by the #MeToo v Tony conflict last year, is James Fell, of the "Body For Wife" blog. In the wake of the #MeToo flap, Fell wrote a post entitled,
"Tony Robbins Has Always Been Shitty." The title sums it up quite nicely, but the post is worth a read for it presents yet another snapshot of Robbins' manipulative, coercive, and just plain dickweedy seminar techniques, and his relentless and aggressive upselling. Wrote Fell:
Guys like Tony are the worst kind of “guru,” in that they’re only half full of shit. Also known as telling half-truths and packaging stuff that is logical in a mystical aura of rainbows and puppy hugs and para-psychological nonsense with scientific-sounding names. But it’s all just a way to suck money out of your wallet by merging legitimacy with the miraculous. As I said, these people will motivate you down to your last dollar. They tell you how you’re broken, then sell you the “fix.”

Lest you think Fell is a just another cynic about the self-help field, you're wrong.

Does this mean all work in the field of motivation is bogus? Hardly. It means don’t get it from a guy pushing pseudoscience whose greatest accomplishment is convincing millions he is great at accomplishing things.

Tony gives self-improvement a bad name. But there is plenty of legitimate behavior change science people can use for the betterment of their lives, and I’ve written about a lot of it over the years, interviewing respected experts with real PhDs from real universities. I’m personally fond of self-determination theory and self-efficacy theory. I also find value in the theory of planned behavior.

Alas, it’s sensationalism that sells. If you desire self-improvement, avoid that which is popular or sexy, and seek out the real science. It won’t keep trying to upsell you or blast anything up your ass as you walk on fire while wearing a bullshit pendant made from a few bucks worth of cheap materials.
Yet another blogger, my pal Andrew "Duff" McDuffee, wrote a series of essays on Robbins and the "cult of aggressive positivity" back in June 2010. I've cited Duff's work previously but it's pertinent here too. Here's a link to Part 1.

In any case, regarding the current Buzzfeed series, I think the writer of
a May 18 Quartz piece nailed it when she wrote that whether or not any or all of the allegations against Tony Robbins are true...’s certain that Robbins now finds himself in an awkward position. He rails against victimization and urges followers to overcome the obstacles of their past—whether it’s childhood abuse, rape, poverty, or other difficult circumstances—for tomorrow’s possibilities. That’s a central tenet of his guidance. Now he’ll have to embrace these lessons, too: If he displays too much self-pity over the negative coverage, he risks seeming like a hypocrite in addition to everything else he may or may not be.
"Seeming like a hypocrite?" I'd say that train has already left the station. In any event it appears that so far, Robbins isn't playing the self-pity game as much as he is trading in faux sadness and muted outrage: planting, with a few carefully chosen sentences that range from the snarky to the histrionic, the seeds of indignation in the faithful, who are taking up the mantle of his defense and vociferously condemning Buzzfeed. The fan base seems to be doing most of the heavy lifting for him for the time being, though I wouldn't rule out Robbins resorting to litigation at some point.

I will say this, however, as I believe I've previously declared here: I did like Tony Robbins in
the Jack Black movie Shallow Hal. That is my attempt to be fair and balanced here.

And now that we've gotten fair and balanced out of the way, let's be realistic. Again, this is not to undermine the efforts of the Buzzfeed reporters, but frankly I don't really think that the publication of their work marks any sort of turning point, or that it will shock a critical mass of vulnerable folks awake and that as a result they will decide never to hand over any money or emotional currency to a selfish-help huckster again. In the greater scheme of things, despite the shock of the seemingly "untouchable" Tony Robbins being the target of a critical investigation... probably little will change. The devotees will continue to throng to Tony's expensive mega-events, he will continue to sell and promote his own (and select others') frauducts and flopportunities, he will continue to exploit his own celebrity status in any way he sees fit, and, of course, he will continue to make money hand over fist.

As I've said so many times before, quoting an increasingly annoying but nonetheless accurate maxim: The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.

Related on this Whirled:
  • Re sexual predation being one of the worst kept secrets in the selfish-help/New-Wage/McSpirituality industries; though this long piece is slightly dated (as noted in the disclaimer at the beginning), it still lends relevant perspective to some of the above:
    February 2016 --
    The hatriarchy: musings on rape culture, xenophobia, racism and other nasty business (especially under "Rape culture in the New-Wage world," but other sections are relevant too)

  • Some folks say that when a guru or idol's bad behavior enters the picture, it's still possible to "separate the message from the messenger." Here's why that isn't always possible or wise, even if the "message" itself isn't also bogus (which it so often is). In retrospect, and in light of the #MeToo movement, I may have cut too much slack for entertainment celebrities and politicians regarding codes of behavior, but overall I think the message in this post is valid.
    November 2009 --
    The lies that blind

  • Tony Robbins insists that his "open-classroom therapeutic methods" aren't for everyone, but that they have helped millions. But people can be and are emotionally, psychologically, and even physically harmed (and sometimes even killed) at LGAT (large group awareness training) events such as those that Robbins conducts/sponsors. The issue of regulation in the self-help industry is still a controversial one; I tried to offer some perspective a few years ago.
    March 2010 --
    Self-help regulation: necessary safeguard or Nanny-state nonsense?

  • More perspective on emotional, physical and sexual abuse by a faux-guru, in this case, James Arthur Ray, who is responsible for the deaths of four people and the injuries of numerous others at his own events.
    October 2010 --
    Musings on a tragedy and its meanings

  • Some consider Tony Robbins to be a "life coach." But "life coaching," like other segments of the self-help industry, has more than its share of unqualified practitioners who are playing with people's lives as well as their pocketbooks.
    April 2007 --
    Is the word "coaching" or "ka-ching?"

  • The Buzzfeed reporters wrote about the carefully structured physical and emotional environment at Tony Robbins' intensive events, citing several factors from uncomfortable room temperatures to long grueling hours, all of which were crafted to make attendees more vulnerable to manipulation. These factors are hardly unique to Robbins, though. The folks who ran current Scammer in Chief Donald Trump's bogus "university" were working from the same playbook, as do lots of other hucksters.
    May 2016 --
    Donald Trump's Scamworld playbook isn't unique
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