In yet another example of the online world entering the ‘real’ world, podcaster and comedian Joe Rogan faces a massive backlash over multiple comments he made over the years. Not least among them are recordings of the podcast host using the N-word over twenty times and referring to black communities as “ planet of the apes.”
The backlash was initially spurred by artists’ protests against Spotify’s failure to deal with Rogan’s history of covid misinformation. Artists such as Neil Young and Jon Mitchell have pulled their songs from the platform despite it being one of the most active podcast platforms on the internet. However, the backlash evolved after additional clips of Joe Rogan using the n-word multiple times were released and from there, the situation grew increasingly tenuous for Rogan.
After the clips of Rogan showed that he had used the slur multiple times, additional clips came out showing that Rogan had also been partial to sexist jokes about women in the workplace. Specifically, the jokes in question showed Rogan’s response to a comment about a woman being required to perform oral sex in order to get a gig in the comedy industry. He laughed.
Rogan has made multiple apologies–one for covid-19 misinformation and one for the use of slurs—but all of this controversy calls into question exactly what kind of rhetoric a platform deems acceptable. And more importantly, what they don’t. Rogan’s behavior is not simply a matter of offense or cruelty towards people he deems worthy of joking about—although it is a critical component of the controversy. It is a pattern of behavior towards the worst elements of online conduct.
With a podcast that received nearly 11 million downloads at its beginning, it is no surprise that activists and artists alike are outraged by Rogan’s statements, much less his contribution to the rise of far-right activists. Many of them contribute to extremism and actively endorse violence if they aren’t too busy promoting the idea that black people are inherently more violent because of their genes on Rogan’s own show.
It should surprise absolutely nobody that black artists, commentators, and activists have begun calling out what they rightly see as a pattern of prejudice. Rogan can claim that he is not a racist, and he may very well not be, but the pattern of behavior and the continued willingness to engage in rhetoric that reaffirms racist views is well within the bounds of public criticism.
As NPR’s Eric Deggan points out, Rogan has, through his words and actions, forced a painful question into the public sphere that otherwise wouldn’t have to come up. “… thanks to attributional ambiguity, Black people now must wonder if Rogan is secretly racist. Or if he’s racist but unable to admit it to himself. Or if he has learned from his public humiliation and is ready to behave differently. Same with women and sexism.” To allow this kind of commentary to go unchecked pushes the burden of dealing with the meaning of his words onto the people they hurt the most and that is unacceptable. It is not inappropriate or cruel for Rogan to face the consequences of the words that he chose to say. Nor is it censorship for artists like India Arie to utilize their freedom of association to avoid a platform that allows outright white nationalists to speak of her as if she was inherently dangerous solely because she’s black.
We can go back and forth all day about how to respond to someone like Rogan, but in order to reach a responsible and appropriate conclusion, it is critical that the right and I do mean right, to criticize commentators like Rogan must be acknowledged in all of its legitimacy. Treating the right to speak as the same as a right to avoid criticism or condemnation is not liberation; it is an intentional attempt to restrict the dialogue so certain people can steer in the direction they want.