Editor’s Note: Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “The Third Reconstruction: America’s Struggle for Racial Justice in the Twenty-First Century,” in addition to “Stokely: A Life” and “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The controversy over Joe Rogan’s repeated past use of the n-word on his podcast is about more than racist language or cancel culture – it speaks to deeper truths and persistent lies that help define contemporary America. Rogan, who was already under fire earlier this year for being a conduit for misinformation brandished by anti-vaxxers on his popular show, faced immense backlash after a video compilation of him using the n-word, which he said were compiled over a span of 12 years, was widely shared on social media.
Rogan apologized Saturday and vowed to do better, and Daniel Ek, the chief executive of Spotify – which distributes Rogan’s podcast and invested $100 million dollars to do so, according to the Wall Street Journal – addressed the issue in a memo stating he found Rogan’s words “incredibly hurtful” and inconsistent with company values but did not believe “silencing” Rogan was the answer. Ek also promised to launch an “incremental $100 million” dollar investment designed to elevate marginalized voices on Spotify. Spotify, without detailing specifically why, also removed more than 100 of Rogan’s episodes from the platform, according to JRE Missing, a website that tracks the show.
Conservatives who are defending Rogan with cries of free speech are being disingenuous. For one thing, it comes at a moment when conservatives have mastered the art of legislative cancelation, passing laws that threaten to fine and fire teachers who teach aspects of America’s brutal history of racial inequity that might cause discomfort among White students or parents.
The real issue isn’t about whether to cancel Joe Rogan (although some have advocated for Spotify to end its relationship in wake of the controversy). It is about exposing who Rogan really is and admitting that his brand of conversation, which at times traffics in conspiracy theories, cultural intolerance and blatant racism, attracts millions of avid listeners and corporate sponsors hungry to advertise their wares to such followers. Rogan is, in fact, an agent of these social ills, which he packages and sends out to his audience clothed in the language of moderation and moral equivalence. For example, in addition to his uses of the n-word, Rogan has made waves by suggesting that because “you can never be woke enough … it’ll eventually get to [where] White men are not allowed to talk.” Rogan laughed uproariously when comedian Joey Diaz, one of his guests, described pressuring women into performing oral sex on him. Rogan has horribly and deliberately misgendered a trans MMA fighter. He’s discouraged young people from getting the Covid-19 vaccine, hosted guests who question its validity and given a platform to climate skepticism from controversial clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson.
The question of “silencing” Rogan is nevertheless a fraught one. In opposition to Rogan’s platforming of Covid misinformation, a wide range of popular musicians, from the legendary rock n roll artist Neil Young to the Generation X soul icon India Arie, have demanded that Spotify remove their music from its site. They did not want their work to share digital space with the loquacious podcaster – who, beyond the n-word and misinformation criticisms, has also helped build the profile of Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes, whose group has used violence to foster political support for a racially intolerant agenda.
Meanwhile, public figures including former President Donald Trump and Republican Governor Ron DeSantis have implored Rogan to stop apologizing for using the n-word. Trump told him to “stop apologizing to the Fake News and Radical Left maniacs and lunatics,” while DeSantis urged, “Do not apologize. Do not kowtow to the mob. Stand up and tell them to pound sand.”
The far right-wing conservative support for Rogan belies the myth that his show represents a reasonable middle or common ground uniting average Americans untethered to the left-right spectrum of American politics.
This myth reflects the lies Americans tell themselves about to race, democracy, free speech and capitalism. Rogan’s genius lies in the fact that he presents himself as an everyman throwback to a quieter age – an era without pandemics or Black Lives Matter protests shining a spotlight on racial privilege.
Folks who enjoy Rogan’s political unpredictability, down to earth quality, and frank discussion about politics ignore the fact that he’s one of the wealthiest people in America, that his independent perspective often skews far-right (as evidenced by some of his guests, who have included Roseanne Barr, Ted Nugent, Ben Shapiro, Candace Owens and Steven Crowder) and his everyman demeanor is the perfect shtick for a 21st century pitchman able to convince the have-nots that they share a common history, rapport and destiny with the haves.
No wonder Trump loves him.
Rogan also seems to delight in contradicting himself, posting a now-deleted tweet in 2012 to add fuel to the false birther conspiracy theory about President Barack Obama while also proclaiming Obama to be the best president in his lifetime and insisting that Michelle Obama could defeat Trump in a presidential election.
In another episode Rogan said aired 11 years ago, he recalled being accidentally dropped off in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Philadelphia with some disbelieving White friends. He likened the situation to being in “Planet of the Apes,” the 1968 science fiction classic starring Charlton Heston as an astronaut who travels in time to a future earth ruled by intelligent simians. Rogan’s comparison of Philadelphia’s Black community to the “Planet of the Apes” is morally reprehensible, politically indefensible, and yes, racist.
Rogan apologized for this clip in an Instagram video he posted Saturday, noting that he was trying to “make the story entertaining” but also realized “that’s a racist thing to say.” But his audience of eleven million embraces these seeming contradictions. Rogan’s popularity has increased amid the rightward drift and segmentation of social media and popular culture. He has been consistently able to draw a robust number of guests across the polarized American political spectrum.
Even Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who is multi-racial, initially defended Rogan – the same podcaster who introduced the leader of Proud Boys. When a writer pointed out Rogan’s multiple uses of the n-word last week, Johnson thanked him, writing, “I was not aware of his N word use prior to my comments, but now I’ve become educated to his complete narrative. Learning moment for me.”
Any public personality attracting effusive support from Trump and DeSantis, two exemplars of racial and cultural intolerance, can not purport to be, as Rogan does, an independent thinker.
Rogan’s everyman persona is attractive to millions who view themselves as fed up with perceived liberal and conservative media biases. Yet Rogan, in many instances, amplifies partisan divides by offering an unvarnished platform for some of the worst impulses in American culture. From Proud Boys to anti-vaxxers, Rogan has helped spread misinformation, furthered the coarsening of popular culture and trafficked in a kind of racial bigotry soft-pedaled in some corners of social media as merely the byproduct of speaking one’s mind.
Critics of Rogan have a right, like musicians have, to disassociate themselves from platforms that carry his brand of discourse. That’s not canceling, that’s consumer choice, a right everyone ostensibly enjoys in a free society.
Spotify, in trying to preserve their profits and their image by enabling Rogan and censoring the worst parts of his act (they have removed 113 podcast and counting from his archive) – while also trying to elevate the voices of marginalized groups – is an illustration of how far capitalism will bend to use race and Blackness for its own purposes.
Meanwhile, Rogan’s and Spotify’s ability to monetize the most noxious and racially intolerant parts of American history and culture has, if anything, been amplified, rather than suppressed, by this latest uproar. Political controversy sells, racial controversy even more so, especially when used to fly the banner of free speech.
Joe Rogan’s platform, it has now been revealed for the world to see, is less a bastion of independence of mind and free expression of thought and more a haven for racial intolerance, sexist insults and the kind of so-called “locker room talk” that made Trump a hero to many among his base – and helped turn Rogan into a social media sensation in the first place.
Enter at your risk or pleasure (or both), but don’t pretend that you don’t know what you’re listening to.