An earlier version of this story described Charles C. Johnson as a conservative political activist. At the time of his appearance on "The Joe Rogan Experience," Johnson was a conservative activist, but now says he is a supporter of President Biden. The story has been corrected.
Rogan, who presides over a large realm of masculine airwaves, has really stepped in it. He was already in the limelight for having guests who spread coronavirus misinformation on “The Joe Rogan Experience,” his incredibly popular podcast. Then, last weekend, clips circulated of Rogan using the n-word in previous episodes. Rogan said he had been trying to discuss the word as a complicated piece of language, not employ it as a slur, but added that he, nonetheless, now found his behavior shameful.
Within days, dozens of “JRE” episodes had disappeared from Spotify — at Rogan’s request, according to Spotify’s chief executive, Daniel Ek, who also condemned Rogan’s behavior. Shortly after that, a different platform, called Rumble, offered Rogan a new deal: “How about you bring all your shows to Rumble, both old and new, with no censorship, for 100 million bucks over four years?”
Rogan does not plan to accept that offer, as he reportedly told fans Tuesday at a stand-up appearance. So much for any Decision Drama. But the question remains: What does Joe Rogan, media juggernaut and emblem of modern manhood to many, do now? For his most devoted fans, he is a model for how they should think, talk, listen, exercise, eat — and learn, or not learn. So, what’s the lesson?
For those of you who aren’t familiar with “The Joe Rogan Experience”: Picture a sweet dude you know deciding, with good intentions but no expertise outside of entertainment and mixed martial arts, that he is going to become a public intellectual. Picture millions of listeners tuning in to listen to this man wrestle, for two or three hours a stretch, with the biggest political, moral and scientific questions of the day.
I should confess that I am not one of those devoted listeners. I’ve sat through some full episodes when there’s a particularly interesting guest, and watched portions of other episodes that have been passed around online, but I am not a regular. And yet I can absolutely see why people have enjoyed Rogan. There’s something endearing about a fighter-turned-seeker who now uses his fame to ask Neil deGrasse Tyson curious questions about the universe.
The trouble is that many of Rogan’s guests are not Neil deGrasse Tyson. Rogan has hosted conspiracy theorist Alex Jones (three times), far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos (twice) and Proud Boys co-founder Gavin McInnes (twice). With more regularity than can be coincidence, his guests utter racist, misogynist and anti-science falsehoods. The bigger trouble is that Rogan seems unprepared to refute these utterances on the fly with any kind of definitive authority. Live-Googling news articles to dispute Alex Jones’s claim that coronavirus vaccines cause widespread illness is all well and good, but it’s no match for Jones’s steady stream of misinformation. Rogan doesn’t need Google; he needs Daniel Dale.
Rogan’s mien, as far as I’ve seen, is open and inquisitive, whether his guest is actor Robert Downey Jr. or anti-vaccine advocate Robert Malone. Rogan is neither prepared like a journalist nor learned like an expert. Listeners who defend Rogan by pointing out that he’s not a journalist or an expert — that he’s a merely an everyman whose audience is composed of everymen — are highlighting how much of a risk it is for Rogan to share his enormous platform with guests who are uninformed at best or malevolent at worst.
In one clip, resurfaced over the weekend, Rogan’s guest, former conservative political activist Charles C. Johnson, raises the idea that Black people may have a gene that gives them a “proclivity to violence.”
Did Rogan immediately end the interview, recognizing that embers of racism could fan into flames in any number of his listeners? No. Did he attempt to debunk the statement by calling scientists, while also acknowledging the history of scientific racism? No. He slowly repeated the name of the gene and then said, “Huh.” Then he allowed Johnson to continue before attempting a rejoinder about how the military is violent while being mostly White, according to a recording of the episode preserved on the Internet Archive.
You could argue that Rogan’s generally judgment-free demeanor had allowed Johnson to show his true self. Or you could wonder why Rogan was interviewing Johnson on this topic at all. What did Rogan hope his listeners might learn from this particular dialogue?
(When reached on the phone this week and asked to comment about his Rogan appearance, Johnson said that the clip was “from seven years ago” and he regretted ever going on the show. He said he believes “The Rogan Experience” lacks the “rigor” to explore serious topics in proper context, and he now feels it should be canceled.)
A frequent rebuttal to Rogan criticism is that he hosts all kinds of guests, liberal and conservative, and that he supported Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the 2020 presidential election. But podcast guests are not like carbon tax credits, where a certain amount of pollutive matter can be nullified with a tithing of good sense. Intellectual balance works only when two beliefs are different, but both are reasonable. The opposite of Sanders is someone saying, “I believe health care should remain privatized, and here’s why.” It is not unchecked theories about race and genetics.
I don’t think Rogan is doing this in bad faith. I think it’s simpler than that: He’s just not up to the task he has created for himself. He’s not nimble enough or forethinking enough to engage in intellectual battle with guests who are not there to seek truth but to recruit converts. He does not seem fully aware that treating all guests exactly the same doesn’t make you fair-minded, it makes you a patsy.
Rogan’s naïve-seeming curiosity makes him likable, but it might come from a place that also makes the trait harmful. He is a heterosexual White dude asking some questions. He can afford to be curious about issues like racism or Islamophobia or misogyny, because he does not have to experience them firsthand. He can believe that the n-word can be treated as an intellectual conversation piece rather than as the single most fraught and painful word in the English language.
Being a regular-dude public intellectual could well mean reflecting on all that, and the events of the past week, and what responsibilities Rogan might have to his fans beyond entertaining them. “Don’t let them make you look weak and frightened,” former president Donald Trump advised Rogan in a statement earlier this week, but when it comes to shaping what weakness and strength look like in public life — especially to young men who are curious about the world and how they ought to behave in it — Rogan very likely has more capital than Trump does.
Trump’s example is to never apologize and never change. What if Rogan were to go a different way? What if he were to do the work — to acknowledge his past harms, to hire a whole team of fact-checkers to vet guests before they come on and hold them to task once they’re on air. What if he were to allow himself to see that, no, he’s not a journalist, and no, he’s not a regular dude; he’s more powerful than either of those, and that power comes with responsibilities?
What if he were to take himself as seriously as he takes the topics he tries to discuss?
If this were an episode of “Fear Factor,” this would be the episode where Rogan is dared to overcome the culture wars. The resulting product might not have quite the same appeal as serving up horse rectum, but if he completes the challenge successfully, nobody ends up with a stomachache.