Policing Joe Rogan
with John McWhorter
The comic and podcast host Joe Rogan is currently in hot water. Recently, clips featuring Rogan saying the n-word on The Joe Rogan Experience have been making the rounds, and people are (predictably) shocked. He’s being called a racist, and Spotify, the platform that has paid handsomely for the right to host The Joe Rogan Experience, is facing pressure to drop him.
These attempts to paint Rogan as a racist are completely wrongheaded. As John points out in this excerpt from our latest conversation, there is a big difference between “lobbing” a racial slur at someone and “referring” to it. If Rogan had called a black person the n-word, he would be worthy of our contempt. But that’s not what he’s being accused of. His supposed sin is simply that he uttered the word, not that he used it to verbally abuse any person or group of people. Are we really so frail that we can’t bear even to hear this word, no matter the context?
Of course, I think there’s a reason all these clips of Rogan saying the n-word are surfacing now. Rogan is also facing accusations of spreading COVID misinformation on his podcast because he sometimes speaks with guests who present ideas about the virus that are out of the mainstream. Trying to deplatform him for this is equally wrongheaded, as I explain below. If we’re going to deal with the serious questions of our day, we have to do away with the impulse to simply shut down conversations for no reason other than that they make some of us uncomfortable.
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GLENN LOURY: But the superficial morality of spoken word etiquette versus the genuine morality of a thick, historically informed engagement with important questions of policy, of state, of ethics. And I think that's what's at stake here. And his use of the n-word, years ago, I'm not sure I'm fully aware of the facts about the Joe Rogan incident. Joe Rogan, some tapes surfaced.
Joe Rogan has been controversial because he has views and has had guests on his show about vaccines that are seen by some as anti-vax or whatever. And there's been some controversy at Spotify about his views about the vaccine. And so now, lo and behold, in the wake of that controversy, some tapes have surfaced in which Joe Rogan is heard using the n-word. Do you know anything more about that? I want to just suggest the surfacing of these tapes is not an accident. The surfacing of these tapes at this moment is an effort to bring down Joe Rogan.
Musicians have been pulling out of Spotify in protest of Spotify's harboring him. And I think the singer India.Arie put together a reel, so to speak, of Joe Rogan episodes where he used the n-word. And the truth is I just recently took in this story.
There are two things I don't do that normal people do. I do not watch late night shows. I don't watch Jimmy Kimmel and all those. And also, I don't listen to podcasts. I seem to do quite a few of them lately, but I really don't listen. So I've never heard Joe Rogan. To me, he's a delightful character actor from NewsRadio, the sitcom, which I have watched through three times, all the way through. I don't know Joe Rogan after that. But I know what goes on on the show.
And this is a little premature, Glenn, because I haven't studied it. But from what's been said, what people are calling attention to is Rogan having used the word in imitation or in quotation. It's not that he was on the show saying, “The problem with niggers is that they da da da da da.”
You just used the word, by the way, John.
I sure did, and I stand by it. Because we're black, we can do it. But he was not doing that. He's a twenty-first-century person. He was joshingly imitating comedians like Redd Foxx and using it in quotation marks. Now, if that's not true, we have to have another conversation. But he wasn't lobbing ... is that the word? Yeah. He wasn't lobbing the word, he was referring to the word or imitating people who use the word in a way, until about 10 minutes ago, many white kids would chant their hip hop lyrics.
To me, there's a huge difference between the two things. And as I've said and written often, I think it's absurd that we've gotten to the point that we're treating it as a taboo sequence of sounds, as if we were worshiping some sun god or something. And it should have no effect on his career. Maybe he wouldn't choose to do those things now, but, frankly, when he was doing it then it wasn't hurting anybody. And this business of not attending to the difference between using it and referring to it is childish. Once again, we don't need it. I don't see why it's necessary. Although there's a certain kind of black person now who claims to be deeply injured whenever that sequence of sounds is uttered for any reason, I think it's a pose. So yeah, I don't like this one at all.
Neither do I.
Now, we can talk about Rogan and the COVID. But this, this won't do.
Nothing wrong with Joe Rogan and the COVID either. I think people can have their views about that. And I think the issue is, what's the scientific evidence? If he was saying something that was demonstrably wrong as a matter of science, and he was propagating false information, that would be one thing. But there's a debate. There was a debate about masking; it's an ongoing debate. There's a debate about the efficacy of lockdowns; it's an ongoing debate. There's a debate about the consequences of mass jabbing; it's an ongoing debate.
There's a man called Alex Berenson. He is a well-informed vax critic, skeptic out there. He can exist. I mean, rebut him, is the way that you deal with that. You don't burn him at the stake because he had a view about that. I mean, in the fullness of time, we're going to learn a lot about policy responses in the wake of this pandemic which, in retrospect, proved to be wrong. Nobody knew that Andrew Cuomo was killing thousands of people by the decisions that he made about what happens to people coming out of hospitals, going to nursing homes, and so forth and so on. Hindsight is 20/20. But I have an observation. Do you know this book by James Scott, the Yale political scientist, called Weapons of the Weak?
It's a study of how it is that dominated peoples can fight back surreptitiously. I mean, I think this policing of the spoken sounds—“nigger”—and saying, “You can't say that” is a pathetic expression of weakness. It's petulant. It's like grabbing the microphone from a speaker whose argument you just can't bear to hear. There's no power in it whatsoever. There's no real power. There's no wealth in it. There's no entrepreneurship in it. There's no educational mastery in it. There's no fixing any broken family in it. There's no solving a crime problem in it. All it is is throwing a tantrum. “I'm weak! I'm black! You said the n-word! Oh my God, oh my God!” It's pathetic.
It is. It's performed delicacy. And there's been such an uptick in that on that word over the past about 15 years. And I just don't get how anybody can say they're a strong person and engage in that performance of allowing white people that power. People are going to keep on uttering it for various reasons. And we've got this popular music that's full of it. And you decide that any time you hear this word said by anybody but a black man from the street, you're going to go crawling into a corner. It's a performance. It's not real. Nobody cognitively whole truly feels that way. It's something that black people teach each other. And it really needs to stop. We have other things to do. Go ahead.
Yeah, no, we're going to conclude here. I just wanted to reiterate something you said earlier, which is we are not talking about the use of the word as a slur, where you call someone an n-i-g-g-e-r, like you call them a k-i-k-e or you call them an s-p-i-c or you call them an m-i-c-k. We're not saying it. We're not approving of the use of the word in that way.
And the damnedest thing is that there's a kind of person who will listen to what you and I are saying and say that, “They're condoning the use of the n-word. They're condoning the use of the n-word,” actually pretending to think that that's what we're saying. God, that one makes me sick. You shouldn't have to say what you just said. It's more this idea of not realizing that your view isn't the only one. Their idea is that it's absolutely certain and beyond any kind of conversation that to utter those sounds in sequence is always wrong. There can be no questioning of that.
So everything we just said is “condoning the use of the n-word.” No. We're talking about there being a difference that one must attend to, and anybody who pretends that what we're doing here is condoning a white person calling us that is feigning stupidity out of some sense that there's some sort of beauty in that moral pose. Black people should not be taught to feign being stupid. And that is what's going on with this new conception of the n-word. This self-imposed dumbness on that truly dismays me.
“Performed delicacy.” We ought to put that one in the dictionary.
Let's keep that.