I love watching people try to cancel Joe Rogan. To my memory, in the past year, they tried to get him for voicing a Bernie-or-Bust-like sentiment, they tried to get him for throwing some faint praise at Trump, and they tried to get him for an old video wherein he laughs at his fellow comedian Joey Diaz’s tales of sexual misconduct. Each time, he said nothing, at least not responsively or right away; if he followed up on the issues at some point later on his podcast, I never caught the follow-ups. The point is, he never caves or opens up dialogue with Twitter mobs. He never lenses himself through their worldview, much less issues apologies which he knows would sooner be dissected than accepted.
He’s not just hanging strong when he does this; he’s also very consciously cultivating his own brand. Flat-out: there would be no Joe Rogan without cancel culture. Cancel culture is like Joe Rogan’s uncompensated marketing division. In other words, his content, so open and legitimately diverse as to avoid any quick or easy categorization, flies in the face of the cowed, carefully curated, and suffocatingly corporatized content across most all other media. Which is another way of saying that people speak freely on “The Joe Rogan Experience,” and they do so from a deep weave of sociopolitical points of view. The effect this has on listeners and viewers who are fed up with and/or disturbed by partisanship run amok (aka: tribalism) is deeply soothing and reassuring, in addition to the entertainment value being offered. I first happened upon Rogan as the #metoo movement was in early bloom, back in late ‘17. I encountered not the fearful cooperation of commentators trying to avoid any wrongspeak, but a grounded, straightforward, and open-minded examination of what was going on: in some ways supportive, in some ways dismissive, in some ways hopeful, in some ways fearful.
It’s no accident that the show draws tens of millions of listeners a week.
It’s bigger than any late night talk show. It’s bigger than any other podcast. It’s probably bigger than some major league sports. It’s so big that Spotify bought the exclusive rights to it for $100 million, taking Joe out of the DIY sector and into the warm, inviting fold of a cushy-stable corporation. Post-purchase, the Joey Diaz thing happened. The clip had no doubt been dug up by those hoping to force Spotify’s hand away from their new prized superstar. But…nothing happened. No response from Rogan. No statement from Spotify. Joey Diaz soon showed up as a guest on Rogan’s birthday podcast. The show went on and the would-be cancelers were given a collective, calculatedly silent middle finger.
Now, though, more cancelation’s in bloom. This time it’s coming from within the corporation. Apparently staff members at Spotify are concerned about some Rogan content that they deem transphobic. To be sure, Rogan’s taken a strong and potentially controversial (or commonsensical, depending on who’s interpreting it) position on a single, solitary aspect of trans rights: he objects to people who were born as men competing in women’s sports. He objects on the basis of their greater muscle mass and ingrained physical strength. In doing so, he draws from his background as an MMA commentator; secure in his expertise about the human body in the context of competitive sports, he throws down hard whenever this topic comes up. He also, painstakingly, in the course of doing so, makes it resoundingly clear that he’s not transphobic, that he has no issues with transgender people, that he doesn’t want trans people dehumanized, endangered, or made to feel bad, and that he absolutely stands with them all the way–despite his issue in this isolated area. In the meantime, he doesn’t blow any sinister dog whistles. Doesn’t misgender trans people. Doesn’t puzzle over trans people’s mere existence. Doesn’t crack any stupid jokes at their expense.
What he does do is dive into the swirling complexity of a topic to which there is no easy, cut and dried answer–certainly not one that’s been offered by the concerned staff members at Spotify.
I’m curious to see what will happen next. Given how the Joey Diaz thing went, we can probably expect a non-follow-up in the form of silence. Rogan is lucrative and popular, and not only can this not be denied, but whatever the extent of his trespasses, they can in no way prove a match for the extent of his value. This isn’t some cynical way of saying that since he’s worth money his critics inside Spotify should shut their mouths; it’s just a testament to the fact that his product works; people are addicted to it; if Spotify drops him or pisses him off, some other fisherman will be happy to sink their hook into Joe the whale.
So what should those intra-Spotify critics do? Perhaps educate themselves on how cancel culture operates in terms of long-term, society-wide outcomes, instead of being bubble-focused on how it operates in terms of near-term, interpersonal outcomes. Stated differently, cancel culture probably seems like an effective blunt instrument when wielded to silence individual “problematic” voices (near-term, interpersonal). But where cancel culture becomes not only dangerous but its own worst enemy is when its mob-like lack of nuance and dialogue alienates people from the left and cultivates a strong and unified right-wing (long-term, society-wide). People don’t like the notion of speech being controlled: left, right, in between. This isn’t a partisan impulse; it’s an American one. And Trump’s presently exploiting it to fight like mad for a second term. He says Biden takes his marching orders from the far left–i.e., from the woke, outraged guardians of cancellation. In his deference to Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, Biden does demonstrate the sort of sheepish agreeability that the far left tends to bring out of people, lest those people wish to meet with their wrath. In the case of Biden, I agree with the policies he’s meeting halfway. But I also agree that the left, in the craze of our current cultural moment, certainly has a thing for issuing marching orders. Rogan doesn’t heed them. Spotify shouldn’t either.
And that is the correct reaction to those who would wish to see you march.