In December of 2019, a Texas court ordered infamous conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to pay $100,000 dollars for claiming that the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, in which Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six educators, was a hoax. Jones was found guilty of using his platform, Infowars, to spread misinformation and was later banned from Facebook, YouTube and Apple. Yet one week ago, Jones was a guest on The Joe Rogan Experience and, for hours, spoke with Rogan as if they were old college roommates; it was their third conversation in as many years. They smoked thick cigars and laughed at Jones’s aforementioned legal troubles while Tim Dillon, a comedian also appearing on the episode, wore a shirt stating “Free Ghislaine,” referring to the recently arrested associate of deceased sex offender Jeffery Epstein. Though Rogan would occasionally raise contradictions to Jones’s points, he seemed to prefer the playful banter that defined their conversation.
In North America, no podcaster reigns more supreme than Joe Rogan, especially among my cohort of young males: Men constitute 71 per cent of his audience, and about half are still in high school. As a 19-year-old male myself, and a political science major at the University of Toronto, countless peers have recommended his show to me. It comes up in discussions over current events, whether it be in class or over coffee: “Well on Rogan this week I heard …” But as a Jew and an immigrant, I sit mystified as others obsess over Rogan, wondering whether his show is simply a vehicle for intolerance.
Whenever I mention my objections, Rogan’s fans passionately argue that his show is a place where a range of opinions are offered, and it is up to the viewer to discern which are valid. Often these supporters strike from the basis of libertarianism, citing the need for free speech, especially during these divided times. And in all fairness, Rogan does bring on a wide range of speakers with varied views and expertise. He’s recently spoken to actor Matthew McConaughey, fighter Mike Tyson, marketing professor Gad Saad and comedian Kevin Hart. Rogan endorsed Bernie Sanders, and had him as a guest, during this last election cycle.
But even when Rogan is at his most substantial, my mind goes back to his frequent far-right visitors and his lack of engagement as an interviewer. Rogan doesn’t come from a traditional journalism background where critiques of the untrue are necessary; he built his name as the host of Fear Factor and a colour commentator for the UFC. In those roles, his job was to announce the events, sit back and make occasional remarks. He would only contest or critique the situations to ignite them, never worrying about extinguishing the flame.
As a podcast host, he continues in the same vein: He is an entertainment host, which in some fans' estimation, gives him a pass. But others in similar roles, say Stephen Colbert or Samantha Bee, call out the false and hurtful. Rogan is willing to allow controversial beliefs to go uncontested, because above all his concern is the podcast’s entertainment value, not its journalistic integrity.
Because of this indifference to meaningful dialogue, Rogan’s platform is one where a disbelief in certain people’s legitimacy as human beings is equal to any other ideology. When he repeatedly brings on Canadians Gavin McInnes, founder of far-right group the Proud Boys, or alt-right leader Stefan Molyneux, I think of my friends who are transgender, immigrants and vulnerable minorities, and how their legitimacy was questioned on air. When the far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos says Islam will never be able to engage in the modern world, I think of my Muslim friends. Whenever Rogan’s podcast is offered to me as serious critical thought, I look to its specific mission to amplify, and barely critique, the hateful and controversial. Here in Canada, I’d like to believe that not all views are equal; hatred is hatred and nothing more.
Rogan and his fans aren’t going anywhere. His popularity will continue to grow through his recent Spotify partnership, which will further spread his platform’s reach to shape the minds of my peers and others. In the next week or two, I’ll probably be sent an interesting clip of his or hear of a new perspective he introduced on his show. But no matter the point made, my mind will go back to Jones, McInnes, Molyneux and the other uninterrupted voices of hatred Rogan sat back and joked with. And I’ll pray for the victims of these friendly conversations, and for all those whose human rights are fragile, hoping that amplified hatred never becomes loud enough to drown our legitimacy.
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