The podcaster Joe Rogan did not join a mob that forced lawmakers to flee for their lives. He never carried a Confederate flag inside the US Capitol rotunda. No one died trying to stop him from using the n-word.
But what Rogan and those that defend him have done since video clips of him using the n-word surfaced on social media is arguably just as dangerous as what a mob did when they stormed the US Capitol on January 6 last year.
Rogan breached a civic norm that has held America together since World War II. It’s an unspoken agreement that we would never return to the kind of country we used to be.
That agreement revolved around this simple rule:
A White person would never be able to publicly use the n-word again and not pay a price.
Rogan has so far paid no steep professional price for using a racial slur that’s been called the “nuclear bomb of racial epithets.” It may even boost his career. That’s what some say happened to another White entertainer who was recently caught using the word.
It is a sign of how desensitized we have become to the rising levels of violence – rhetorical and physical – in our country that Rogan’s slurs were largely treated as the latest racial outrage of the week.
But once we allow a White public figure to repeatedly use the foulest racial epithet in the English language without experiencing any form of punishment, we become a different country.
We accept the mainstreaming of a form of political violence that’s as dangerous as the January 6 attack.
Why Rogan’s use of the n-word may not hurt his career
Some might say that comparing a podcaster’s moronic musings about race to January 6 is hyperbole. They will invoke “cancel culture” and political correctness.
The man apologized, they will say. And he did.
He called his comments “the most regretful and shameful thing,” adding “I know that to most people, there’s no context where a White person is ever allowed to say that word, never mind publicly on a podcast, and I agree with that,” Rogan said after a video showed him using the n-word more than 20 times in different podcast episodes.
Rogan has also apologized for a video of him comparing a gathering of Black people to “Planet of the Apes.” He has said he is “not racist.”
In the past, White public figures who used the n-word provoked universal and unqualified condemnation. But Rogan has gotten some support.
His comments drew criticism from Daniel Ek, chief executive of Spotify, which reportedly pays Rogan at least $100 million to carry his mega-popular podcast. Ek said Rogan’s racial slurs “do not represent the values of this company.”
But Ek also said Spotify will continue to stand by Rogan, who had the most popular podcast on the streaming platform last year.
“We should have clear lines around content and take action when they are crossed, but canceling voices is a slippery slope,” Ek said in a memo to his staff.
Another media mogul offered Rogan a lucrative new gig. The chief executive of another social media company offered Rogan $100 million to bring his podcast to its platform, citing Rogan’s “legion of fans in desire for real conversation.”
And former President Donald Trump told Rogan he should “stop apologizing” for his controversies – including the racial slurs and spreading Covid-19 misinformation – because he shouldn’t allow critics to make him “look weak and frightened.”
Rogan’s use of the n-word could even boost his career if it follows the trajectory of another White entertainer, country music star Morgan Wallen.
Wallen’s career seemed finished a year ago after he was caught on video using the n-word in a conversation with a friend. Radio stations and streaming services dropped him from their playlists. The Academy of Country Music declared him ineligible for the 2021 ACM Awards. Wallen apologized but was widely condemned.
A year later, “Wallen’s career has not only rebounded but exploded,” according to Billboard magazine. His songs are back on the radio and he had the most popular album of 2021 in the US, according to Billboard. Wallen is embarking on a nationwide tour, with many dates already sold out, and is slated to headline music festivals this summer.
Rolling Stone published an article earlier this month with the headline: “Did Dropping the N-Word Actually Help Morgan Wallen’s Career?” The article quoted a Nashville industry insider who said Wallen’s popularity surged after his use of the n-word because the backlash “made him a martyr… to people that hold what I would say are prejudices.”
A recent USA Today story said Wallen has become an “anti-cancel culture hero” and quoted an executive who said that the more the mainstream criticizes Wallen “the more power those who support his bigotry begin to feel.”
Meanwhile, Rogan is now reframing the backlash over his use of the n-word as a cancel culture battle.
“This is a “political hit job,” he recently said, suggesting that the controversy may actually help him.
“It’s good because it makes me address some (expletive) that I really wish wasn’t out there,” he told a guest on his show Tuesday. ”You just have to stay offline … Life goes on as normal.”
The line that no White person once dared cross
For decades, life would never go on as normal for a White person caught using the n-word. This represents a momentous shift in American culture. There used to be a consensus that any White person caught using the n-word or other racial slurs would pay a hefty price.
Not that long ago, many did.
In 2018, the actress Roseanne Barr had her popular sitcom canceled after she made a series of racist tweets.
That same year, a top executive resigned from Netflix after using the N-word in front of Black employees.
Celebrity chef Paula Deen lost her business empire and saw her cooking shows canceled by the Food Network in 2013 after she admitted using the n-word during a deposition in a lawsuit.
And the career of “Seinfeld’s” Michael Richards cratered after he was caught calling hecklers the n-word in 2006.
The price that White people paid for crossing this line wasn’t legal. No one called for them to be jailed or fined. But many were shamed and exiled from their professional communities.
The prohibition against White people using racist language in public was so severe that a person could see their career destroyed even if they used a racial slur that most people didn’t comprehend.
George Allen was a popular US senator who seemed to be cruising to re-election in Virginia in 2006 when he was filmed using the word “macaca,” a type of monkey,” to describe an Indian-American volunteer with the campaign of his opponent.
He lost his re-election bid after both Republicans and Democrats criticized him. His political career never recovered.
Using the n-word became a rhetorical red line because it represents arguably the most shameful part of US history: slavery and the Jim Crow era.
Neal Lester, an Arizona State University English professor who has taught a course on the n-word, noted it has been described as “the most toxic in the English language,” a term “almost magical in its negative power,” and a slur that “occupies a place in the soul where logic and reason never go.”
“The word is inextricably linked with violence and brutality on Black psyches and derogatory aspersions cast on Black bodies,” he said in an interview. “No degree of appropriating can rid it of that blood-soaked history.”
The decline of ‘public racism’
It took a lot of work to ban the n-word from the public square. That shift wasn’t about political correctness. It was about our survival as a multiracial democracy and our standing in the world.
The n-word became forbidden in the US public sphere around the mid-20th century when a consensus emerged that “public racism” was sabotaging democracy, some academics say. But in the decades before that, White entertainers and politicians talked like Rogan all the time.
World War II helped change that. The war against Nazism and revelations about the Holocaust raised awareness of racism, while America’s new role as a leader of the “free world” caused White elites to see racism as the nation’s Achilles heel, wrote Robert L. Fleegler, a history professor at the University of Mississippi, in a paper titled, “Theodore G. Bilbo and the Decline of Public Racism, 1938-1947.”
Bilbo, a US Senator from Mississippi, felt free enough to tell White supporters during an election campaign in 1946 that “I call on every red-blooded White man to use any means to keep the n***ers away from the polls.”
Bilbo won the Democratic primary and faced no opposition in the general election, but his Senate colleagues barred him from taking his seat in the chamber because of his open racism.
In the years that followed, Southern White politicians still used racially coded words like “state’s rights,” but most avoided using the n-word in public, Fleegler wrote.
The civil rights movement also created a stigma around Whites using the n-word and other racial slurs. The assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the eruption of race riots after King’s death showed White Americans what could happen when a group of citizens were treated with systemic disregard for their humanity.
Using the n-word came to be seen as a vulgar relic of a shameful past, said Jacob Levy, a scholar and author of an essay titled “The Weight of the Words.”
“The norm against publicly legitimizing Klan-type racism was built up over a long time,” Levy wrote, “calling on white Americans to do better than they were, partly by convincing them that they were better.”
How we become desensitized to hate speech
Why the change now?
The theories vary. Some cite the rise of social media, the growth of White supremacist groups and a right-wing media ecosystem that has mainstreamed racist rhetoric.
Former President Trump played a part, too. He rode a trail of racist, sexist, and antisemitic statements all the way to the White House.
All these factors converged to create a chain effect that led to what one scholar calls “defining deviance down.” That’s what happens when a country starts accepting offensive language it rejected before, wrote Steven Levitsky, co-author of the book, “How Democracies Die.”
“When unwritten rules are violated over and over, we become overwhelmed – and then desensitized,” Levitsky wrote. “We grow accustomed to what we previously thought to be scandalous.”
Something else happens that’s even more deadly. When people in positions of power use dehumanizing language to describe other groups, atrocities often follow.
This is not ancient history: Consider what happened less than 30 years ago in Rwanda when some 800,000 civilians were slaughtered in a three-month period in 1994. Hutu extremists targeted both the Tutsi minority, who were a majority of those killed, as well as moderate Hutus.
What triggered the violence in part were the messages that came from people in positions of power in Rwanda. Many, like Rogan, had a public megaphone and an audience.
In a New Yorker essay on “How Norms Change,” the author Maria Konnikova described how Hutu leaders took to the radio calling Tutsis “cockroaches,” sanctioning the violence that followed. She said that “norms can shift at the speed of social life” when the wrong leaders command the public’s attention.
“To a great extent, the norms in Rwanda shifted so rapidly because they did so from the top: Influential radio stations broadcast a powerful, persuasive and constantly repeating message urging listeners to join killing squads and organize roadblocks,” Konnikova wrote.
Genocide is a worst-case scenario. But we don’t have to look as far as Rwanda to see how quickly civic norms can change when people in power start lowering standards. Earlier this month the Republican National Committee drafted a resolution calling the deadly January 6 insurrection “legitimate political discourse.”
CNN’s Stephen Collinson responded in a column, “The Republican Party is ever closer to the destination to which it has long been headed under former President Donald Trump – the legitimization of violence as a form of political expression.”
Why shrugging off the n-word is so dangerous
Rogan’s use of the n-word may also be drawing us closer to something else: destroying any plausible shot at building a genuine multiracial democracy.
The January 6 insurrection was so dangerous because it violated a political norm. The citizens in a healthy democracy are supposed to accept the peaceful transfer of power, not to use violence as a tool of political protest. That’s what most Americans agreed to leave behind after we fought a bloody Civil War over a political and moral issue: slavery.
The universal condemnation that used to greet White people who publicly used the n-word was also part of a civic norm that made a multiracial democracy possible. That word was a vestige of a hateful Jim Crow era that most Americans agreed to leave in the past. It was considered un-American.
This is the America that former President Ronald Reagan evoked in his famous “shining city on a hill” 1989 farewell address. He described us as a nation “teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace,” with doors “open to anyone with the will and heart to get here.”
What are we now?
What are we when a White entertainer with a huge public following can use the n-word repeatedly – and get a $100 million offer to bring “real conversation” to another platform?
What are we when Rogan’s employer can say that his company has “clear lines around content and take action when they are crossed,” but that line doesn’t include using a word that was used during the enslavement, rape and torture of millions of people.
Rogan once called himself a “f—ing moron… a cage-fighting commentator” and not a “respected source of information, even for me.” He is something more now. He is unleashing lethal forces that he may not understand.
He is also a blinking red light, warning that the civic and political rules that once held the nation together no longer apply.
We are poised to enter an era where a White person can use the n-word publicly and not only survive but thrive if they portray themselves as a victim of cancel culture. It’s a world where hate speech and violence are rebranded as “legitimate political discourse,” and “public racism” returns to ordinary life.
Don’t let the Rogan n-word controversy devolve into another tired discussion about cancel culture. This moment is bigger. If Rogan goes on with business as usual, all of us – not just Black people – will pay a price. Our country won’t be the same.
This is another January 6 moment.