Joe Rogan has it made. For the mystifying sum of $100 million, he gets to say whatever the hell he wants, within reason, to millions of listeners, on one of the world’s most prominent audio platforms. Sometimes he says something along the lines of healthy young people shouldn’t get vaxxed, and then people get mad at him and he has to walk it back. Apparently, though, Rogan’s life is so frictionless that he considers having to watch what he says at all a form of oppression.
Although not all of us get paid exorbitant sums to do it, like Rogan, all Americans are similarly able to say whatever the hell we want, within reason. It’s just keeping up with the ever-evolving catalog of what’s considered “within reason” that’s tricky. Last week, Rogan fumed on his podcast about the tyranny of not being completely unfettered by moral or social considerations, in a way that amounted to speculative science-fiction. “[I]f you give in to all these demands, it will get to the point straight white men are not allowed to talk,” Rogan said, in a clip that circulated heavily on Monday night. “It’s your privilege to express yourself when other people of color have been silenced throughout history. It will be you’re not allowed to go outside when so many people have been imprisoned for so many years. I’m not joking, it really will get there.”
Ordinarily, a 1%-tier wealthy white man whining to a massive audience about what he can’t say would just be standard-issue grievance porn. On this particular week, though, it’s the last topic Joe Rogan should personally be getting anywhere near, let alone raising the stakes on. The reason? It’s the same week that one of Rogan’s friends came down with a serious case of Being Racist on Camera and got into career trouble in a way that couldn’t reasonably be considered “cancel culture” by anyone.
Last week in Austin, I got to bring up Tony Hinchcliffe. This is what he said. Happy Asian (AAPI) Heritage Month! pic.twitter.com/9XG6upit2a
— Peng Dang (@pengdangcomedy) May 11, 2021
The above clip features once-rising comedian Tony Hinchcliffe, a friend and occasional colleague of Rogan’s, simply being racist about an Asian-American comedian. The only missing context that could possibly explain why Hinchcliffe used a slur to describe the fellow comic who warmly brings him onstage would be that a) the two comics are well-known best friends and b) the slur is an affectionate part of the duo’s legendary, long-running performance art piece. That was unfortunately not the case. As such, the fully joke-free racist rant cost Hinchcliffe his agents at WME and a couple upcoming dates performing with . . . Joe Rogan.
Speaking of missing context, I should say that I have no idea what prompted Joe Rogan’s Twitter-viral lament about our dystopian woke future. The clip that is circulating is 53 seconds long, and I am not going to sift through an entire multi-hour podcast on a Tuesday morning to find out what preceded this 53 seconds. I’m going to give Rogan the benefit of the doubt that he wasn’t directly complaining on behalf of Tony Hinchcliffe; arguing for his friend’s right to call Peng Dang a slur and do an 80’s-style white guy imitation of an Asian accent. Rogan should know, however, that it certainly seems as though that’s what he was mad about, given the timing.
This argument is beyond tired, even apart from the fact that it has become the right-wing rallying cry of 2021. (Well, aside from “Certain people should have a tougher time voting!” and “Trans kids shouldn’t get to play sports!”) It’s not just straight white people who have to watch what they say; It’s everyone! And watching what you say is not a new phenomenon; It’s been part of the social code since forever! Most people learn the hard way as children that while it’s technically legal to call your mom an a-hole, it’s not a great idea. Sure, it’s for different reasons than why it’s not a great idea to walk up to a non-binary person and scream about how many genders you think exist on a biological level, but the principal is the same: Just treat people with respect.
It can be hard, frustrating work keeping up with what people need in order to feel respected these days. But the reason it feels that way is because a) more people than ever have the means to let you know what no longer falls within reason, and b) the method with which they do it is sometimes far too aggressive. Anyone who thinks that the latter invalidates the former, though, is being short-sighted, narcissistic, and childish. Especially if they’re a famous comedian, rather than a college professor.
When a group of people points out that a comedian said something egregiously offensive, the comedian must then decide whether the group has a point that might be useful going forward, or whether their point is overblown and they’ll just have to learn to live with it. In a surprising amount of cases, that second option is fine! People will get mad, and they’ll move on.
If people get mad and do not move on, there’s a chance that the comedian has misjudged the situation, in which case the first option is still on the table, and it might be time for one half-assed Notes app apology. This is not what tyranny looks like.
Comedians have never existed in a rhetorical green zone where they could say anything they want, completely risk-free. Lenny Bruce, for instance, was considered exciting and dangerous precisely because he risked getting in trouble for saying anything he wanted, and he did get in trouble for it. The fact that modern comedians have to be more careful of offending audiences than of offending the government doesn’t make it a braver cause to get mad about. Quite the opposite! There’s no Lenny Bruce equivalent in the so-called anti-woke establishment. There’s just Tucker Carlson.
During a week where his buddy got widely panned for doing a soft white-supremacist comedy routine, Rogan getting mad about the plight of the straight white man is sadly clarifying. People like Rogan seem to think that having to choose one’s words widely or apologizing for saying anything is a violation of some sacred comedian’s covenant. You don’t need to be a social justice warrior to know that’s just plain wrong.