People have been accusing Joe Rogan, a comedian and host of the most popular podcast in the world, of spreading misinformation while interviewing guests who disagree with public health authorities about COVID-19 and vaccines. Two weeks ago , musician Neil Young said he would pull his music from Spotify if the platform kept hosting The Joe Rogan Experience, and several other artists from your parents' CD cabinet (including Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, and Nils Lofgren) joined Young's boycott. Schadenfreude ensued when Spotify essentially told the musicians, "O.K., bye then," choosing to keep Rogan over them.
Here are some takeaways from the situation:
1) It's Possible to Build 'Counter-Woke' Capital
In a capitalist society, the economic value you provide to other people determines your influence. TL;DR: Money talks.
The situation would have resolved differently if not for the fact that Rogan's show attracts 11 million viewers and that he has a $100 million contract with Spotify.
In general, companies are machines. They take whatever actions will create the most profit, and their decisions to accept cancel-culture demands are a product of calculations that dropping an offensive individual or show will cost them less money than the P.R. damage from the outrage mob.
For this reason, Dave Chappelle (whose latest special ranked No. 7 on Nielsen's most-viewed streaming list) was also able to escape cancel-culture pressure from Netflix employees.
This is why the antidote to cancel culture is for there to be more individuals who are too valuable for companies to throw under the bus when the mob comes for them, or who are powerful enough to not require institutional backing.
This situation is not new. More than 150 years ago, John Stuart Mill wrote in the third chapter of On Liberty that, because of improvements in technology, education, and commerce, and most importantly because mass opinion was becoming more influential, society was becoming more conformist and intolerant of differing opinions:
“As the various social eminences which enabled persons entrenched on them to disregard the opinion of the multitude, gradually become levelled; as the very idea of resisting the will of the public, when it is positively known that they have a will, disappears more and more from the minds of practical politicians; there ceases to be any social support for nonconformity—any substantive power in society, which, itself opposed to the ascendancy of numbers, is interested in taking under its protection opinions and tendencies at variance with those of the public.”
Mill's solution is "that exceptional individuals [...] should be encouraged in acting differently from the mass." We need individuals who are independent enough to speak their minds and serve as a counterweight to "woke capital."
Rogan serves as an important example for those who think it is impossible to stop censorship through social change and economic incentives, and that the government must step in to fix the situation. He is evidence that companies respond to incentives, and if those incentives change, the free market will follow them.
2) Don't Fight Dogma With Dogma
Rogan and Chappelle also show that the way to build this value is not by being the inverse version of woke entertainment, but by focusing on providing value over preaching ideology.
Neither Rogan (both a Bernie Sanders supporter and an opponent of the COVID vaccine) or Chappelle (who roasts cops as often as trans people) is a dogmatic partisan, and their value comes from their authenticity.
3) Rogan's Critics Conflate Accepted Ideas With Truth
It's often said that censoring someone's ability to speak also deprives other people of their ability to listen. But that maxim is particularly relevant in this situation with Spotify.
It would be one thing for people to object if Rogan used his show as an exclusive soapbox for a false narrative about COVID and the vaccines. But as the podcaster mentioned in his response to the controversy, he's had guests from both sides of the issue, including doctors from CNN and Joe Biden's COVID task force. But for those who want Rogan canceled, this is not enough. Listeners must only hear the officially okayed facts.
Spotify compromised by putting a misinformation label on Rogan's podcasts, but critics have complained that this won't stop people from believing false ideas. Professor Adam Sinnreich from American University told The Hill that there's a "real direct causal line" between JRE and COVID deaths (though he did not explain or provide evidence for this link).
It's ultimately up to Rogan's listeners to decide whether to believe the ideas on his show. To blame the host deprives the audience of all agency, as if they are incapable of thinking critically and coming to their own conclusions.
The problem with censoring or labeling misinformation is that in practice, it conflates officially accepted ideas with the truth.
To quote Rogan, "Many of the things we thought of as ‘misinformation’ just a short while ago are now accepted as fact."
To think that the authorities responsible for checking "misinformation" about a rapidly-evolving pandemic could reliably do so is ridiculous, and they have proven themselves incapable of making the right decisions.
The proper path to the truth is based on debate and being able to compare ideas to each other. With that approach, good ideas will eventually prevail and bad ones will eventually be rejected.
This is a version of an article published in the Out of Frame Weekly, an email newsletter about the intersection of art, culture, and ideas. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Friday.