Posted on February 14, 2022

Joe Rogan’s Use of the N-Word Is Another January 6 Moment

John Blake, CNN, February 13, 2022

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


Something else happens that’s even more deadly. When people in positions of power use dehumanizing language to describe other groups, atrocities often follow.


​ 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.”


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.


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.


This is another January 6 moment.