To bring you up to speed, Joe Rogan has been under fire – no, more like a blaze of fiery criticism – for spreading so-called “Covid misinformation” and for a video compilation of him using the n-word out of context. Singers Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and India.Arie requested that Spotify remove their music from the platform for hosting Joe Rogan’s podcast “The Joe Rogan Experience.”
Young and Mitchell disapproved of Rogan’s “Covid misinformation,” while India.Arie shared a stitched together clip of instances of Rogan using the n-word over the past 12 years of his podcast. Rogan apologized for using the n-word, explaining that he only ever used it in the context of quoting someone else or discussing the use of the word without censoring it by saying “the n-word” instead. He also apologized for other distasteful comments that were interpreted as racist. As for the “Covid misinformation” question, Rogan vowed to present a more balanced view of Covid-19 by proposing to have on more guests who challenge the claims of the previous guest.
Spotify has since removed 113 episodes of the JRE podcast, and they say that this was done with Rogan’s approval. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, when asked about Spotify’s decision to add a disclaimer on episodes discussing Covid-19, has said that while the disclaimer was a positive step, there was more that can be done.
Questioning Institutions and Scientific Consensus Is a Right Not To Take for Granted
Whether Rogan’s or his guests’ opinions on Covid-19 are completely accurate is not of interest to me. While I understand that misinformation in regards to vaccines and the pandemic can have far-reaching consequences, so does censorship. In a debate, the winner emerges victorious after presenting an argument with supporting evidence and pushing back on their opponent’s claims. At no point during a serious debate could someone simply silence their opponent and still be considered victorious. After all, that wouldn’t be a debate, but an echo chamber. That’s the problem here.
Let’s say that Rogan is wrong about vaccines and Covid-19. The correct solution isn’t to delete his podcasts or remove him from the platform – it’s to make better arguments for your case. It’s worth noting that while I’m someone who is fully vaccinated and boosted, the relevant health concerns of Covid-19 over the past two years are hardly settled science and the public health community has done a good job of spreading plenty of misinformation themselves, often retracting statements that were previously regarded as fact, admitting to lying about masks, and conceding that theories that were initially labeled as whacko conspiracy theories are actually a perfectly possible explanation for the origin of the virus. We learn new things about this virus every day and people continue to become more confused about what to believe.
The answer to offensive speech is more speech, not enforced silence.
Let’s make one thing clear – whether you like Joe Rogan or hate him, whether you agree with him or laugh at him, none of this is of importance when it comes to the right to question mainstream narratives. You might be thinking to yourself, well what if Rogan was promoting the idea that the earth is flat or that the government faked the moon landing? My answer would be exactly the same – the right to question the consensus, even the right to say something “batsh*t insane” is not something we should take for granted. In fact, it’s these opinions that cause such offense, such a push against the status quo, that we ought to fight for the most because they’re most at risk of coming under attack.
As Noam Chomsky once said, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” This goes for speech that can be considered harmful in the sense that it’s offensive, misleading, untrue, or cruel. This means we should defend someone’s right to believe in conspiracy theories like Flat Earth Theory, Qanon, Area 51, and the list goes on. Understand what I mean by this – by no means should you endorse their views or refuse to push back if you disagree. What I am saying is that the answer to offensive speech is more speech, not enforced silence. In the absence of calls to violence, even the most offensive speech ought to be protected, for even bigoted statements are of much more value out in the open than they are concealed.
Scientific Inquiry and Persecution
In 1633, Galileo stood trial for suspected heresy by the Roman Catholic Inquisition for supporting heliocentrism – a scientific model that challenged commonly believed sentiments of how the Earth was positioned in relation to the sun. He was found guilty and sentenced to house arrest until his death. Doctor Ignaz Semmelweis, who proposed the importance of doctors washing their hands to prevent patient mortality in the 19th century, was mocked and ridiculed because no one had developed a theory of germs yet. Likewise, the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death for refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state and for charges of corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens.
The point here is not that Joe Rogan is secretly some brilliant philosopher or scientist who is being persecuted for his groundbreaking ideas. It’s that silencing him sets a precedent that will prevent us from asking important questions, uncovering hidden truths, and will cause net harm in the trust of institutions, which is already hanging on by a thread. In “On Liberty,” John Stuart Mill said, "If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
People are quick to call for action against Rogan, attempting to censor him by getting warning labels placed on his podcast or outright giving Spotify an ultimatum to remove him or lose an artist who’s present on the platform. This is deeply unsettling. For one, Rogan doesn’t claim to be an expert, nor does he tell his followers what to think. In fact, Rogan tells his listeners that they’d be an idiot to take health advice from him. What he does is invite guests from all sorts of fields, ranging from medical experts to athletes, philosophers, politicians, and musicians. All he does is have conversations with these people in real time, asking questions that many people are interested in knowing the answers to. It should be pointed out that he also doesn’t invite guests who only peddle a singular narrative. He’s had guests on both sides of the Covid-19 opinion spectrum.
Anything that discourages independent thinking is harmful to society.
Going back to what Mill said, the reason we must allow an open discussion of ideas is because for every crazy and wrong person who is silenced, we may prevent the discovery of truth. Who is the chosen arbiter of truth who gets to decide what information is correct and what isn’t, what information is permissible and what isn’t? This isn’t to say that objective truth doesn’t exist, just that we are fallible in identifying it. What if in censoring one person, we close ourselves off to potential explanations to things we don’t yet understand?
Historically, this is what happened to scientists, doctors, philosophers, and so on. They presented an idea that at the time was considered insane, ridiculous, and worthy of mockery, only to be vindicated maybe hundreds of years later. Whether this is the case for Joe Rogan or any of his guests isn’t the point, because the societal attitude we have toward different perspectives facilitates this sort of conformity to acceptable thought. Anything that discourages independent thinking is harmful to society. It breeds group-think, authoritarianism, and other characteristics of a society not worth living in.
Yes, Spotify isn’t the government. They’re a private company so they can do what they want. The ethical question, however, is not if they can, but if they should. The framers of the Constitution never foresaw the level of influence and power that Big Tech would have over our society when writing the First Amendment. Big Tech has the ability to completely erase people from the digital landscape, which can sway public opinion and even play a crucial role in the results of an election. We should want to mitigate this as much as possible.
No one has put this issue more eloquently than the late, great author Christopher Hitchens. In his speech on the importance of freedom of speech, he said, “My own opinion is a very simple one. The right of others to free expression is part of my own. If someone’s voice is silenced, then I am deprived of the right to hear. Moreover, I have never met nor heard of anybody I would trust with the job of deciding in advance what it might be permissible for me or anyone else to say or read. That freedom of expression consists of being able to tell people what they may not wish to hear, and that it must extend, above all, to those who think differently is, to me, self-evident.”
Those who are calling for podcasts that are merely discussions about a wide variety of topics to be erased from the internet for uttering opinions that have not gone through a process of government approval are kidding themselves if they think this will stop at Covid-19.
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