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.
A White person would never be able to publicly use the n-word again and not pay a price.
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.
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.
But Ek also said Spotify will continue to stand by Rogan, who had the most popular podcast on the streaming platform last year.
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.
Meanwhile, Rogan is now reframing the backlash over his use of the n-word as a cancel culture battle.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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 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.
“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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
Joe Rogan’s use of the n-word is another January 6 moment