I first came across Joe Rogan’s podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, the way I imagine many others have: Elon Musk puffing a packed joint and in response putting on a facial expression that can probably only be called dank. The memes were an instant classic to much of the internet/tech/science community, but to many, the idea of Joe Rogan — isn’t he some UFC guy? — getting Elon to drink whiskey and light up on a podcast gave him some serious appeal.
Joe’s special power, as I’ve experienced it, is his ability to be the everyman. Joe Rogan is you and me. He is Average Joe, who feels ignored by mainstream political conversations and left out of economic progress, but in the next segment he can slip into Aggressive Joe, who shuts down “alternative facts” and bullies, and later he’s Advancement Joe, advocating for public awareness around AI and psychological fallacies.
He tells Andrew Yang, who is waxing poetic about the impending economic catastrophe caused by automation and AI eliminating many middle-of-the-road jobs, about robots doing surgery on a grape. Returning to Elon post-joint, he eagerly presses the idea of magnetic car bumpers as a “force field for braking.”
Joe can be smart, and insightful — but not too much so. He cites research studies and academic papers on occasion, but has never come across as nerdy or geeky. His personal philosophies are firmly grounded in comedy, fitness, fighting and hunting. He’ll often push back on guests, but not too much. I imagine his guests leave the studio feeling well-heard and well-received. Rarely does a guest impress him so viscerally that he is mostly quiet (David Goggins), or intimidate him to the point of goofy rambling (Sean Carroll).
Joe seems to represent a type of sanity that many people — especially young and middle-aged men — are looking for in the United States. He pushes back on a culture of “silencing the other side” and political correctness taken to the extent of deplatforming and ostracizing conservative commentators — a pushback that I and many others believe has intrinsic merit regardless of political affiliation. At the same time, he is an advocate for LGBTQ issues (namely, the right to be “left the hell alone” to decide how one wants to parcel out one’s affections), respectful and vocal about cultural intermingling, and a loudmouthed proponent of a wide variety of currently-illegal drugs and substances. I imagine many conservative and liberal listeners alike have at times said, “See?! This guy gets it!”
And that’s what, sometimes, during a particularly long episode of the podcast, concerns me about the Joe Rogan Effect. I agree wholeheartedly with his mission — an attempt to hear several facets of a narrative, entertain disagreeing viewpoints, and decide positions from a place of reason all without losing one’s cool or resorting to petty insults. But I worry that Joe’s mission is being hijacked to serve as a case-maker for people with agendas to promote and arguments to win.
Conservative zealots could easily cherry-pick stories about the overreacting “PC mob” (episodes with Nicholas Christakis and Nimesh Patel come to mind) to justify some of the current administration’s more absurd policies, or, making a stretch, they could use Joe’s love of hunting to rationalize away obvious harms from gun violence.
Any liberal has plenty of material to work with to attempt to show how the Fox News brigade is trying to undermine the progress of climate science and unravel civil rights protections (Alex Jones episodes). And a lot of the things Joe seems to grumble about — student activists, callouts of “white male privilege”, a decline of tried and true masculinity — feel like a stone’s throw from excusing the behavior many of Trump’s more bigoted admirers.
Obviously, my apprehension has little to do with Joe himself — as the everyman, he is a mostly-benign snapshot of what America is today. I believe his goals are, on the whole, healthy for our polarized political climate. And he’s managed to collect a massive following through his odd mix of science quotes, salt-of-the-earth common sense, comedy, and healthy amounts of DMT. I just hope that listeners get the message right: to use the facts at hand and common sense to build our beliefs, not to justify them.