Jonathan Zimmerman: I was a guest on Joe Rogan’s podcast. Here’s what happened
Last spring, I was invited to appear on Joe Rogan’s show. My first reaction was surprise: Why me? I’m not a comedian (like Rogan), or a martial-arts fighter (ditto), or a celebrity who likes to push the envelope (Elon Musk, Jordan Peterson). I am just a nerdy college professor who writes books that very few people choose to read. (My mom says they’re very good.)
But my latest book is about free speech. That’s a special concern of Joe Rogan, of course, who is known for saying outrageous things. Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Nils Lofgren recently pulled their music from Spotify to protest COVID-related misinformation on Rogan’s show. And last Saturday, as pressure on Spotify continued to mount, Rogan apologized for his use of the N-word in prior broadcasts and vowed never to say it again on the air. Many people are calling on Spotify to cancel Rogan’s show from the platform.
Rogan was already in hot water last spring, around the time when I got invited to the show, because he claimed that healthy young people didn’t need to get vaccinated against COVID-19. That seemed like a remarkably stupid thing to say, as Rogan himself has since acknowledged. And it also made me wonder if it was safe to go on his show.
“Just don’t stand too close to him,” said my wife, an infectious-disease physician. She knows what she’s talking about, unlike some of the quack doctors who have appeared recently on Rogan’s show to tout conspiracy theories about COVID-19.
Welcome to Austin
Rogan tapes his show in a low-slung, nondescript building on the outskirts of Austin, Texas. The show doesn’t pay guests, but it did fly me down there. When I arrived, I was told that Rogan was caught in the city’s notorious traffic. “The Californians are clogging the roads,” one of his assistants groused. I pointed out that Rogan himself had recently moved to Austin from California. We both laughed.
Next I had to get a COVID-19 test from a nurse Rogan employs. I had promised myself I wouldn’t talk about COVID-19 while I was there, but there’s no way to avoid the topic when someone is swabbing your nose for it. I had recently received my second dose of vaccine, with no side effects, so I asked the nurse how she felt after getting the shot.
“Oh, I’m not vaccinated,” she replied, cheerily.
I knew that Rogan wasn’t, which is why my wife wanted me to keep my distance from him. But his nurse wasn’t vaccinated, either? Why not?
“I’m afraid it will interfere with my fertility,” she told me.
My wife had schooled me on that, too, and I assured the nurse that there was nothing to fear on the baby-making front. “Maybe not,” she said, “but I still worry it will throw off my menstrual cycle.” (I didn’t push back, but evidence shows this is largely also an unfounded concern.)
Rogan bounded in a few minutes later, all smiles and energy in a T-shirt and shorts. He told me his workout had gone a little longer than usual, and I believed him. The guy is ripped.
He’s also really nice, which is something you might not pick up from the tweets and headlines. Every controversial remark — about COVID-19, or race, or gender — probably makes you think, Wow, what a callous jerk.
I can assure you he isn’t. He thanked me for flying down, asked about my family, and joked about the Austin traffic. We chatted for a few minutes while he waited for his own COVID-19 test results — negative, thank God — and then he ushered me into his studio, which looks pretty much as you’d expect: dark tones, comfy chairs, and a big neon sign with his name on it.
Three hours in a flash
I sat across from Rogan, put on a pair of headphones, and we kept talking. And talking. And talking. For three hours. The guy can gab.
We talked about education, marriage, and work. We talked about his father, who abandoned the family when he was a kid. (They haven’t spoken since.) We talked about my experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal in the early 1980s. And we somehow got into a conversation about human sacrifice in ancient Mexico, which I learned is a weirdly special passion for Rogan.
But nothing — or almost nothing — about free speech. I had brought a copy of my book, which I placed not-too-discreetly in front of me as we chatted.
Near the very end of the interview, he finally asked me about it. Rogan knew nothing — literally, nothing — about my book. I know that many talk-show hosts don’t actually read the guest’s book; instead, they’re briefed by a staffer about it. Not Rogan. He was flying by the seat of his well-pressed Bermudas.
And, to my surprise, that turned out to be fine. Rogan is a genuinely curious person, which is something else you don’t pick up from social-media shock reports. He knows what to ask. And he knew what he didn’t know, which was the most refreshing thing of all. I realize that he has been far too credulous with some of his guests, buying their misinformation wholesale instead of critically assessing it. But I really enjoyed our conversation. It was an all-too-rare pleasure to converse with someone who actually wanted to listen instead of just talk.
I work at a university, so I’m surrounded by colleagues who often think they know everything. Rogan makes no such pretense. When we were discussing Nepal and I mentioned “untouchable” castes, it was clear he hadn’t heard the term. So he simply asked me what it meant, which is the only way we learn anything.
A friend who heard the discussion told me she was appalled that someone with so little education has so much influence. I get that. There are obvious gaps in his knowledge. And surely that has made him susceptible to snake-oil cures (ivermectin, anyone?) and other nonsense, about COVID-19 and much else.
That has real — and deadly — consequences in the world, of course. How many people have lost their lives to COVID-19 because they believed the lies on Joe Rogan’s show? We’ll never know.
Here’s what we do know: Shutting down Rogan or calling him names won’t solve the problem. I won’t apologize for Rogan’s spreading of COVID-19 misinformation (and my wife would never speak to me if I did). It’s obviously harmful, and I wish he’d stop.
But Rogan has proven himself open to discussion — with pretty much anybody — and he has sometimes changed his mind, when he sees that the facts are aligned against him. He once said that healthy young people didn’t need to get vaccinated. Then he realized he was wrong, and he said so. How many people do that, in this day and age? When was the last time that you did it?
To move forward, we need more conversation, not less. That’s the only way to bring Joe Rogan around to the truth, in the places where he has erred. And it’s the only way to heal the gaping wounds in the heart — and soul — of America itself. Nobody is persuaded when you shout them down. The only solution is to talk, and to listen.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the coauthor (with cartoonist Signe Wilkinson) of “Free Speech and Why You Should Give a Damn,” which was published last year by City of Light Press.
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