Hidden Springs Lane, VA. The Joe Rogan Experience has revolutionized long-form podcasting. Every week Rogan puts out several three-hour video conversations with an eclectic array of guests. Rogan has developed a reputation for asking thoughtful questions and giving his guests plenty of time to talk. His contract with Spotify, reported to be worth $100 million, solidified his position as the world’s premier podcaster.
In December Rogan hosted Dr. Robert Malone to discuss COVID, mRNA vaccines, and government mandates. Rogan was accused of spreading false information about COVID. Aging rocker Neil Young issued an ultimatum to Spotify: Rogan or Young, but you can’t have both. Spotify promptly removed Young’s music from its platform. Other artists, in sympathy with Young, asked that their music be removed from Spotify.
Then an artist named India.Arie posted a compilation depicting numerous instances of Rogan using the N-word. She, too, asked that her music be removed from Spotify. Other artists have joined the movement to punish Rogan.
Rogan, by all accounts, did not call anyone the N-word. Nevertheless he uttered the forbidden word, and that fact alone is sufficient in our day to incur guilt and warrant punishment.
Let me state up front: the N-word is vile and ought not be used. But what I’m interested in is something more specific: how does a particular word achieve a special social status whereby it carries the power to destroy? Apparently the childish chant, “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me” no longer applies.
Not long ago the so-called F-word was generally forbidden. It was considered indecent and crass, and only indecent and crass people used it in public. In many respects, the N-word has replaced the F-word. Rogan’s experience clearly indicates this. His interviews are sprinkled with liberal uses of the F-word, which have not elicited any comments other than the occasional NSFW warning offered by sensitive listeners.
Yet the N-word is different, and this difference matters. The word is offensive only if certain people utter it, and it is apparently unoffensive if others do the same. This indicates something important. The N-word does not, in itself, possess incantational powers. The word itself is not the issue. If it was, blacks would not employ it with the regularity that many do. What matters is who uses the word, and that transports us from the territory of forbidden words to power differentials.
What is going on here? How can the mere utterance of a word bring down furious condemnation and calls for the total destruction of a person’s public life and profession? Heretics once suffered such a fate, but heretics were at least dignified by holding a belief that differed from the reigning orthodoxy. Today, the wrong person can merely speak the word and be destroyed even though his or her beliefs conform with the regnant social theology.
Friedrich Nietzsche understood the dynamics underlying this new theology. He described Christianity as mounting what he called “the slave revolt in morality.” Nietzsche is attempting to understand how Christian morality—characterized by the virtue of humility, a willingness to turn the other cheek, and a command to love one’s enemies—could come to triumph over the martial power structure of Rome. Somehow those who were obviously the weak, socially inferior victims defeated the strong and came, in the process, to dominate.
Nietzsche’s assessment of Christianity leaves much to be desired, but his understanding of social psychology is remarkable and depends, ironically, on the fact of Christianity’s success. In short, Christianity provided the assurance that justice will be done, and those who have victimized others will be punished by a just God at the final judgment. Thus, the victims ultimately have the power—although deferred—for they are aligned with God.
This preference for the victim is a dominant idea in our age, but it has become socially malignant as the connection with a just God has faded along with the notion of a final judgment. Victim status has become the cherished and unimpeachable badge of innocence equivalent to the white robes of the martyr.
The N-word, of course, has power because of its association with slavery and Jim Crow. The term exemplified the power differential between blacks and whites and served as a constant reminder of supposed black inferiority. However, in our post-Christian world, where concern for the victim remains one of the most persistent specters of a dying age, asserting victim status has become not a hopeful claim of divine favor and vindication but the surest way to gain immediate power over an adversary.
This means that the rhetoric of victimhood is, in our day, a thinly disguised means to domination. It provides an unassailable base of moral legitimacy that is parasitic on a largely discarded Christian past, and it insulates the supposed victim from the normal requirements of rational justification. There is, in fact, no room for rationality, for victimhood has been both categorized and subjectivized. It has been categorized by granting some classes the status of perpetual victim, and it has been subjectivized by making the feeling of victimhood sufficient to justify the claim. The totemic power of certain words is a telling symptom of the state of our cultural discourse: rather than carefully weighing particular harms and particular injustices, we more often condemn by broad category.
The N-word has been drafted into service in a struggle for power that pits supposed oppressors against supposed victims, where fixed classes, rather than individual actions, determine both guilt and innocence. The results, as we are witnessing, are not pretty. Nor do they serve justice. No society can remain intact when lines are drawn between groups designated as perpetual oppressors and perpetual victims locked in an all-out war for power.
In an apology video posted to Instagram, Rogan, speaking of the N-word, admitted: “It’s a very unusual word but it’s not my word to use.” Here Rogan both spoke the truth and a falsehood. It is, indeed, an unusual word. However, words don’t belong to individuals or to groups. The N-word is an unusual word precisely because it has been enlisted as a weapon in a power struggle. Ultimately, words belong to all language speakers, and some words, due to their history, should be retired.
Decent individuals refrain from employing words that are, by consensus, deemed indecent. Yet avoiding certain words is not sufficient for the practice of just, reasoned debate. A decent society must be characterized by individuals who reject designations of class guilt and innocence, who are capable of seeing the image of God in the face of the other, and who are willing to forgive. The alternative is the will-to-power that, in practical terms, becomes the rage-to-destroy.