ALEXIS MADRIGAL And he tweets, “Holy mother of God, it is thermonuclear pandemic-level bad. I'm not exaggerating.”
BOB GARFIELD If you want your tweet about coronavirus to go viral, try hysteria. But you better be right. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. Bernie's touting of his endorsement for podcaster Joe Rogan prompted an eruption of hand-wringing on the left. And the question, who is this guy?
DEVIN GORDON He's Goop for men. Joe has sort of reprocessed that language through like this sort of bro filter. It's all the same thing. It's just gendered differently.
BOB GARFIELD Also, how cancel culture reduces or essentializes people and why it's so dangerous.
NATALIE WYNN Someone says something insensitive, then you summarize that as saying, oh, “they’re a racist”, “they’re a misogynist”, “they're a homophobe”. It takes that one moment and then uses that to define who this person is.
BOB GARFIELD It's all coming up after this.
From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The impeachment proceedings this week continued to shift toward cross examining the other defendants in the case. You had Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul trying to, what, trick Chief Justice Roberts into divulging the name of the whistleblower who'd set the impeachment proceedings in motion by putting it in the form of a question? Really?
CHIEF JUSTICE JOHN G. ROBERTS JR. The presiding officer declines to read the question as submitted.
Senator from Massachusetts.
ELIZABETH WARREN Mr. Chief Justice, I sent a question to the desk. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE You had Elizabeth Warren's question suggesting that the proceedings had tainted the court too.
At a time when large majorities of Americans have lost faith in government, does the fact that the chief justice is presiding over an impeachment trial in which Republican senators have thus far refused to allow witnesses or evidence contribute to the loss of legitimacy of the chief justice, the Supreme Court and the Constitution. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And you had. Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander conceding and tweets and a public statement that the Democrats had proved its case with a “mountain of overwhelming evidence.” And that, “It was inappropriate for the president to ask a foreign leader to investigate his political opponent and to withhold United States aid to encourage that investigation. And that when elected officials inappropriately interfere with such investigations, it undermines the principle of equal justice under the law.” But Alexander, speaking for many other Republican senators, said that what the president did just wasn't bad enough. As if Saturday Night Live hadn't spoofed that truth back in 2017.
ALEC BALDWIN AS DONALD TRUMP I fired him because of Russia. I thought he was investigating Russia. I don't like that. I should fire him.
MICHAEL CHE AS LESTER HOLT And you're just admitting that.
CHE But that's obstruction of justice.
BALDWIN Sure. OK.
CHE Wait, so did I get him? Is this all over? No, I didn't? Nothing matters, absolutely nothing matters anymore. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE So no conviction, no witnesses, no surprise. But in fact, there were plenty of witnesses mostly testifying against themselves. Actually, there always have been. Lamar Alexander says the voters will pass judgment on the defendant in November. But it's not just the president, it's also the Congress and the plaintiff will be the rule of law.
BOB GARFIELD As we've seen in the Senate for the past two weeks. Words can be forceful and sound all legal and learned without being true. Same with numbers. They sound authoritative and literally measured, but they also can be wrongly derived or invoked out of context, especially when a pathogen is making its way around the globe.
NEWS REPORT The World Health Organization has declared the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.
NEWS REPORT Just now, confirming that the nation's first person to person transmission of the coronavirus has been reported. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD The Wuhan coronavirus has in a few weeks infected at least 9700 people around the world. As of Friday afternoon, 213 have died because it often leads to pneumonia, and that can advance too rapidly for an antibiotic treatment to be effective. Furthermore, it can be spread before symptoms occur, turning travelers into unwitting Typhoid Marys. Public health officials are therefore on high alert, but that's different from panic. Last week, one Harvard connected epidemiologist freaked out Twitter by citing a number called the “R naught” value that public health researchers used to estimate how contagious a disease is. The problem is, early estimates tend to be rough and quickly mitigated by public health actions. This researcher tweeted that the coronavirus was a burgeoning apocalyptic contagion. Whatever coronavirus might do, his tweet went viral and panic ensued. Alexis Madrigal wrote about the Twitterdemic in The Atlantic. Alexis, welcome to OTM.
ALEXIS MADRIGAL Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD OK this one tweet by one Harvard affiliated public health researcher. His name is Eric Feigl-Ding, a guy with tons of epidemiological credentials. Tell me what he tweeted.
ALEXIS MADRIGAL So, you know, he's sitting at home, is reading a paper that has not been peer reviewed, but that researchers had put up on the Internet so they could kind of share it with each other. And he tweets, “Holy mother of God! The new coronavirus is a 3.8! How bad is that reproductive R naught value? It is thermonuclear pandemic-level bad,” multiple exclamation points. You know, this thread took off and of course, attributed to Harvard epidemiologist.
BOB GARFIELD You wrote that the tweet was lacking in context. What's the context that would have made it more understandable?
ALEXIS MADRIGAL That number is socially constructed. It is both a feature of the virus, but it's also what governments do in response, what people do in response. That's one part of the context. And the other part of the context is that it was too early to be making that determination. You know, he did try and shade around these things. I think what makes this such an interesting case is that it wasn't a grifter who is out there trying to grab whatever attention they could and shove it into their pockets and make money off of it.
BOB GARFIELD Wasn't a Russian troll, wasn't a bot.
ALEXIS MADRIGAL It wasn't any of the things. I read it as someone who has 2,000 followers, not a big following on Twitter. He's reading the paper and he just goes like, “oh, my gosh, I can't believe this!” And he just tweeted it out.
BOB GARFIELD And you spoke to him, where is he on this?
ALEXIS MADRIGAL He was remorseful. I think it stunned him because it wasn't just the tweet that went viral. He himself had this viral moment where suddenly tens of thousands of people were following him specifically. So he heavily moderated his tone and hewed much more closely to the kind of public health researcher line that's out there.
BOB GARFIELD There was something else that you referred to in your piece. Another kind of statistical meditation on contagion from Mark Zuckerberg himself. There's this threshold of a social media post just barely on the right side of acceptability and not takedown-ability, which is so provocative that it shoots the virality of the tweet way up.
ALEXIS MADRIGAL He called it borderline content. Facebook’s got a bunch of different rules for what things are “take downable” what things are bannable. What they found in their data was that the closer the content seemed to get to that bannable line, the better it did, the virality would go up. And in fact, you know, another public health researcher called Feigl-Ding’s tweet “borderline public health malpractice.” And I think that is why the tweet and the thread took off because it didn't quite transgress, it wasn't like a crazy conspiracy theory or anything like that. There was a paper that was being referenced, some of the caveats were included in the thread, but it was right up near the border of what someone like him could or should have said. And that was explosive.
BOB GARFIELD You know, you could argue that the Wuhan coronavirus as a story, was made for this flood of misinformation and maybe disinformation. In 2003, in the SARS epidemic, China like shut down information, they lied to the public, they lied to the World Health Organization. The public was, I guess, primed to believe that Wuhan was going to be worse than whatever the Chinese government was revealing.
ALEXIS MADRIGAL I think there are really three factors that made this particularly well suited for this kind of attention-wrestling on Twitter. I mean, one is, as you mentioned, you know, the Chinese government is known for various types of secrecy and American sort of basic lack of understanding about how things work and inability to read things on the Chinese Internet really even know cities with millions of people in China that are referenced in different reports. You know, it makes for like a big hole in people's knowledge and ability to kind of stress test. The other thing I think is the xenophobia. It got pretty ugly. I mean, there's many, many tweets, particularly around the food that are just baldly racist. Images of people eating a kind of bat soup as well as a snake soup. And I think the third thing is, is a totally new thing or a newish thing, which is that the Internet has splintered in a way where the American and sort of largely Western social media kind of exists in one realm of the Internet, and then Chinese media entities exist in another. And so people kind of arbitrage videos out of the Chinese Internet into Twitter. You kind of lose all the provenance of a video if you're not really paying attention it can seem like, “oh, my God, there's all these videos like these hospitals in Wuhan where all this stuff is going on.” But when you really go look, it's like three videos but posted hundreds of different times by hundreds of different people, all trying to kind of hit that viral jackpot or something. Maybe they're just being like, “man, this is scary, you know?” Woah, they're just talking among their friends. But the combined impact of that is to make what's happening seem terrifying. It may be that it is, but this wouldn't be the way that you would know it, you know what I mean.
BOB GARFIELD All right. Now, you asked a fantastic question, and I am going to quote it back to you now and ask you to answer it. The question is, can any lay consumer of news be expected to sort all this out in real time, especially when the most qualified people are providing intentionally less engaging or dramatic commentary which interrupts the cosplay of being someone learning about a disease outbreak?
ALEXIS MADRIGAL I don't think any lay consumer can be expected to. I mean, I think that's the problem. It's hard enough for reporters and we do this all the time and are highly skilled to figure out who's reliable and who's not. It's hard. For me personally if there's ever an epidemic or pandemic, I'm going to Ed Yong, my colleague at The Atlantic, who's just absolutely rigorous and reliable. But for the general case of like, what do you do in a crisis? It's pretty tough. I, like many other people, would turn to a trusted publication, even if it's slower than Twitter or, you know, even certain forms of broadcast media that move very fast.
BOB GARFIELD What's Ed's Twitter handle?
ALEXIS MADRIGAL @edyong209.
BOB GARFIELD All right, folks, if you insist on going to Twitter for pandemic journalism, you might start there. Alexis, thank you.
ALEXIS MADRIGAL Thanks so much.
BOB GARFIELD Alexis Madrigal is a staff writer at The Atlantic where he recently wrote “How to Misinform Yourself about the coronavirus.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, can Bernie win some Joe Rogan bros? How much will it cost him?
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. After his recent ascent in the polls, the media have pumped up their scrutiny of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, especially after the senator received a tentative endorsement last week from Joe Rogan, the incredibly popular, incredibly divisive podcast host and comedian.
JOE ROGAN Him as a human being, when I was hanging out with him and, I believe in him. I like him. I like him a lot. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The Sanders campaign quickly repackaged the clip into an official ad causing an uproar on social media, which splintered online politicos into four camps: those with no knowledge of Joe Rogan's media empire, those celebrating the prospect of converting some of the tens of millions in his audience into Sanders supporters, those expressing disgust that a progressive candidate would welcome praise from a man with some problematic views and pronouncements, and Fox News giddy over more left wing infighting.
NEWS REPORT Joe Rogan, he has the most popular podcast in the country in the world. By some measures, an amazing endorsement. And the left freaked out. They said he's a racist, he's a bigot.
NEWS REPORT The Human Rights Campaign demanded that Sanders disavow Joe Rogan's endorsement. On what grounds, you ask? Rogan once said that biological men have a physical advantage in MMA bouts against women, because they do. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Rogan first garnered an A-list following as a commentator for UFC Ultimate Fighting Championship, the Premier League for mixed martial arts.
At 52, Rogen looks a lot like the UFC fighters he describes--barrel chested and bald, broad rounded shoulders with a narrow waist, a far cry from his shrimpy days as Joe, a tertiary character on Newsradio, the 90s sitcom starring Phil Hartman.
You seen any good movies lately?
Me I don't go to movies. I don’t like movies. Most movies suck. Someone says, “Hey, Joe, you want to go to a movie?” You know what I say? I say, “I don't like movies. I don't go to movies. Most movies suck.” [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Nowadays, he's probably better known as a standup comic on Comedy Central and the former host of MTV’s Fear Factor, where contestants can win big money by facing their phobias.
[FEAR FACTOR CLIP]
Of course, his resumé doesn't begin to explain how he created the world's most popular podcast, how he built a brand around extended interviews with philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, comedians, conspiracists, reactionary thought leaders and far right trolls. Why is Joe Rogan so popular? Is the title of a profile in The Atlantic by Devin Gordon, a writer who kept running into the name Joe Rogan.
DEVIN GORDON He was constantly coming up on Twitter in conversation for his podcast, and I couldn't square what I was hearing about these three hour long conversations with some of the world's most thoughtful minds and greatest scientists with the Fear Factor guy. Then I felt a little bit like the sort of coastal media elite blind spot that maybe I was condescending to something that I didn't know enough about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So you decided to immerse yourself in the Joe Rogan experience?
DEVIN GORDON Yeah. And, you know, it wasn't meant to be this stunty crash course where I came out with a remade body and a new outlook on life. But in order to understand what it was about this guy that was connecting with millions and millions of mostly men at a time when everyone was trying and failing to connect with these men, it seemed like the best way for me to try to get into that mindset.
BROOKE GLADSTONE OK, so you were never able to talk to him. He rarely grants interviews, probably because he doesn't need to. So you pulled off a sort of “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” thing. You know, Gay Talese’s famous profile of Sinatra by instead living the routine he describes on his show, using the products he advertises and he swears by. How did you change your life for those four to six weeks? Was it four weeks or was it six weeks?
DEVIN GORDON You know, let's not get specific with the numbers. I did it for as long as I could. I started drinking mushroom coffee from one of the companies that he is aligned with.
JOE ROGAN It also has lion's mane and chaga mushrooms, half the caffeine of regular coffee, but it makes you feel great. [END CLIP]
DEVIN GORDON He takes about a billion supplements, everything from gut health to like giving you bionic vision or something. I don't know. And then I brushed my teeth with this disgusting toothpaste that I guess is like really good, healthy toothpaste.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I think you said it tasted like wet sand and looked like loose stool.
DEVIN GORDON Honestly, I could have been meaner. And then I would go to the gym.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Every day?
DEVIN GORDON You know, most days. And while I was there, I would listen to chunks of Joe's podcast.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You listened to it a lot at this point, right?
DEVIN GORDON Yeah. And I still feel like I've only dipped a toe in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE He has a vast catalog.
DEVIN GORDON Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE He often offers a kind of inspirational health message accompanied by a product, right? Who do you think he's talking to at that point?
DEVIN GORDON You can watch it on YouTube or you can listen to it on a podcast. Every podcast begins with about a 10 minutes of him doing ad reads for all these companies that he loves and these products that he endorses.
JOE ROGAN I am obviously a big fan of nutrition and a big fan of health. And one of the best ways that I found to make sure that I get all of my nutritional needs met is Athletic Greens. [END CLIP]
DEVIN GORDON And almost all of them are self-help oriented mentality and mindset growth, brain development, energy, focus. One of the slogans for one of the companies that he endorses was total human optimization.
JOE ROGAN Total human optimization. We specialize in things that improve physical performance, mental performance and all things that promote what we call functional strength. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE And who do you think he's pitching to?
DEVIN GORDON Men who feel overlooked, underappreciated or who feel they need the energy and inspiration and the sort of grab life by the throat vibe that he brings to everything?
BROOKE GLADSTONE You likened him to a kind of a male Gwyneth Paltrow.
DEVIN GORDON Yeah, he's Goop for men. And that means you have to change the language, right? The language of self-help and wellness that Gwyneth Paltrow uses very effectively for Goop would, of course, never fly for men. And so Joe has sort of reprocessed that language through like this sort of bro filter. But it's all the same thing, it's just gendered differently.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In the Elon Musk interview, I noticed he kept referring to himself as just kind of a dumb guy, a regular guy you wrote, “Rogan seems like a regular Joe, but he's not. He's driven inexhaustible, an honest to goodness autodidact. I used to think of myself as pretty pancurious. It comes with the job, but my Joe Rogan experience was humbling.
DEVIN GORDON I was learning about the science of aging and business ethics. All of these subjects that I was not listening to podcasts about. I was listening to my knucklehead NBA podcasts because I love basketball. And here I am condescending to Joe Rogan and I'm learning about all of these fascinating subjects via two and a half hour conversations.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You said, “his brain is wicked absorbent like Neo in The Matrix, uploading knowledge through a hot spear jammed into the back of his skull. He's a freak of nature. And most of his fans,” you wrote, “in fact, cannot be just like him.”
DEVIN GORDON He's a really talented guy. It's not to my taste a lot of the things that he does, but I think his ability to be expert at what he's doing is admirable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What makes his interview style so good?
DEVIN GORDON I think part of it is that he manages to keep it from feeling like an interview.
JOE ROGAN Pass that whiskey. We’re getting crazy over here, it’s getting ridiculous. Cheers, by the way. [END CLIP]
You know, I think he comes in with an advantage that he's not a journalist.
It's not adversarial.
It's a little bit more intimidating to people, I think, to be interviewed by a journalist than by a chummy guy who's got a tumbler of whiskey in his hand.
Hey this is great whiskey. Thank you. [END CLIP]
DEVIN GORDON He allows his subjects to reveal themselves and then they slowly get drunk or high and then things really get loopy.
JOE ROGAN Some electromagnetic field around the cars that as cars come close to each other, they automatically radically decelerate because of magnets or something, like a physical barrier. [END CLIP].
BROOKE GLADSTONE We wouldn't be having this conversation if Rogan weren’t in the news last week. The Bernie Sanders campaign relished Rogan's endorsement, featured him in a campaign ad, and this nettled a lot of people who see Rogan as damaged goods.
DEVIN GORDON Yes. Yes. And that's when you get into the complexities of Joe Rogan, which is that for somebody as vast in his interests and as determined to be open minded to ideas, he carries it to a fault.
BROOKE GLADSTONE He had Alex Jones on his show twice.
DEVIN GORDON Yes. Once, many years ago, when Alex Jones was not a savory character by any means. But you could see him in the conspiracy universe is kind of an entertaining nitwit. I think Joe Rogan finds Alex Jones funny. But this is a problem with Joe Rogan is that he chooses the wrong people to empathize with. He seems to empathize with the bully rather than the bullied too often. When you invite someone like Alex Jones on your podcast or Milo Yiannopoulos. He believes that these are legitimate ideas in a marketplace. He wants to hear all sides. And there are certain components of their beliefs, particularly where it concerns free speech, where they intersect.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But isn't that the secret door into mainstreaming arguments in favor of complete insensitivity and exclusion of marginalized people?
DEVIN GORDON It sure is. He is giving an audience of 25 million to some pretty odious characters with some pretty objectionable beliefs, something that he does not seem to be interested in reckoning with. Joe doesn't really do confrontational, so they are given a welcoming atmosphere to speak at length. It's a difficult place to strike the right balance because inevitably we're getting into very subjective territory. He is someone who believes that the expression of ideas and saying the unsayable is an extremely important part of civic discourse. And a lot of those instincts go back to his primary career of being a stand up comic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah.
DEVIN GORDON Radical free speech is an article of faith among stand up comics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm going to get back to that in a minute, because it isn't just what his guests say sometimes. It's what he says. Here he is in conversation with Jordan Peterson about someone that he met.
JOE ROGAN I'm pretty sure that used to be a woman or she, they. You're not allowed to say that if you say that you're a bad person, if you say they. [END CLIP]
DEVIN GORDON Transgender pronouns, he's incredibly stupid on that subject. He's doing a lot of it for effect. And I also think that he is playing out in public a conversation that a lot of men are having. You know, there's a healthy way to have that conversation, which is I really don't understand this. I need help understanding it. Right. And then there is the way Joe Rogan has chosen to handle it, which is to sort of make sport of it and turn it into comedy. And that's just pretty ugly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what are his politics, do you think?
DEVIN GORDON He describes himself as super left. He has said that he is practically a socialist. I think he would define himself as radically supportive of individual rights, your freedom to do whatever the hell you want, say whatever you want. That's a big thing for him. The Democratic side that is very suspicious of the government, very suspicious of corporatism. He falls very neatly in line with those people. But the thing is, those same beliefs exist on the far right, too. They just reach different conclusions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, he says during his Netflix special that he often says stuff he doesn't mean because it's funny. But you think that people reveal their deepest selves in the subjects they keep revisiting.
DEVIN GORDON You have to be careful with comedy. And he says, I'm trying to provoke. But the subjects that you choose say something about who you are. You know, it would be a lot more persuasive to me if he was joking about different subjects.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But they wouldn't be so funny. I mean, it's the sacred boar that is most tempting to gore.
DEVIN GORDON There are a lot of sacred boars out there and it matters which ones you choose to gore. Identity politics is a real frustration for him. It sort of seems like he's got a lot of issues with women and that to the extent that his beliefs go all right or conservative, it's almost entirely on that front. Choosing to make fun of Hillary--
JOE ROGAN Oh, girls, relax. I think a woman can be president, but let's not use a lion old lady who faints a lot. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ladies.
DEVIN GORDON Ladies, I mean, his use of the word ladies, if I was a lady, I would be annoyed by the way he keeps calling you ladies. He talks about women like they're constantly hectoring him. It's hard for me to believe that he doesn't believe some of that in his heart.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So why don't we just stipulate then that he does feel as so many do and not without reason that white male has become something of an epithet?
DEVIN GORDON Oh, I think he definitely believes that, millions of people believe that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah. If you call out or cancel Rogan, are you thereby canceling Sanders?
DEVIN GORDON When this sort of little Rogan-Sanders thing blew up, a really good buddy of mine texted me saying this is gonna be a really good litmus test for how serious the progressive left is about beating Donald Trump. Because if you are going to roast Bernie Sanders for accepting the endorsement of a podcaster who has an audience of 25 million, mostly men who just on the surface you might think could be vulnerable Trump voters based upon what we all think we know about them, how are you going to win? How are you going to win if you're telling Sanders he has to write off an audience that big? So this is a really complicated moment because it's easy for me to sit here as a married white man with two kids and tell someone who's transgender and feels genuinely furious and hurt about this, that they need to just eat it this time if they want to beat Trump. But at the same time, this is the kind of political calculus that happens in electoral politics all the time. And at some point, if you're going to be a general election candidate, you are going to have to get elected with the help of some people who many of your core supporters really dislike.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Are you worried about getting not just disagreement, but calls for cancelation for what you just said?
DEVIN GORDON I may be. Bernie Sanders is being taken to task in part for things that Joe Rogan said, but primarily for who Joe Rogan associates himself with. I mean, I could be wrong about that, but it seems like more of the anger is about who he associates himself with. So that's two degrees of separation right there. That's not Joe. That's the people Joe consorts with. So now Bernie's people are mad at Bernie for consorting with someone who consorts with people they don't like. And it's how far are we going to take that?
BROOKE GLADSTONE It isn't hard to go back a few years into the Joe Rogan catalog of appearances and shows other than his podcast to hear some pretty dicey stuff.
JOE ROGAN Planet of the Apes. We’re going to go see Planet of the Apes. So I look on the iPhone app and it says, “OK, take me to this one.” And the guy goes, “OK. Is that in a good neighborhood?” And the guy goes, “Oh yeah yeah yeah yeah.” Guy barely speaks English. He takes us there. We get out and we're giggling, oh we’re gonna go see Planet of the Apes, we walk into Planet of the Apes. We walked into Africa, dude.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's not a pretty sight.
DEVIN GORDON For some reason, it brings to mind the fact that, you know, I'm a sports fan. And if you're a sports fan, you've spent this entire week mourning Kobe Bryant and the outpouring of grief over his death. I honestly I can't think I can't think of anything like it in sports. And this is someone who is accused of rape,
BROOKE GLADSTONE And in his settlement conceded that the woman at least sincerely believed it was nonconsensual. It doesn't look good.
DEVIN GORDON It doesn't look good. Hard to come away from it concluding good things about Kobe Bryant. And yet here we are. I think it was like 2003 when that happened. He was very young. And everyone, the president of the United States, the previous one, Obama tweeting about him, I was heartbroken and I've been ambivalent about Kobe Bryant all along. But I'm bringing it up because these things are so hard. Right. What do we do with these things? Should we not feel that way about Kobe Bryant? Is it? Is it wrong? You know, should the 25 million people who follow Joe Rogan, should they should they cancel him because of some very awful things that he said seven, eight years ago and have probably said several awful things? Do saying awful things in the context of trying to make people laugh add up in terms of its moral cost to what may have been a rape. What do we do? It makes us so uncomfortable but we have no choice but to leave it up to adults to make these decisions for themselves. We don't have any other option, even if we think we do. You know, Bernie Sanders is going to keep getting faced with choices like that in the next six months.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Devin, thank you very much.
DEVIN GORDON Thank you. This has been fun. I hope I don't get canceled for it, you think I'm going to get canceled for it?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Devin Gordon is a freelance journalist. You can read his piece, “Why is Joe Rogan So Popular? in The Atlantic.
BOB GARFIELD Coming up, the anatomy of cancelation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Natalie Wynn left wing YouTube sensation and creator of the channel ContraPoints, knows a thing or two about being canceled. She herself has been canceled several times for a host of offenses dragged, bullied, shamed off Twitter by people who were once her supporters and allies, including members of the trans and gender nonconforming community. She herself is a trans woman, and it's left her lots of time to reflect on the limits of how we usually talk about cancelation.
NATALIE WYNN On the one side are a bunch of male comedians who constantly bitch about how cancel culture is out of control. You can't joke about anything anymore without these millennial jackals trying to get you in trouble. And the other side is mostly progressive think piece authors who argue that there's no such thing as cancel culture. It's just that powerful people are finally being held accountable for their actions and they can't handle it. So they go around bitching about cancel culture. Now, unfortunately, neither. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's Wynn in her most recent video “Canceling” a well argued entertaining anatomy of cancel culture, her exegesis tracks the evolution and impact of canceling. She offers a series of tropes and principles that define the course of cancelation. The first one is presumption of guilt, self-explanatory. The second is abstraction. Where the offending comment, it's usually a comment is stripped of its specifics, its context, and reduced to a description. As in, he made a racist comment. She made a homophobic remark. The third trope is essentialism. Now, it's not just the offense that's abstracted. It's the accused offender. They're no longer guilty of bad things, they're bad people. A racist, a homophobe, a predator. As to Natalie's offenses--
NATALIE WYNN I mean, there's almost too many to list at this point. But I suppose the big one is that I made a video where I had a voice actor Buck Angel, a trans man who is an adult performer, read a line from John Waters’ book.
BUCK ANGEL One must remember, there is such a thing as good, bad taste and bad bad taste to understand bad taste, one must have very good taste. [END CLIP]
NATALIE WYNN And I thought it was kind of just a cool and quirky casting decision. But Buck Angel turns out to have a bad reputation on social media. The accusation is that Buck Angel uses a lot of rhetoric, calling himself a transsexual, which is supposed to be different from transgender and doing this kind of distancing thing where he wants to make a big point of the fact that he has been through the medical procedures and a lot of trans people who either don't pursue medical interventions or neither identify as male or female who are called non binary people find this language to be kind of off putting and to be sort of exclusionary.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So he did that and that was abstracted.
NATALIE WYNN Yes. So these kinds of comments, which I still look at as sort of ambiguous people see that and they say, “OK, Buck Angel hates non binary people. He's trying to destroy us. He's trying to erase us.” Buck Angel becomes a transphobia and a bigot by that logic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I guess this would lead us to the transitive property of cancelation. Since you cast him, you have his cancelation by association?
NATALIE WYNN That's right. I used 10 seconds of his voiceover in a 48 minute video, but that's enough for people to associate him with me so that I'm guilty of his sins unless I publicly condemn every bad thing he's ever tweeted. This is the most frustrating thing to me because it really limits the number of people that you can associate with or work with. It has a kind of isolating effect.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You laid out in your program the chain of guilt by association. It followed from Buck to you and then to your friends and then to friends of friends and so on.
NATALIE WYNN Once you accept the logic that someone who has a minor association with someone else is accountable for everything that person has done, you can build these kind of chains of guilt by association which get honestly like - comical. A transwoman on Twitter named Mia Molder, who I've never even met, tweeted a heart at my friend Olly, who had failed to condemn me for me failing to condemn Buck Angel. At this point, your head starts to spin because you can't even keep track of who's guilty of what and why.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But your association with Buck didn't trigger your only cancelation.
NATALIE WYNN Oh no. There's been many other occasions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Some of it has to do with the series of tweets you did about pronouns.
NATALIE WYNN I did a three tweet thread on Twitter. I started out by complaining that, I was frustrated basically with having cis people, people who are not trans.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Nice lefty women announcing superfluously what their pronoun is, so you can, too.
NATALIE WYNN Exactly. And then in this thread, I don't know. By the end of it, I kind of had said my piece and was like, OK, I guess it's not so bad. I said, I think at the end of the thread, I guess it's good for people who use they/them pronouns and who actually do need to introduce their pronouns at every occasion where they want them to be used. So it wasn't the most well thought out thread. I was just kind of expressing a feeling that I had and the feeling even changed over the course of those three little tweets. But people just took this as me saying that the whole practice of asking people what their pronouns are is wrong and that I'm being discriminatory towards trans people who don't pass or towards trans people who use non binary pronouns. Once people start, quote tweeting you and re-contextualizing tweets from the middle of your thread in the most uncharitable way is there's nothing you can say to stop it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Let's move on to the next principle--pseudo moralism or pseudo intellectualism. You say that counselors use moral or intellectualism to provide a phony pretext for the call out. You can pretend you just want an apology. You can pretend you're just a concerned citizen who wants the person to improve. You can pretend you're simply offering criticism when what you're really doing is attacking a person's career, reputation out of spite, envy, revenge. You sounded pretty angry in your program there and hurt.
NATALIE WYNN I mean, I was angry and hurt if you played some of those clips of me reading that tweet sent at me. It's not really the language of intellectual critique or moral criticism.
NATALIE WYNN If any of you still support Contrapoints after her begging up and collaborating with true scum Buck Angel, you're no friend to gender nonconforming, non passing and non binary trans people. F*** her and f*** her f***ing grift. I am absolutely furious right now. ContraPoints is a conniving, ratf*** capo who could do with a fully wounded backhand to the mouth. Since I'm out of Twitter jail now, I just want to say f*** Contrapoints for sycophantic stance and all her breadtube chums who close ranks to protect her after she throws the rest of the trans community under the bus for profit. Natalie Wynn is a f***ing grifter. [END CLIP]
NATALIE WYNN You know, it feels like a hate mob, but you're supposed to respond to it like some kind of academic criticism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You see demands for the immediate apology and the perception that if you apologize immediately, that means you're sincere, but if you wait--
NATALIE WYNN Once there is hundreds of people coming at me on Twitter, my instinct is to shut down. I go off Twitter, I go away for a few days when you're sort of in the heat of the moment. lots of people are coming at you with lots of accusations, the tendency is to be defensive. And the things you said at that moment tend to be not the most carefully thought out things you'll ever say. So in my opinion, it’s much better to wait. But then people use your silence as evidence so that you don't care, that you're a coward, that you're running away.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I'm thinking about the difficulty of the position that you've found yourself in by being a public figure with devoted fans on the Internet who want to watch you because you are authentic, but who also demand that you simultaneously be morally correct.
NATALIE WYNN You're supposed to be an authentic, relatable human being and somehow meet everyone's individual definition of moral perfection. It's very important to take criticism. I have a master's degree in philosophy. Philosophy is generally pretty useless, but in those classes and seminars you write a paper about some topic and ethics, for example. And then, you know, you sit around and the professor and the other students criticize what you said and you're expected to sit there defending your ideas or correcting your ideas.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And canceling you even directed viewers to some of your critics.
NATALIE WYNN I actually love to listen to people who criticize me politely because I'm not a dogmatist. I want to learn. I want to believe the right thing. And I'm sure that there's information I don't have and mistakes that I've made. The problem is when someone is doing is just compiling a list of every bad thing you've ever done for years, that's not someone who's criticizing you. This is someone who is building a case against you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's how you felt.
NATALIE WYNN Oh, absolutely. There's some people who are criticizing me in good faith. But this overwhelming Twitter crowd, that basically is just an attempt to convince an audience that I'm a bad person and must be shunned.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This feeds into your last principle dualism. All offenses are equal and everyone falls into the category of good or bad. I wonder what happens when we put people into this irredeemable category.
NATALIE WYNN It encourages fear and encourages conformity when the punishment for minor mistakes is permanent exile, people just kind of keep their mouth shut. Dissent and disagreement are much more difficult. People are willing to lead these kinds of crusades rather than be the victims of them. And it's really destructive to anyone who wants to have good faith disagreement.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Now, let's talk about the pain of your own cancelation. You talked about how you'd endured vile hatred from Nazis on the Internet and actual sexual assault, and yet somehow cancelation was worse?
NATALIE WYNN Yes. When you're being horribly abused by someone like Nazis or if you're as I was, sexually assaulted by an acquaintance, you know, these things are terribly painful to go through, of course. But what makes the canceling worse is that it's being done to you by people in your own community. You sort of watch yourself be erased by the sort of parody evil version of you when you’re being attacked by Nazis. OK. The things that they’re saying hurt, but at the end of the day, you sort of have this noble sense of your victimization at the hands of these terrible people, but when you're being trashed by people who are supposedly on your side. It undercuts your self-worth at a very fundamental level. And it's so profoundly isolating because the people who are your allies have said that you're bad and have cast you out. Other people become afraid. You associate with you. It's almost like having leprosy or something. And that's a very depressing experience.
BROOKE GLADSTONE A lot of people who join in on the cancelation argue that it's punching up. Most of the power and money in this country is accumulated in white male hands. But they also said that they're punching up when they punch a YouTube celebrity.
NATALIE WYNN When the target is R. Kelly, when the target is Ricky Jervais, a lot of times this is punching up. It's someone who is a very powerful position who can't really be professionally affected very much by Twitter, where this becomes just totally false, as I've seen, like canceling against people who are sort of much more minor figures. I'm thinking about the Jon Ronson books that you’ve been publicly shamed, there’s a couple classic examples in there. One of them is Justine Sacco, who made a very tasteless tweet about AIDS to her 170 Twitter followers and then became the number one trending topic on Twitter. Well, that's not punching up. That's hundreds of thousands of people going after this one random woman. I'm kind of a gray area case where it's a yeah, I am a public figure, but I'm in some ways still dependent on social media communities for support. I mean, I think that I actually have kind of or are very close to breaking through to the point where this stuff actually doesn't hurt very much professionally anyway. But I think that as a transwoman, I'm marginalized socially where I am dependent on support from these kinds of communities and being canceled within trans community can actually really hurt my life. So my case is a little bit debatable as to whether it's punching up or down.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Also, the people who join in the cancelation corps have to consider their moral role. You quote Jon Ronson again, who wrote that the snowflake doesn't need to feel responsible for the avalanche. But actually the snowflake does.
NATALIE WYNN You feel like what you're doing couldn't possibly make that much of an impact because it's just your tweets. But when these things add up, they have a totally different affect. Even when you're not talking about abuse you want, it's good faith criticism. If you get criticized 400 times, that is emotionally overwhelming.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But you can leave Twitter, right? A lot of the progressive critiques that say there's really no such thing as cancelation culture. It's just people criticizing you. They would say, if you don't like it, then leave the platform.
NATALIE WYNN Well, there's something to that. And I have left the platform, in fact. But social media is the public square of our age. And I think it would be better if we didn't force people to do that just to escape harassment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE One of the reasons we reached out to you this week is because of the conversation about Joe Rogan's endorsement of Bernie Sanders. The dilemma, it seems to have posed to so many hits on a lot of the themes in your canceling episode. So what do you see around the role of cancelation and dualism when it comes to building political power?
NATALIE WYNN Where cancel culture is absolutely devastating to any kind of progressive causes is right in situations like this, when you're trying to win an election, you need to build a big coalition. And that means working with people who have major disagreements with you, all kinds of people who are very problematic. I feel like we're doomed when I see a politician like Bernie Sanders who kind of represents the best shot progressives have in an election against Donald Trump, to see us basically condemning him because he has an endorsement from this media figure who has millions of largely white male viewers. It's absolute madness to me that this is seen as anything but positive when I approach criticism of someone, even someone who said like pretty bigoted things. Oftentimes, I'm not really trying to reach them, but I'm trying to reach their followers or people who like them. For example, I've talked about people in Jordan Peterson or Ben Shapiro, these right wing political commentators with big followings online. And when I'm wording my arguments, I try to leave the door open. I don't say if you follow these people, if you agree with these people that you're bigots, get out. That doesn't work. I try to say, look, I understand why these people's ideas might be appealing. I can see things from your point of view. Here's why I think they're wrong. Leave them not with a condemnation, but with an extended hand, like a chance for them to take me up on this offer to see things my way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Natalie, thank you very much.
NATALIE WYNN Of course. Thank you so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Natalie Wynn is a YouTuber and creator of the channel ContraPoints.
BOB GARFIELD That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, and Jon Hanrahan, and Asthaa Chaturvedi. We had more help from Anthony Bansie. Our engineers this week were Josh Hahn and Sam Bair.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And I’m Bob Garfield.
UNDERWRITING On the Media is supported by the Ford Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the listeners of WNYC Radio.