Sometimes, I watch a reality TV show called “Building Off the Grid,” about people who decide to make homes for themselves in remote places where they can live sustainable lives. Over the course of an hour, I’ll watch someone build a yurt or a mud hut with cob walls or a house on a mountain outside of Denver, powered by solar panels. It’s clear that what these modern-day hermits want is to exist in a vacuum, where they are not affected by nor do they affect anything beyond the boundaries of their home. That is, certainly, an illusion, but I can see the appeal.
I’m a writer. I often write about my opinions, and I know I can’t do that in a vacuum, as tempting as that sometimes seems. I believe we should be exposed to a multitude of interesting ideas and perspectives, including those that challenge our most fiercely held beliefs.
But engaging with the world with intellectual honesty and integrity is rarely simple. Several years ago, I pulled out of a book deal with Simon & Schuster because the publishing company had bought a book by a white supremacist provocateur. (Eventually, it dropped Milo Yiannopoulos’s book.) He had every right to air his political beliefs, but he didn’t have a right to a lucrative book contract. Nor did I, for that matter. The right I did have was to decide who I wanted to do business with.
I made a stand because I could. I had the means to do so. But it was symbolic, as most such stands are: Most of my books have been published at HarperCollins, which is owned by News Corp, the company started by Rupert Murdoch, whose manipulation of the media has done great harm to public discourse over the last several decades. HarperCollins has published all kinds of people I find odious, dangerous and amoral. Would I walk away from my body of work because I find those people loathsome? No. I don’t live in a vacuum. And the most toxic voices should not be the only ones that are heard.
Every day, I try to make the best decisions possible about what I create, what I consume, and who I collaborate with — but living in the world, participating in capitalism, requires moral compromise. I am not looking for purity; it doesn’t exist. Instead, I’m trying to do the best I can, and take a stand when I think I can have an impact.
I would never support censorship. And because I am a writer, I know that language matters. There’s a difference between censorship and curation. When we are not free to express ourselves, when we can be thrown in jail or even lose our lives for speaking freely, that is censorship. When we say, as a society, that bigotry and misinformation are unacceptable, and that people who espouse those ideas don’t deserve access to significant platforms, that’s curation. We are expressing our taste and moral discernment, and saying what we find acceptable and what we do not.
Too many people believe that the right to free speech means the right to say whatever they want, wherever, whenever, on whatever platform they choose, without consequence. They want free speech to exist in a vacuum, free from context, free from criticism. That, like the idea that living in an off-the-grid yurt frees one from the demands, responsibilities and complicities of human society, is an illusion.
Joe Rogan is a curious fellow. I remember him from another reality TV show, “Fear Factor,” which he hosted in the early part of this century. Contestants on the show ate bugs, lay down in beds of snakes or jumped from a helicopter into a lake. It was a garish but entertaining spectacle, the kind of show where you could spend the entire episode with your shoulders hunched up to your ears, cringing as people humiliated and degraded themselves for a chance at $50,000 and 15 minutes of microfame. Around the same time, Mr. Rogan became a mixed martial arts color commentator. He eventually ventured into podcasting, as one does.
Today, Mr. Rogan hosts a wildly popular podcast on Spotify, “The Joe Rogan Experience,” for which he claims he often does little preparation. Episodes are long and meandering, as Mr. Rogan muses on whatever is on his mind — including false claims that Covid vaccines are “essentially a gene therapy,” for example. His guests are often people hovering on the intellectual fringes, purveying dangerous misinformation about Covid and other topics. Sometimes, racism is sprinkled in his conversations, just to keep things interesting. Mr. Rogan says he is curious, merely interested in asking questions. It’s a convenient way of shirking accountability for misleading people about their life-or-death health decisions.
Mr. Rogan has been handsomely rewarded for these efforts, to the tune of a reported $100 million deal when he moved his podcast to Spotify. The company clearly believes that’s a worthy investment. He has a large, enthusiastic audience of an estimated 11 million willing listeners, none of whom are forced to listen to the podcast. Clearly, something about his feigned curiosity and ignorance and his embrace of conspiracy theorists and quacks resonates with a lot of people. That, too, is disturbing.
In the face of the outcry and boycotts begun by the musicians Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, both the company and Mr. Rogan have made conciliatory gestures. On an earnings call this week, Spotify’s chief executive and co-founder, Daniel Ek, defended the company’s efforts to combat misinformation, which include working to create content warnings for shows that discuss Covid-19 — but not removing Mr. Rogan’s podcast from the platform. He added, “I think the important part here is that we don’t change our policies based on one creator nor do we change it based on any media cycle, or calls from anyone else.”
Spotify does not exist in a vacuum, and the decisions it makes about what content it hosts have consequences. To say that maybe Mr. Rogan should not be given unfettered access to Spotify’s more than 400 million users is not censorship, as some have suggested. It is curation.
Misinformation has contributed to tens of millions of people believing the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. It contributed to the Jan. 6 insurrection. And misinformation has helped prolong the Covid-19 pandemic and encouraged people to do dangerous things such as injecting bleach or taking Ivermectin, a horse deworming paste.
The platforms allowing this misinformation to flourish and intensify consistently abdicate their responsibility to curate effectively. Instead, they offer tepid, ambiguous, and ineffective policies. They frame doing nothing as a principled stand to protect free speech, but really, they’re protecting their bottom line.
I have a podcast where I talk to interesting people. Until Tuesday, it was available on Spotify, but I have decided to make another stand. A small one. Joining Mr. Young, Ms. Mitchell and a growing group of creators, I took “The Roxane Gay Agenda” and its archives off Spotify, though it will be available on other platforms. It was a difficult decision — there are a lot of listeners on the platform, and I may never recoup that audience elsewhere.
I am not trying to impede anyone’s freedom to speak. Joe Rogan and others like him can continue to proudly encourage misinformation and bigotry to vast audiences. They will be well rewarded for their efforts. The platforms sharing these rewards can continue to look the other way.
But today at least, I won’t.