Joe Rogan, Planet of the Apes, and How Vegans Think About Animal Insults

by Sherry F. Colb

Recently, Joe Rogan apologized. He apologized for his irresponsible COVID-19-related programming, and he apologized for using the N-word in the past. As a general matter, I like apologies when they are sincere (which they so often are not, unfortunately), and I have forgiven quite a few people for conduct that they authentically came to regard as unreflective of who they now are. A real apology is in a sense a commitment to be a different person in the future, one who would not have done what the person actually did.

Most amusing are the apologies that one hears from individuals with personality disorders (including psychopathy and narcissistic personality disorder). You can ask such people "why are you sorry?" or "what are you sorry for?" and they will consistently get it wrong. The reason is that they live to manipulate and hurt other people (only a slight exaggeration), and their apology happens only because they believe "if I apologize, then I won't lose the relationship/job/community-standing that I have effectively forfeited by my abusive behavior," and they know well enough not to own up to what is motivating them. Donald J. Trump, true to his personality disorder, very rarely apologizes and lies when he does. Lacking the capacity for empathy can be a real handicap. However, and to bring things back to Joe Rogan, he for the most part "got" what the problem was of throwing around the N-word like it was going out of style.

The one thing that Rogan appeared to deny, however, rather than to apologize for, was his statement that when he went to see a Planet of the Apes movie in a Black neighborhood and walked into the theater, he felt like he was in Planet of the Apes. Strangely, Rogan claimed that he never compared Black people to apes, but the recording of his doing precisely that could not have been clearer.

Why would Rogan apologize for using the N-word and simultaneously gaslight everyone on his referring to the Black people in the movie theater in the way that he did? One answer is that when he used the N-word, he was "mentioning" rather than "using" the word. He was, in other words, referring to the word by saying it, but he was not flinging it at one or more individuals. Professors Randall Kennedy and Eugene Volokh have written about this use/mention distinction with respect to the N-word in their work. To illustrate with a much less toxic slur, I find offensive the use of the word "Karen" to refer to a white woman who does one of the many things--some racist, some not, some annoying, some not--that show that she has an attitude of "entitlement." I regard the word as a slur against women, and the fact that the women to whom it is applied happen to be white does nothing to cleanse the slur of its misogyny. As you can see, I referred to the word "Karen" above and thereby "mentioned" it. If, by contrast, I said "This Karen at the supermarket put all of the remaining paper towels in her shopping cart so that no one else could buy any," I would be "using" the "Karen" slur. At least arguably, Joe Rogan was only "mentioning" but not "using" the N-word in the podcast episodes that were the basis for the compilation of clips.

In referring to Black people at the theater in the way that he did, however, Rogan used the ape metaphor against them. To offer another comparison, if I were to say I went to a Broadway show and looked around, concluding that it should have been called 'Karentown' instead of 'Urinetown," I would be using the gender slur against the women in the theater, not just mentioning it or referring to it. It is easier to apologize for a transgression that was only unintentionally offensive: Rogan should have said "N-word" but instead said the word itself. It is more difficult to confront the fact that he was flinging a racist slur at Black people. There is no euphemistic synonym that he should have used because the whole point was to make a joke about his view that Black people are like apes (in Africa, as he added at the time as well). Apologizing for this statement would have required him to acknowledge that he did not just slip; he indulged in racist thinking and speaking. It would have been nice, for this very reason, if he had said "Wow. I said that. I obviously harbored racist ideas. I don't believe I do anymore, but I need to do some thinking about why I believed it would be funny to indulge (rather than just mention) a racist metaphor." Perhaps he was unready for that much growth.

Quite apart from Joe Rogan's apologies, hearing what he said confronted me once again with a question that has arisen in the courses I teach, particularly in Animal Rights. How does a person who believes in animal rights or even the equality between all sentient beings deal with insults that rely on the assumption that animals are "less than" humans?

I remember going to a vegan gathering one year where almost all of the children in the group were vegan and had been from birth or from very early on. One of them told me that someone had called her a pig but that she thinks that is a compliment because pigs are intelligent, friendly, and beautiful creatures. I thought her reaction was very cool, but I admit that if someone called me a pig, I would not be flattered. I love female dogs (and male dogs), but I would not feel complimented if someone called me a bitch. The reason has nothing to do with my view of pigs or female dogs (or any of the other animal insults that people level at women, such as cow). It has to do with the meaning of these insults in our vernacular. Comparisons to animals--generally though not always domesticated animals--aim at a group of humans and suggest that they are beneath other humans and have negative traits that many people associate with the animals. Pigs and cows are very muscular and intelligent animals, but people who call women pigs and cows mean to evoke an image of laziness, constant eating, excessive weight, and stupidity. And any woman living in our culture has heard the names used in this way and therefore immediately feels the intention of the insult upon hearing the name of the animal.

The same process is at work when it comes to racist stereotypes. The stereotype rests on a view--one that white enslavers cultivated to assuage any passing guilt for their atrocities and that white supremacists still hold--that white people are "higher up" on the evolutionary ladder than people of color. I put the phrase in quotes because the entire notion that evolution goes from "lower" to "higher" is nonsense. Most of the animals on this Earth are the product of evolution that has produced creatures best able to survive in the environment we have. Farmed animals, sadly, have "evolved" to provide more flesh, dairy, and eggs for people to consume, even though the relevant traits make their lives painful and unpleasant by comparison to the lives of their wild ancestors. What has not changed in these animals is their orientation toward one another, their love for their children (who are stolen from them on every farm), their desire for the conditions that their ancestors enjoyed, and the fear and terror they experience in response to someone attacking them to take their lives. I therefore see all the difference in the world between a gorilla or a chimpanzee for whom I feel empathy and sympathy (and outrage, if they live in captivity), on the one hand, and the metaphorical ape whom racists deploy as a way of diminishing people of color. It is the ignorant people who hurl such insults that regard Great Apes as inferior to humans. 

It is difficult to talk about animal-based racist insults because one needs an essay at least the length of this blog post to explain why a belief in the rights of all sentient beings does not entail an indifference to insults premised on human supremacy. I actually think that white supremacy and human supremacy have a great deal in common. They each posit that some individuals matter less than others in virtue of some characteristic that has no bearing on one's entitlement to rights. They also both are often rooted in a Biblical view. In the Bible, God created humans last because of their superiority. And many understand the "curse of Ham" to have racial significance. A majority of the Supreme Court would rather gaslight about the following reality, but people have in fact committed group-based atrocities that they invoked the Bible to justify.

Designating a group as "less than" and as subject to treatment as a thing rather than as a living, breathing, suffering individual is a precursor to atrocities. And because most people take for granted the undefended premise that nonhuman animals are "resources" or a nuisance and nothing more, animal comparisons become a convenient vehicle for similarly lowering the status of a human group. We know that in the run-up to the Holocaust, Nazis characterized Jews as "vermin" or rats.

I would, of course, like to see people stop using slurs against other people. I would especially like them to stop using animal slurs against other people because such use accomplishes two ugly objectives in one. We should not need to imagine that we are "superior" to other animals or to other humans in order to feel good about ourselves.