It’s been said that there are two things we things we never tire of seeing: ordinary people doing extraordinary things, and extraordinary people doing ordinary things. The appeal of Joe Rogan’s podcast is that the viewer gets to be a fly on the wall during an ordinary conversation between fascinating people. Take the podcast with Russell Brand in which Rogan ribs him about his veganism and encourages him to give it up. How we should view this conversation? It’s less productive to view it as a debate, or a search for truth. It is a useful demonstration of where these two are in their thinking on veganism (and by extension, where others are too). So where did Brand go wrong and how he might have handled the situation better?
Despite his reputation as brash and attention-seeking, Brand is downright milquetoast—allowing Rogan to steer the conversation and offering a tepid defense of his lifestyle. Although Brand is a long time vegetarian, he’s a fairly new vegan. It shows. He isn’t meant to represent “the movement”, but he occupies an important role as a celebrity ambassador. A representative of any small group always carries around this baggage. Unfortunately, it’s obvious that Brand is immediately uncomfortable when Rogan springs the topic on him. He starts talking more without saying anything, trying to defuse his discomfort with jokes (“Oh propaganda, damn those guys again, like the Nazis…” and “about time Jaime pulled something up in this episode”).
There are all sorts of reasons to go easy on Brand:
- the topic came up unexpectedly. He was unprepared.
- The meme of the pushy vegan has been sold so often and so effectively, that many vegans overcompensate by being agreeable.
- Brand respects Rogan greatly, a fact he mentions during the podcast.
- Brand has transitioned from bad boy to sensitive, spiritual figure. He may not want to be the kind of opinionated person that goes to bat for veganism at this moment.
Annoyance at Rogan is understandable, who brings up the topic out of left field after encouraging Brand’s Brazilian Ju Jitsu training, he says: “you’re a fit guy, you’re a healthy guy, if you just keep going—get off that fucking vegan diet—and keep going…” This sounds harsh in text, but it’s clearly meant as a good-natured joke.
It’s worth noting that Joe Rogan is a road comic/cage fighting commentator. Should we be surprised by his viewpoint? I’m grateful that Rogan actively opposes factory farming. Unbidden, he gives this point to Brand. He hunts much of the meat he eats and he talks of his disgust after watching animal rights videos.
The major problem that this conversation demonstrates is that Brand leans on the wrong source to defend his veganism. He refers to What The Health?!, a dubious documentary discussed in a podcast here, as his inspiration. I think it’s wonderful that the documentary got so many people excited about veganism, but this conversation shows that it doesn’t make the arguments with staying power. Rogan may be dismissive of the documentary out of hand (he’s not particularly specific or compelling), but he’s ultimately right to call the film propaganda. The onus is on Brand to take that opportunity to direct the conversation towards the ethical and environmental virtues of veganism. The problem with dubious fad documentaries is that they provide a burst of enthusiasm that can quickly wane. If the studies are called into question, than the whole edifice crumbles. A philosophical engagement with veganism is a more stable structure.
That being said, the health argument does have its place here, because it is the reason Rogan admonishes Brand to eat eggs and meat. Brand should ask Rogan to identify the nutrient he’s missing on a vegan diet. Aside from saying that he should eat “animal protein,” Rogan is vague on this point, which is strange because it is ostensibly the whole reason he mentioned it.
Brand not only fails to pivot the conversation, he also spends much of the conversation agreeing with Rogan and explaining his veganism by reference to his own psychology. Agreeing with your opponent and freely admitting bias are laudable conversational tools. They demonstrate a willingness to engage and detachment from tribalism. The problem is that Rogan’s biases are never called into question and Brand makes no principled stand. He says that What the Health?! tapped into his existing bias against large institutions. But he says this in a spirit which suggests that he’s been simply duped by the film. He also freely admits to being anthropomorphic and sentimental in his discomfort with killing animals and eating meat. (I’d love to recommend books to Brand that deal with this theme of who is the sentimentalist and who is the realist in this argument).
For his part, Rogan pivots the conversation towards hunting, a topic he is most familiar with. This turn makes irrelevant topics like factory farming, commercial fishing/aquaculture, the dairy industry and environmental degradation from animal agriculture. Brand should recognize that the vast majority of meat consumed is from factory farming. Once you start saying “veganism is wrong because hunting is ethical,” people immediately take this to be a blanket defense of all meat consumption. If they wanted to discuss hunting, Brand’s main contention should be that hunting doesn’t scale up to feed the world’s population. Rogan acknowledges this, but amazingly, Brand gives the point back. “You can’t really use that ‘if everyone did it argument.’” Tell that to Immanuel Kant!
Brand’s final and most disappointing contention is his lapse into moral relativism: “I’ve let go of judging people around things that I don’t agree with, because I reckon I don’t know everything.” There are question on which it perfectly okay to remain agnostic, but to cede all right to moral judgment is lunacy. It’s clear that this isn’t what Brand means and if the subject of pedophilia came up, Brand would never take this stance. It’s important to recognize that relativism is a dangerous enemy of all moral progress.
Overall, I’m happy that Brand gets his audience interested in veganism and that he resists tribalism. He is a genuine and charming person. He’s not a vegan activist and he’s under no obligation to offer the kind of full-throated defense of veganism I’d like to see…but, boy would it have been nice if he had.
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