Angry people trying to censor Joe Rogan skip over one important question: why are millions of people, especially the men who comprise most of his audience, listening to him in the first place?
It’s not just him. Huge numbers of men, especially young men, are tuning in to online figures ranging all the way from superstars like Rogan, Jordan Peterson, Jocko Willink, and Ben Shapiro, to men’s self-improvement figures like Brett McKay and his Art of Manliness and Ryan Michler’s Order of Man, to a host of smaller influencers. These people have female followers, of course, but their audiences skew heavily male.
It’s clear that men aren’t just listening to them for entertainment. They also look at them as authority figures offering clues or guidance on how to live their lives.
Why look to these people instead of traditional institutions and authority figures? For one thing, those people and institutions have badly failed today’s young men.
Start with the family. The out of wedlock birth rate today is around 40%, so right off the bat, almost half of children start off without an intact family. It’s hard to put much trust in family when your own has been dysfunctional. It’s hard to build a relationship with a father when you don’t live with him — or he’s not even in your life to begin with. Step-parents can be a good substitute, but are often sources of abuse; step-parents or live-in partners are much more likely to be abusers and can be a key source of dysfunction in their own right. As J.D. Vance put it in his memoir, “Of all the things that I hated about my childhood, nothing compared to the revolving door of father figures.”
No surprise then that many men not only don’t look to their own families or fathers for guidance, but they are increasingly skeptical of creating their own families. Especially given that two generations of men have now been raised seeing things like their own father put through a meat grinder by female-friendly divorce courts and are understandably not interested in signing up for that.
Other institutions are too often just making things worse. It’s long been noted that church attendance skews female. But what is the church — especially within ‘progressive’ Christian circles — telling men? Too often, it’s angry “Man up!” lectures. They complain about “boys who can shave,” or berate them with “how dare you!” rants. They often blame men for nearly every ill, whether that be marital problems, women in military combat roles, or even abortion. They turn the traditional male call to self-sacrifice into an extreme parody, treating men as little more than pack mules for their family, saying that they shouldn’t have time for the own hobbies or even complaining that they are going to bed with too much energy. They want young men to continue fulfilling the obligations of yesteryear, but without the rewards they used to bring, and while everyone else gets a free pass. No wonder many men aren’t turning to churches or to their dad’s conservative pundits.
Other institutions have similar problems. Schools are often actively hostile to young men and boys as well. From what Esquire called “the drugging of the American boy” with Ritalin in grade school to complaints about “toxic masculinity” to endless special programs for women and girls, it’s easy to see why many young men conclude school is not their friend. We see this especially at the college level, where only 40.5% of students are men.
Enter the men’s online gurus. The most important thing that distinguishes them from legacy institutions is that they are actually on the side of the men who listen to them. This doesn’t mean they encourage or validate men in doing whatever those men want. Quite the opposite. Jordan Peterson’s most famous line might be, “Clean your room.” His call is for men to take responsibility for cleaning up their own act first. Jocko Willink calls on men to take “extreme ownership.” In fact, most of these figures seem to call on men to elevate their game and pursue excellence. There’s a reason why so many of them are explicitly self-improvement oriented. But rather than a beat down, the call to self-improvement and excellence is usually in the form of an aspirational challenge. Michler observes, “There are no benchmarks in traditional society, so what we try to do is elevate the expectations of our men.”
While some influencers in the darker corners of the internet promote hedonistic and selfish approaches to life, the majority of the online men’s gurus, especially the bigger names, want men to be productive members of society who provide for their families and try to make their neighborhood and country a better place. For example, Michler’s motto for men is “Protect, Provide, Preside.” But unlike so many of the legacy institutions and leaders, they also want men to flourish personally, to be healthy, successful, fulfilled, and developing their own potential as men in the process.
They also give men practical information and help to actually improve. Brett McKay’s Art of Manliness is a fountain of useful advice on everything from basic prepping to barbell lifting to rules for hospitality. Michler does a podcast episode every week answering listener questions on very practical topics from listeners ranging from how to build confidence to how to stay connected to your daughters.
The sad reality is that so much of what passes for advice from legacy institutions is just flat out false, and too often shaped by ideology rather than reality. One of the biggest purveyors of disinformation about Covid, for example, has been our public health establishment. From flip flops on masks, to intentionally downplaying the possibility of a lab leak origin for the virus, to overstating the efficacy of vaccines for preventing infection – there’s a good reason why so many people don’t trust them. No wonder people tune in to Joe Rogan and his guests to hear the minority report from credentialed experts like Dr. Robert Malone. They can also see for themselves that Rogan himself appears to be in top physical condition, which helps credentialize him and his show. These online men’s gurus aren’t always right, but they frequently give out very useful advice and information. And as Rogan himself shows, they display a curiosity and willingness to explore for the truth too often missing from the ideological scolds that dominate the mainstream media outlets.
The online men’s sages are also drawing followers because of the courage they show in the face of incredible hostility. Ben Shapiro went into the lion’s den, speaking on college campuses in the face of large, and potentially violent crowds that wanted to shut him down. Jordan Peterson held his ground and responded calmly with facts when faced with a hostile interviewer on the UK’s Channel 4. Joe Rogan has not backed down in the face of calls for his show to be censored. Matt Walsh states simple, obvious truths about the differences — and existence — of two distinct genders, and does it so effectively that media companies have to memory hole episodes of TV shows like Dr. Phil where he appeared.
Other people are drawn to these figures by the prospect of community and accountability. Some of these figures don’t just connect men to themselves but often to each other as well. For example, Michler also runs a men’s society called the Iron Council. He says of it, “With the Iron Council, we take brotherhood and camaraderie, and we present it in a traditional masculine wat. We want to help men become more of who they are meant to be.” Ben Shapiro’s college tours likewise helped bring thousands of like-minded young men together.
Of course, credibility slowly gained can be lost in an instant. Rogan, having stood strong after his Covid episodes, may be capitulating to a cancel mob for saying the n-word in the past, even though a slew of figures on the left, including President Joe Biden, have done the same, dressed in blackface, or even worse. Many friends and people whose careers he built by having them on his show have thus far stood silent while he was attacked, showing questionable manly loyalty. Jordan Peterson, to his credit, has been an exception.
A collapse in courage, displays of disloyalty, moral failing and more may fell any number of these people. But for young men today, they can either turn to people who have failed them, have lied to them, want to use them (or even hate them) – or they can turn to people who are pulling for them, want them to succeed, are telling them the truth, building a community that includes them, and show courage in the face of opposition. When we look at it that way, the real question shouldn’t be why young men are tuning into the Joe Rogan’s of this world, but why any of them wouldn’t.
Aaron M. Renn writes about Christianity, culture, and men’s issues at aaronrenn.substack.com.