Okay. Let’s talk about Pewdiepie and the “it’s just a joke” defense.
Quick intro, for the unaware. Pewdiepie is a gamer and the most popular creator on Youtube, with over 50 million subscribers. In recent years, he’s been curating a persona of Youtube’s Biggest Troll, and has been increasingly making “shock” jokes that are racist, sexist or otherwise offensive. Then, a couple of weeks ago, he made a video where he paid two men $5 on the freelance site Fiverr to film themselves holding up an incredibly anti-semitic sign (the link, like all the links in this post, is not to the video, but to a website unaffiliated with Pewdiepie). This was just one of a string of recent videos with anti-semitic language and Nazi imagery, which, of course, he claims were jokes. But it’s not been so funny to Disney, who cancelled their creative partnership with Pewdiepie in response on Monday night. Or, apparently, to Youtube themselves, who have now cancelled the second season of his premium Youtube Red show, Scare Pewdiepie, and revoked his place in their elite advertising program, Google Preferred.
Pewdiepie, of course, said that the Fiverr video was a statement on society — to show “that people on Fiverr would say anything for 5 dollars” — and that he does not support “any kind of hateful attitudes.” “I make videos for my audience. I think of the content that I create as entertainment, and not as a place for any serious political commentary. I know my audience understand that.”
But the most important part of his denial and apology, to me, was this final statement:
“As laughable as it is to believe that I might actually endorse these people, to anyone unsure on my standpoint regarding hate-based groups: No, I don’t support these people in any way.”
I, at least, believe him. Or I believe that he believes everything he’s saying, to the point that he never considered he would get serious backlash for this. Although Pewdiepie makes racist, sexist and anti-semitic jokes, I doubt they represent the beliefs of Felix Kjellberg, the real Swedish guy behind the channel. Everyone knows that Youtubers create personas, and although I’ve never liked Pewdiepie’s gaming content, I’ve seen Felix appear plenty of times in the daily vlogs of his girlfriend Marzia, and he comes off as a completely likeable, caring, normal guy. Obviously, that could be fake almost as easily as his Pewdiepie character, but it at least gives the impression that he’s a very different individual in real life from the one who plays games in front of a camera.
But even if that’s true, even if Felix Kjellberg is one of the nicest and kindest people you’re ever likely to meet, even if he means absolutely no harm… that doesn’t matter. His jokes are still harmful.
Felix claims that it is “laughable” that he could mean any of the hateful jokes he makes, and I think this disconnect in perspective is one of the main reasons that people use “but it’s a joke” as a defense. “It’s a joke” memesters see the world as a much nicer place than it is, where these jokes are counter-cultural, rather than maintaining systems of oppression. In their view, these hateful things are so extreme that no real person would actually believe them. The entire joke is based on that extremeness. And you have to be really oversensitive to take offense, because who in their right mind would actually mean these things? Clearly it’s a joke. It’s like an extreme form of deadpan sarcasm, relying on the mutual understanding that whatever is being said is shockingly outrageous and that the joker believes precisely the opposite.
And it falls apart because that mutually understanding does not exist when broadcasting to an audience of millions around the world.
First, people who actually hold these view don’t see these jokes as jokes. Anyone following the news will have heard about the sharp and violent rise in anti-semitic attacks recently, and people with those kind of hateful views usually believe that everyone else agrees with them, but are just too scared or stupid to say anything. So when Pewdiepie makes these jokes, they see it as “megastar Youtuber Pewdiepie agrees with us.” They see it as validation.
And that counts even if they also think Pewdiepie is being funny. Remember the Colbert Report? The show, perhaps surprisingly, had bi-partisan appeal, because liberals saw it as a send-up of extreme conservatives, and conservatives saw it as a send-up of liberals’ ridiculous beliefs about conservatives. Both thought he was making good political points that supported their own perspective. Similarly, people watching Pewdiepie’s videos might see them as a parody of extreme views, but they might also see them as a parody of what liberals believe about anti-semitic people. The joke, to them, would be in the magnification and exaggeration of the beliefs, and not the potential beliefs themselves.
Then, of course, there’s the fact that not everyone who watches Pewdiepie has the privilege of believing that these viewpoints are too extreme to be real. These people most likely have faced discrimination in their lives. They have encountered people who genuinely believe these “jokes”. They live in a world where Donald Trump got elected president. They are currently seeing public policy enacted based on these sorts of views. This isn’t funny to them, because, beyond anything else, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to build that shared understanding that yes, this is a joke, because to people who face discrimination, these statements aren’t comically extreme. People don’t want to see a Youtuber they admire treating them as less than a person, even in jest. Enough people do genuinely believe these things, so how can they know that this Youtube doesn’t believe them too? “Does this Youtuber I like watching genuinely think I and everyone like me should be killed?” is not a question anyone should have to wonder, not even for a split second. And when people are treated as over-sensitive for contemplating that anyone could actually believe that, it’s a form of large-scale societal gaslighting, where an individual knows they’re hated by others, based on other people’s words and actions, but is treated as insane for believing it of people who say those exact same words as “jokes.”
Pewdiepie has made it clear that he wants to be subversive and say “screw you” to the very concept of Internet fame. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. He can throw as much shade at the Youtube fame machine as he likes. Take on clickbait, take on Youtubers pretending to be preteens’ “friends” to sell them products, whatever. But there’s nothing subversive about invoking Nazi imagery and making anti-semitic jokes. It’s an extreme take on an increasingly mainstream perspective, and it causes real harm to Pewdiepie’s own viewers, whether or not that is his intent.