We live in strange times, my friends. Some people have dubbed this the “worst of all timelines,” and while that has yet to be proven (unless you’re a time traveler, I don’t know how it would be proven), it’s true that shit keeps piling on shit and it’s exhausting. However, this is the world we live in. One of these more recent offenses has brought people from all walks of internet life into a debate on free speech and if “political correctness” has gone too far. Spoilers: it hasn’t.
For those who don’t follow YouTube news or have managed to avoid all mentions of the popular YouTube gamer PewDiePie (real name Felix Kjellberg), ripples went through the internet earlier this week when Kjellberg was dropped from his contract with Disney’s Maker Studios and subsequently had the second season of his YouTube Red series, Scare PewDiePie, cancelled by YouTube itself. Kjellberg, who has more than 50 million subscribers on YouTube, was dropped/cancelled due to comments on several on his past videos, most notably two that were released earlier this year. On January 11th, he released a video where he ventured onto the freelance site Fiverr trying to see just how ridiculous his requests could get before people would refuse doing them. This unfortunately ended in a group of Indian men dancing around with a sign that read “Death to all Jews”; later, the Indian men explained they had no idea what the sign even meant. Later on January 22nd, Kjellberg released a similar video in which he had someone dressed as Jesus say “Hitler did nothing wrong.”
The comedy scene on YouTube, perhaps especially the gaming comedy scene, is no stranger to attempts at humor in this vein, and presumably Disney wasn’t ignorant to this when they hopped into the YouTube game, but these two offenses were the final straw when it came to Kjellberg. It’s really no surprise that other YouTubers began to jump to Kjellberg’s defense, claiming YouTube could do the same thing to them if they “spoke out of line”—having a smaller audience could mean financial death to some channels should this happen—and working themselves up about free speech being “under attack” by the mysterious, oversensitive “SJWs”. But honestly, the real worry here is: why do y’all wanna be racist/anti-Semitic/whatever so badly? Kjellberg being dropped was a necessary response, and an incredibly important one at that.
There are a couple different levels to this, but the most obvious topic for debate concerns free speech. In the U.S., free speech means that each person is allowed to say what they want, within reason, without fear of being put to death for their opinions immediately. The “within reason” part is what gets people up in arms and leads to a slippery slope of fear-mongering. When someone on YouTube, for example, gets “attacked” for saying something shitty, then a whole bunch of people start worrying that well, if white guy FlammerHxxor1717 got called out for saying the n-word in like, every video, then I’m going to get attacked for saying that I don’t agree with someone’s political opinion. Hidden in there is a legitimate fear of YouTube and other companies coming up with arbitrary rules that could hinder those that rely on YouTube for their primary income, but most of the time these worries boil down to “well if they can’t be an asshole, then I’ll have to actually think about what I say, and I don’t wanna.” This mindset can be a very appealing bandwagon to hop on, especially since it manages to avoid discussing the real issue at hand while giving the impression that you’re rallying behind one of the inalienable rights that makes the internet the internet in the eyes of many. Offensive comedy? Free speech. Shitty political opinions? Free speech. People are allowed to think these thoughts and speak these things, yes, but this does not excuse them from being called out on them. I’ll say it again for you in the back: free speech does not mean freedom from consequences. And consequences need to exist.
By this point, YouTube has been around for what seems like forever: they know that channels are going to use offensive humor sometimes and that this humor is even what makes them a lot of money. Most channels aren’t going to be at risk even if they tell offensive jokes or do offensive stunts. However, Kjellberg was in a unique position as he’s pretty much the face of YouTube, and in that position Kjellberg doesn’t have the luxury of pretending to be ignorant of the world around him. The socio-political climate of the U.S. is one that can bleed across other countries at an alarming rate, and there really is no denying at this point that the man in the Oval Office right now is a racist. Furthermore, data proves time and time again that since his bid to run for office, hate crimes, especially anti-Semitic hate crimes, have been on the rise. Making matters worse is that a significant portion of Kjellberg’s fans are, in fact, Nazis. One of the top Nazi sites, The Daily Stormer, has made no secret about their support of Kjellberg even before this event, now going so far as to proclaim that they’re “The World’s #1 PewDiePie Fansite”. Though Kjellberg says that his videos with anti-Semitic jokes and Trump paraphernalia are to poke fun at these extremists and that he doesn’t “support these people in any way”, his intent doesn’t matter, as those with Nazi ideals in their mind already will absolutely interpret these videos as support of these ideals. YouTube and Maker can’t possibly adequately punish every account and user that promotes these ideas on the platform (and hate speech absolutely falls under the portion of free speech that isn’t protected), but they can make a statement by showing that these distasteful “jokes” will have consequences, even for YouTube’s biggest moneymaker.
In response to the controversy surrounding Kjellberg, many people, including other YouTubers and commenters alike, are actually saying that there’s no need to be offended, because his “jokes” aren’t “real” racism or discrimination. They seem to believe that these harmful, discriminatory actions aren’t actually dangerous until someone gets hurt or unless the offense if obvious and egregious. They even go so far as to claim that calling out things that appear as minor infractions in their eyes will cause people to become desensitized to discrimination as a whole. This whole line of thought reeks not only of gaslighting, but of the mindset of “if you don’t think the way I do, then you’re wrong”, which is what they claim to be fighting against. While it can be extremely simple to say “this kind of thing is normal for YouTube/gamers/PewDiePie, why are you making such a big deal out of it,” it’s this sort of complacency that leads to harmful ideas being reinforced. Most racists and other assholes don’t start right out the gate slipping razor blades behind posters or spraypainting harmful phrases on walls or talking about how white people need to protect the sanctity of their race. It starts slow, with “lol”s on comments about how women need to get back to the kitchen, or talking about how Black people need to go back to Africa. The real desensitization is in something as small as YouTube comments and viewing them over and over again. I’m not insinuating that every YouTube commenter is a secret Nazi or will become someone who commits a hate crime, but I am saying that a person’s basic need to fit in can be exploited in the internet hivemind all too easily. Nazis are a lot of things, but they’re not ignorant to this fact either.
While several Jewish internet denizens and content creators spoke up and stated that Kjellberg’s comments came off as obvious jokes to them, many others rebutted this and argued that joke or not, the comments were unacceptable. Both of these opinions are valid, and the opinions of Jewish people who defend Kjellberg shouldn’t be discounted just because they don’t fit a certain narrative. However, to ignore the discussion entirely simply because you found one person who agreed with you is doing everyone a disservice. We’re at a point where most of us understand that saying things like, “oh, I have a Black friend who told me I can say [insert racist word here]” is not a legitimate point of argument. So likewise, using Jewish people as a prop to try and shut down the conversation entirely is just a way to avoid any sort of introspection on both Kjellberg’s actions and on how we’ve gotten to this point in the first place.
PewDiePie probably isn’t a Nazi, but whether he is or not is not the point of this discussion. Kjellberg is facing consequences (and honestly, probably not for that long considering his expansive fanbase and the proportion of that who aren’t willing to engage with the larger conversation) due to his own laziness. No one expects him to suddenly be moral hero number one, but it isn’t too much to expect him to recognize the social climate and maybe reconsider what he shows to his extremely large audience. It’s lazy comedy to exploit outdated prejudices. It’s dangerous comedy when these outdated prejudices are directly appealing to a hate group whose offenses are on the rise and who have openly endorsed you. Free speech is great, but complaining that people are rightfully getting angry and worried about what you are saying reveals that you don’t actually believe in free speech—that you just believe in being able to say whatever you want without any sort of analysis or repercussion. I’ll leave you with this remark from Tumblr user smalljewishgirl:
…[A]t the bottom of the article it points out the response to these videos by the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website, which now describes itself as ‘the number 1 PewDiePie fansite’. The Daily Stormer stated: “He could be doing all this only to cause a stir things up and get free publicity […] Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, since the effect is the same; it normalizes Nazism, and marginalizes our enemies.”
The point is this: if you are making racist or antisemitic jokes, it doesn’t matter if you were only joking, or messing around, or that you would never subscribe to those views; the effect is the same. Regardless of whether you agree with what you are saying, you are emboldening, normalising and legitimising Nazis. You are permitting fascism to take root in our society. Jokes matter. This is where extreme views creep in, take hold and are normalised. Think about what you’re saying: words have power. Stop normalising Nazis.
Addendum: As of the evening of Feb. 16, when I’m putting the finishing touches on this, Kjellberg has posted a video response to this issue. While he does apologize and brings up some good points about misrepresentation in media, he also pulls a lot of the deflecting techniques I talked about above. If you want to draw your own conclusions, you can watch his video here.