Let’s say that you have over fifty million pairs of eyes upon you. Let’s say that you’re such a pop culture sensation and voice of your generation that you inspired an entire episode of South Park about you and played yourself in it. Let’s say that you’ve made hundreds of millions of dollars doing nothing of value and Disney is knocking at your door with even more. Picture this is you, dear reader, and ask yourself: “if this was my life, and the world was watching, what would I have to say for myself?” Now pretend you decide the best foot to put forward is using the N-word and calling for death to all Jews.
The internet has ushered in an age of obnoxious unaccountability that has been coupled with an obnoxious backlash and calls for censorship. It’s why things are how they are right now. Growing up in a world you no longer have to look in the eye and being able to say whatever you want from behind a monitor has bred the nastiest generation since cross burning was a thing, and it’s burning itself at both ends with endless feedback loops of rampant online abuse and political correctness taken to laughable extremes becoming the new cultural norm. What used to be considered internet troll culture is now occupying the White House. And people like this: they are the reason.
Pewdiepie (aka Felix Kjellberg) has emerged as the face not only of the millennial generation, but of gaming as well. And oh my, is it a punchable face. I may not understand the appeal of watching a human Spongebob character with the faculties of an edgy ten year old screech while playing video games or do a whole lot of nothing on camera when the world is filled with incredible art, beautiful film, talented people, books crammed with knowledge, and video games that I could damn well play myself, along with literally endless possibilities, but it’s plainly a fact that at least fifty million people see value in this, so let’s go ahead and call that battle lost.
Let’s move on to the real topic at hand: with so many people out there who love what Pewdiepie and his lot do, does he owe it to anybody to not say whatever he feels like saying? Can he or should he be accountable for anything he does online? In case you have been living under a rock without an internet connection, Pewdiepie has caused some controversy using racial slurs and calls for genocide as humor and then aggressively playing the victim when the media has drawn attention to it, citing “clickbait journalism”. And nobody has shut up about it for what seems like months.
I hate to tell you guys this, but clickbait has always been the only kind of journalism. Even before “clicking” was something you could do. Racism, sexism, child molestation, rape, murder, and general deviance have always been the front, middle, and back pages of the newspaper because that’s what the people pay to see. And if somebody is willing to pay for it, somebody else will always be willing to sell it. And on the internet, if people are willing to watch it, and advertisers are willing to pay because people are watching it, some idiot will post it on the internet. So accusing the media of doing something just to get attention/money while you film ignorance on Youtube for a living? Yeah, not a great defense.
Shall we burn this Swedish millennial at the stake as a racist before he brings on the fourth reich? Prolly not. You see, I don’t really know that Pewdiepie even has a racist bone in his body. And unless you know him personally, neither do you. But I do know he’s the face of the largest video sharing website in the world and he’s using the platform to disseminate utter stupidity and ignorance to millions of kids, and whatever his intention, that makes him worse than if he really did want to kill all Jews (assuming he never actually puts it into practice). I don’t watch his videos, and I don’t care about what he thinks about anything whatsoever. But I do know his “humor” has an internet history that I’m going to relate here and put into its proper context to hopefully illustrate why the social issues that people like Felix cause go far beyond simple-minded racism.
Racism is a basic evolutionary and social feature. It’s lizard brain stuff that we as humans are fully capable of intellectualizing away once we’re aware of it, but it’s a fact that people are naturally inclined towards things that look and behave like themselves. Remove intellectual functionality and YOUR country automatically is the best country. YOUR political candidate is the best political candidate. YOUR mom is the best mom. YOUR local sports team is the best sports team. YOUR favorite show is the best show. YOUR way is the best way. YOUR race/gender/sexual orientation is the best race/gender/sexual orientation. And we are not exactly an intellectual people these days. But still, we had at least learned to put a polite face on it for the most part; out of sight out of mind. Civility is the best we can hope for and we had largely attained that, at least in some places.
But the resulting taboo that has sprung up around racism has served to make it fodder for modern edgy humor. In recent years, “death to all jews” and “Hitler did nothing wrong” were mottos bandied about on the internet by trolls for the sake of irony. On 4chan, they used to play a game (and probably still do) where people post links to videos and whichever post number has double digits at the end of it, that video will be targeted with ironic Nazi spam. The randomness of it was the funny. My guess would be that Pewdiepie was once targeted by this and became an admirer.
Now in small doses, this anarchic brand of ironic racism is worth a chuckle. I mean, a Taylor Swift music video getting raided by mass Nazi propaganda posts out of nowhere is Kaufmanesque humor to a T. But in keeping with the theme, I’ll offer up this historical quote: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” The origin of the quote is in question, but it’s usually associated with Hitler and Goebbels. The layers of irony are getting hard to peel away, though, because what began as a series of definite and distinctly ironic jokes has officially blossomed into an actual political creed over the years of mindless repetition. A generation raised on irreverent shitposting has ceased to understand the difference between ironic humor and actual politics due to years of hearing the same garbage in an online echo chamber over and over.
I’m the father of a ten year old son. Every once in a while he does something really insane and gets a room full of people to laugh. Then he does it again and we chuckle politely. Then again and we maybe are still smiling. But eventually I have to tell him to stop because nothing stays funny forever and by repeating it over and over again, obnoxious humor ceases being humorous and becomes just plain obnoxious. It’s like I broke his heart, but it needs to be done if he hopes to learn how to function in social situations.
Likewise, racist humor in small doses can be very funny. But through repetition of the same jokes, eventually the humor will leave and you’ll just be left with the racism, and that’s what has happened to Pewdiepie. He’s taken something that was amusing years ago and has since been spammed into meaninglessness out of the context where it was ever funny at all and repurposed it to impress his audience with his ability to do whatever he knows he shouldn’t just to prove he can. That’s not comedy. That’s childishness. And for an adult man with a massive viewership consisting mainly of children, it’s fucking dangerous.
Children don’t understand the inhuman history of phrases like “death to all Jews” and can’t possibly comprehend the pain it can cause to somebody who was imprisoned for their ethnicity by madmen and then starved and tortured as a scapegoat for a culture that lost its way, or somebody who lost their parents and/or grandparents in an ethnic cleansing so some fascist politician could consolidate his power. These are real people who are walking among us right now. If you can’t see why hearing the hate speech that created that situation in the first place presented to children over and over because some douchebag thinks it’s funny would be a problem, then there is something extremely wrong in your brain.
There is no part of me that supports censorship. If somebody wants to say something racist, sexist, homophobic, or whatever then I thank them for advertising their stupidity to us. It’s like a billboard that tells you whose points of view you can’t take seriously right off the bat. If real life were always that simple and people were more honest about their bullshit, it would eliminate a lot of problems outright. I’m as big a free speech advocate as there is and you will never catch me endorsing laws that limit it.
But here’s the thing: free speech is for everybody. Yeah, you can say “Hitler did nothing wrong” and whether you are joking or dead serious, you’re entitled to that. But we are not obligated to listen. We are entitled to come at you with whatever non-violent response we feel like because freedom of speech isn’t just for you. So if I want to say “Pewdiepie can choke on Hitler’s only testicle and die”, I can do that too. If I happen to be a business owner and Pewdiepie is my employee, I can send him on his merry way because I don’t want him representing my company. And if he’s posting his nonsense on my website, I can delete it and tell him he’s not welcome anymore.
Freedom of expression does not mean freedom from reaction or social consequence. It means the government can’t prosecute you, but it leaves you wide open to whatever “free expression” the rest of us deem fit. And that is why respect and basic decency is important. It’s not only the proper way to interact with your fellow humans, it’s important to your social well being.
So maybe when Disney -a company with a long, shameful, and persistent history of pop racism- decides it’s embarrassed to associate itself with you or a blatant neo-nazi website becomes your most ardent defender, it’s time to reassess who you want to be and how you want to present yourself to the world. It’s not about political correctness. It’s about not being a completely reprehensible piece of shit and modeling for a generation of children to do the same.
There’s a world of difference between the adult-oriented cartoonish social satire of shows like South Park (whose creators have gone on hiatus after determining that real life has become more of a satire now than anything they could make) and Boondocks or Mel Brooks films engaging with racism to portray its ignorance and a real life celebrity spamming hate speech just because he can. The cost of the internet and the freedom of communication it affords is idiots having a platform to say and do whatever they like.
Artists and comedians can construct entertainment that can make us laugh and think at the same time,and in the past only those who could pull it off would rise to the public consciousness. The world is a better place with films like Blazing Saddles in it. But now anybody and everybody with a computer can appropriate and twist things they don’t understand into something moronic and hateful. And anybody and everybody with a computer can watch them do it.
We can’t adequately police the world wide web or stop children from coming across ignorance there, but we can teach them what is and isn’t right and the difference between the way people act online when they want to earn money for acting stupid and the way they behave in real life when they want people to enjoy being around them. Personal accountability and integrity starts at home and we can’t afford to let kids be raised by Youtubers.
I’ve got a distinctly sick sense of humor and I want to be free to enjoy that, but it’s important that I understand the time and place to express that aspect of myself. With friends in private or on message boards where such people gather to share is fine. Outside of their proper context, these jokes are as likely to be understood as an old school 4channer running around shouting “desudesudesu” in public. You won’t see me making jokes about dead babies in front of my boss who may have lost a child, using the term “rape” carelessly in public, or declaring somebody “my nigga” on social media because I understand that there are people whose life experiences are not the same as mine and what might be amusing to me could be an emotionally devastating misunderstanding for them. Not being an asshole means respecting that.
Doing these kind of things just because you can is creating an environment that none of us is going to want to live in. The cycle of insensitivity and hypersensitivity is getting old and every one of us has the capability to break it, at least for ourselves. It sickens me that the gaming community has become such a focal point of this phenomenon and it has set us back long enough already. We’ve suffered in the underground being labeled as virgins and losers long enough, and with most people playing games now we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be represented en masse as bigots or man-children.
If nothing else, Pewdiepie’s antics have given us a starting point for this conversation. Yes, he and his have lowered the level of what constitutes entertainment to record lows with their spectacular lack of having anything of value to say, coupled with the willingness of millions to spend hours on end listening to them say it is helping to make this world a shittier place one inane video at a time.
And maybe the mainstream media and those modern day Don Quixotes cartoonishly referred to as “social justice warriors” are panicking at this loss of control and reacting poorly by witchhunting for the symptoms of racism and the like when we should all be addressing the disease of a society that has willfully allowed its standards to be lowered to this point. And the only way to do it is the turn our attentions elsewhere. Find better ways to spend our time, and encourage our children to do the same. Hopefully someday we can collectively see somebody acting doofy on Youtube for attention and think “nothing to see here, folks. Just some dope with a webcam with nothing interesting to say.” Now that’s something I’d subscribe to.