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.