Okay, lets start with a backstory for those that have no interest in YouTube or its stars. Felix ‘Pewdiepie’ Kjellberg, when it comes to people that make money as a result of streaming video games, is a megastar in the field. With millions of fans that transcribes to 50 million subscribers he is probably the biggest out there.
Recently he showed the ridiculousness of a service called Fiverr and got two men to show a sign that said ‘Death to all Jews’. The Wall Street Journal took an interest in this and wrote a piece showing off numerous times that Pewdiepie had made Anti-Semitic jokes and used Nazi symbolism. In turn he apologised but also blamed the media for his current predicament. A little while after this he lost sponsorship from Disney and Google cancelled their support for him too.
On the one hand:
It was an awful, dumb joke. He should know better but I don’t think Pewdiepie is anti-Semitic. Worth reading is this piece by another YouTube user ‘Slowbeef’ on why these types of celebrities keep imploding, to paraphrase the piece it is understandable how much strain these people are under when they are expected to be funny, to entertain, every day without ever getting tired and without ever losing their audience. Of course, there are going to be times when a prank misfires, it is inevitable, and there is a good chance that one of those days it is going to be deeply offensive.
Look at the long running comedy show Saturday Night Live, they put out 30 minutes of skits once a week, they are trained professionals who shop jokes together and even with that preparation, they still have two bits every show that are complete filler.
Sometimes that intent to shock is on purpose, taboo jokes can open up discourse when done well. In the hands of Louis CK and other professionals a topic that is brutal can be really funny in its catharsis. Pewdiepie messed up and then doubled down on it with a bit of a non-apology. I genuinely sympathise with him not being able to realise what a mess he has made until things had snowballed out of control. At the time of publishing the video he probably didn’t have an inkling of how bad this was going to backfire and that has a lot to do with the pressure on him to deliver over and over again.
Further to that, the Wall Street Journal somewhat failed to properly contextualise some of the stuff happening in Pewdiepie’s videos and that means that he probably comes off worse than it really was.
I know that some might suggest that Pewdiepie can dry his tears with all the money he is still making but as a person who has always wanted to make money through something that they find creatively stimulating I can relate to this sad stumble.
On the other hand:
The skit involved a sign that read ‘Death to all Jews’ and the problem with that is the platform he stands on.
If he were to do the same thing in the comfort of his home among his friends that know him, and know that the point of the joke is not what the sign says then immediately there is ‘no problem’. Put that same joke out in front of 50 million subscribers and you will get different reactions. There will be the viewers that get it and laugh (or not, it is a bit of a shit joke to be honest) and then the ones that don’t get it and react accordingly.
There are subcategories to latter group that I want to write about. The first sub-category are the ones that see a famous person laughing at a sign emblazoned with ‘Death to all Jews’ and are horrified, the second sub-category are the ones that saw the same thing but instead of being horrified, they are delighted (don’t click on that link unless you really don’t believe that these people exist).
And it is because of these two sub-categories that Pewdiepie got what he did. The people that were horrified fall into the camp that generated the Wall Street Journal piece. Other parties have accused the WSJ of raking through the mud on the YouTube personality, but they forget one very convenient thing: the WSJ did not tap Kjellberg’s phone, they didn’t trawl through his literal trash, all they did was look through content that Pewdiepie had made available and considered fit for public consumption. He has disavowed some videos but not the ones that the WSJ brought up (the ones he officially apologised for, were to do with his consistent use of the word ‘rape’ in early videos). Essentially what WSJ did was investigative journalism at its most basic level and to denounce them for just doing their job is missing the point of the criticism.
The second sub-category that were enthused by a major internet personality making a prank based around the eradication of a religion should be whom Pewdiepie is more scared of in the long run. If he did not mean it as Anti-Semitic — according to his claims he didn’t — then he has unintentionally given them another outlet for their bigotry and it helps them to know how far is not too far.
Currently there is a vocal group on the internet (and my Facebook page) that champion freedom of speech. Their argument is that nothing should be taboo and that if we do sanction certain language then we cannot talk about it and talk through it to a conclusion, amicable or otherwise. A lot of these people do so under the assumption that because they themselves are not racist/homophobic/etc. ‘ist’ then saying those things as part of a joke is harmless because of what is in their heart.
There is a whole separate discourse to be had about the difference between being prejudiced and saying something prejudiced but I don’t have enough space to go into that given that it has been comfortably covered in this video by Jay Smooth, I would just go there.
So, the stance that what is in someone’s heart overcomes whatever thing they said conveniently ignores that there are people who do genuinely want to get rid of all the Jews, Muslims, Polish plumbers, you name it and there is nothing more they like than validation and amateur comedians pushing boundaries poorly so that they can sidle up alongside that same border and claim innocence under the banners of ‘free speech’ or ‘satire’.
As an example of this, anecdotally, an old co-worker of mine told me that when he worked in a post office, people would quote Tarantino movies to each other as they walked past him, he would take offense because he was Black but they would innocently proclaim they were just really into Tarantino. It frustrated him because he knew that they were being deliberately racist towards him but because the boundary was pushed it made for this grey area that led to debate that these co-workers could wiggle away from what was in their hearts. It is a mess really because I love Tarantino and I don’t think he should be banned from making films but I would like to hear him engage with the impact he has had of having white characters casually spouting racist terms. Again, I think this falls outside of the current article so back to the two factions that didn’t get Pewdiepie’s prank.
It is these two sub-categories that led Google and Disney to drop Pewdiepie, not just to reassure the first group but to also make sure they don’t seem aligned to the second. Legally, it is unsurprising that both companies have disengaged themselves even if the joke was ‘harmless’ and there is a really good article here that goes into the reasons exactly why they are obligated to do so. It goes into some detail about how the writer is surprised that they even teamed up with Kjellberg in the first place given his volatile delivery and erratic schedule.
Seeing only your own perspective, especially when you tell a joke to friends can go awry. Ultimately, the consequences of it going awry are low as long as they know you well enough. The bigger that audience gets the easier it is to mess up and the bigger the consequences are. What is comedy and what is not will be debated forever, there is a great piece by Gita Jackson at Kotaku about it that is worth reading.
I feel for Pewdiepie, but in the end, he handled criticism poorly and set himself up for a fall from mainstream grace. That said, I am sure he will do fine, I just hope that the part of the fan base that sticks with him do so for altruistic purposes and not because they secretly, or publicly, think that he is someone that wishes the Jewish populace were to get stricken from historical records.
As a suggestion for alternative way to have mocked the Fiverr service, the sign could have said ‘Death to all sweetcorn’ and the message would still have been how absurd the service was. I’ll admit that there might be people who are still sore that the original maize and sweetcorn was genetically culled out of existence, but I somehow doubt it.