PewDiePie, Offensive Humor, and The Importance of Context
A lot of people will say that, in comedy, nothing should be off limits. You should be allowed to be as raunchy, edgy, offensive, or crude as you like. Other people will say that you should never try to offend anyone in comedy; you should always be clean, “family-friendly,” or “politically correct.” I belong to neither group of people.
I don’t believe you should have to censor yourself in comedy, but I do believe you to be careful when your style of humor is offensive or edgy. I’m a big fan of edgy humor, personally, I’m a big fan of George Carlin, Louis CK, Sam Kinison, as well as the films of Mel Brooks, and shows such as South Park. I believe that in most cases, if you find a joke offensive, it’s your choice. Voice your grievance, but don’t expect my sympathy. You’ll find that it’s easier to go through life with a thick skin.
Notice how I said in most cases, not all cases. There are a few exceptions to the rule. I believe that jokes about really young children are off limits if they’re extremely offensive. I also believe—and this is the case in ALL scenarios involving offensive comedy—that context is absolutely crucial. You need to be careful when communicating with your audience. If your joke is sexist, racist, homophobic, or “politically incorrect” in any way, you have the responsibility to convey that what you are saying is in jest, and that it is not a genuine endorsement of bigoted or hateful attitudes.
The line between being humorously offensive and being genuinely offensive can be a blurry one. The line gets even blurrier when you’re a famous YouTuber with a predominatelyyoung audience. Because kids aren’t as adept at distinguishing between offensive comedy and actual hate speech as adults are. It’s a murky pool. And right now, the number one YouTuber, PewDiePie, is at the middle of controversy centered on his edgy sense of humor.
To give you some background, PewDiePie, whose real name is Felix Kjellberg, has over 53 million subscribers, has guest starred on South Park, and has even appeared on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. He was listed in Time Magazine’s “Most Influential People of 2016,” in article written by South Park creator Trey Parker. This is all quite impressive considering his humble beginnings. Before his YouTube fame, he was a kid from Gothenburg, Sweden, the son of two tech company CIOs. In High School, he was into art and gaming, much like a lot of teenagers.
He mentioned in an interview with Rolling Stone that he was incredibly shy and he spent a lot of his free time playing video games. Is he talking about himself or me?
He went to college at Chalmers University of Technology to pursue a degree in Industrial Engineering. While in college, he had a love of Photoshop and enjoyed working on photo manipulation and making art in Photoshop during his spare time. Wow, he could be talking about me, because I love doing that as well. I actually did not know this about him when I set out to write this article, but as I did my research, I watched a YouTube video he made about two weeks ago where he revealed that he entered several Photoshop competitions. He almost earned an apprenticeship at “one of the best advertising agencies in Scandinavia,” but was ultimately turned down.
It was quite cool to learn this about him because I did not realize you could enter Photoshop competitions or get employment opportunities out of it. I’ve been doing Photoshop art for months now, and while I don’t sell anything, I post them regularly on my Instagram account.
I’d like to take a moment to get a little personal here. I may not have become famous by any stretch, but I’ve grown as a person in the past seven or eight months that I’ve made PhotoShop art. I’ve met and interacted with several people online because of it. They’ve given me feedback on my posts, they’ve commented, and a few other people have even put me on their social media contacts and have told me that if I needed emotional support whenever I was feeling lonely, they’d be there for me. A few of these people have DMed me, asking for advice and help whenever they were having family problems, and I’ve always done my best to be supportive. I’ve had the opportunity to donate some money to a Kickstarter campaign to help start up a family business. This is the thing I’m most proud of doing. Because even though I’m broke and could only afford to donate $5, it clearly meant a lot the family. The project owner DMed me personally to thank me, and it was one of the greatest feelings I’ve ever had in my life. I felt like I made a difference in someone’s life, that I’ve impacted the world in some way. It was the first time in my life that I’ve ever felt like that. I’ve always wanted to help out—to improve the world in some way, no matter how small. And by donating to that Kickstarter—no, not just that, but also by making the very PhotoShop edits (and some video compilations) I talked about earlier—I am doing what I wanted.
The experience has been so immensely healthy for me as a person. It’s making me more confident, more assertive, and it’s also inspired me to be more responsible with my own life. If I want to improve my diet, it’s up to me. If I want to get an education and the job I want, it’s up to me. But a little help from other people goes a long way, and learning to be more outgoing—learning to make friends—is a huge part of that. As long as my Instagram account continues to grow, I will post more and more. And come to think of it, entering a PhotoShop contest might not be a bad idea.
Why am I telling you this? Because I see a slight parallel between my life experience and Kjellberg’s. He took a lot of college courses that bored him, as have I. He eventually dropped out of the University altogether. I’ve dropped out of college twice so far. But he didn’t give up on his ambition or his hobbies. He had another hobby in making content on YouTube, which is where his explosion to fame would come from.
Felix Kjellberg may not have gotten an apprenticeship, but he did get to buy a gaming PC from the money he made by selling some of his Photoshop art. Industrious and self-sufficient, I like it. In 2010, he made a YouTube account called PewDiePie. The inspiration for the name was the sound of lasers shooting (pew), the act of dying (die), and pie (pie). Yeah, that last one seems kind of random. But it fits with Felix’s persona on YouTube, that’s for sure. Kjellberg’s first videos were of him playing around in Minecraft, which was still in its beta phase at the time. In 2011, he started playing horror games and amassed a small cult following. The same year, he dropped out of college and worked at a hot dog stand in order to pay rent. In 2012, Kjellberg quit the hot dog stand job to focus on YouTube full-time as his channel exploded in popularity. When 2012began, he had 80,000 subscribers. At the end of the year, his channel hadswollen to 3.6 million. In February of 2013, after hitting 5 million subscribers, he joined a multi-channel network called Maker Studios, owned by Disney. By the end of 2013, Kjellberg had 19 million subscribers and was the most popular channel on YouTube, a title he holds to this day.
He makes mostly gaming videos, and his trademark comedy style has always been raucous, raunchy, edgy, random, and surreal. It most definitely is not for everyone. I myself have personally never cared much for him. I’ve laughed at a few of his jokes, but he’s always been a little bit too juvenile for my tastes. The best way I can describe him is that if you like Adam Sandler movies, you’ll love PewDiePie.
Kjellberg is no stranger to controversy. Early on in his YouTube career, he made rape jokes very frequently. The problem wasn’t that they were offensive, it was that they were divorced from any context. Kjellberg is a gamer, and in online gaming, “rape” is a term used frequently to describe thoroughly owning and destroying an enemy. I saw it used like this a lot back when I played games online regularly. Edgy teenagers being edgy teenagers. It’s natural that Kjellberg would have made these kinds of jokes on his channel, because he filmed himself playing video games as he normally played them. If you’ve been online and you have voice chat, you’ll hear people say this kind of shit pretty frequently. It’s one of the reasons I don’t game online much anymore (and I don’t have voice chat enabled at all anymore), aside from some of the other issues I’ve had with certain elements of the gaming community. I’ll get to that later.
The main point here is that PewDiePie offended quite a few people with his context-free rape jokes in his early videos, and when his channel started blowing up in 2012, more and more people complained about it. When some people who were actually rape victims politely described how this was a big psychological trigger for them, PewDiePie made a decision I respect him for immensely. He stopped making rape jokes, and gave an explantion why on his Tumblr. It was a very mature, adult move. A lot of people online would have told naysayers to go fuck themselves, but Kjellberg listened.
As his career progressed, Kjellberg grew up as a person, and gradually told less and less offensive jokes. He made video called “Old PewDiePie vs New PewDiePie” last year where he apologized for using “gay” as a pejorative. He claimed to have grown as a person over the course of his career, and no longer says offensive things just because he thinks being offensive is funny automatically.
Evidently, he didn’t have this epiphany for very long, because late in 2016 and early this year, he doubled down hard on the edgy, offensive for the sake of being offensive shock humor, incorporating Nazi imagery into some of his videos. Or at least that’s what some news articles reporting on his recent firing from Disney would have you believe. One of the videos being singled out is a rant about the short-lived “YouTube Heroes” catastrophe from September. Basically, YouTube Heroes gave anonymous YouTube users the power to mass flag any videos they found offensive or hateful. So, of course, PewDiePie would make a offensive video on purpose. The video in question has PewDiePie wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat talking with Adolf Hitler on a livestream. It doesn’t make much sense in context, either. You can watch it here, please do because the reporters citing it as “Nazi imagery” clearly haven’t.
This is probably the most forgivable of the videos that were cited. There are a few videos that are a little more problematic. Seven and half minutes into this video, PewDiePie starts some kind of Satanic summoning ritual with a clip of the Nazi Party Anthem playing in the background. It also involved a crudely drawn Star of David with a swastika in the middle of it. Yeah, that was pretty tasteless. It also comes right the fuck out of nowhere. Random and divorced from context is par for the course in a PewDiePie video. It’s obvious he’s not being serious, but it was still pointlessly forced and edgy, and it’s deserving of a little criticism.
A third video has him doing the Nazi salute while Sieg Hiel plays in the background. It happens 19 seconds in, and it’s never mentioned again. I don’t get what the joke is supposed to be. It’s just being edgy and shocking for the sake of being edgy and shocking. It’s not offensive at all, it’s just tedious. I’ve seen some of your videos, Felix, you can do better than this.
The most problematic of his videos, the one that caused him the most controversy and is likely what resulted in Disney severing ties with him, was a video where he went onto a site called Fiverr and paid two guys to display a sign entitled, “Death to all Jews.” This is a site where you can pay anyone to say anything, and PewDiePie decided to be edgy, of course. The video has been deleted. PewDiePie himself did not think the two guys would actually follow through with his request, and apologized in the video itself. But the damage was done. Felix and the two guys were banned from fiverr. To Felix’s credit, he tried his hardest to get the two men their jobs back and tried to work with fiverr to do so. But he inadvertently got two people fired from their job for a stupid, edgy joke that wasn’t even that funny.
So what’s my stance on this. I don’t think that Disney should sever ties with PewDiePie and I think people are overreacting. But I do believe that Felix is deserving of some criticism. He’s not a neo-Nazi (God help anyone who thinks that he is), but we live in a world were showing Nazi imagery as an edgy joke is not as harmless as it once was.
If this had happened five years ago, a younger, edgier, 20-year-old me would have thought everyone were being a bunch of ridiculous pussies, that it was just the hypersensitive PC-police who couldn’t take a joke, that all forms of comedy should be defended regardless of content or context.
I don’t feel that way anymore. Because the times we live in today are much less innocent.
PewDiePie may not be a neo-Nazi, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Not only do they exist, but they’ve been gaining frightening amounts of popularity online. The new neo-Nazis have been calling themselves the alt-right, and over the last two years they’ve mutated from this obscure cult of online racists based mostly on 4chan and a few racist websites, to a movement that has a presence almost everywhere on social media—on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube. Steve Bannon, the fucking Chief Strategist to the President, is a member of the alt-right. These people spent all of last year’s election creating racist, misogynistic, and bigoted memes in support of Donald Trump. The very same man who ran a campaign which demonized Latinos and Muslims. Since he won the election, the alt-right have been celebrating online and have taken it as a mainstream validation of their ideals.
4chan and Breitbart remain the main hubs for the alt-right, but now there are websites such as the Daily Stormer. This website frequently tries to appropriate pop culture imagery onto it’s front page to make itself look more legitimate, like it’s a big joke, but it’s 100% serious. Last summer, during the Pokemon Go craze, they put cute Pokemon onto the front page header. Last month, it billed itself as the “#1 PewDiePie fan site,” probably in response to the “Death to all Jews” controversy.
This is a problem. This is why I’m talking about this. Because actual neo-Nazis are crawling around the Internet right now, and are trying to recruit angry, alienated, young white men and slowly destroy their ability to empathize with their fellow human beings. They do it by disguising their hateful, toxic, bile as merely “trolling,” or “rebelling against PC culture.” Over time, it graduates to conspiracy theories about “cultural Marxism.” They tell you that feminists are destroying traditional masculinity, that blacks are murdering innocent whites in the streets and are being protected by the mainstream media. They tell you that Muslims are invading Europe, that the refugees will rape all the white women. They rant on and on about “white genocide.”
These guys love trolling people. They love brigading the comments section of websites, blogs, and YouTube videos made by their ideological enemies (which in this case is “everyone that isn’t alt-right.”) I suppose it’s fortuitous that they’re about as subtle as a bulldozer slamming into a brick wall, because it’s easy to spot them on social media. They typically have Pepe the Frog avatars, “deplorable” in their usernames, and often ramble on about “meme magic” in their bios. If they’re not blathering about saving the white race that is. Their debate tactics consist mostly of calling people, “cucks.” They also love to harass you on Twitter by spamming memes of Pepe the Frog photoshopped over Auschwitz. This has happened to one of my Twitter buddies (a vocal alt-right critic) on numerous occasions.
So, why am I so afraid of these guys if they’re such fucking idiots? Well, they’re not as stupid as they seem. In June of 2015, not long after Dylan Roof shot up a black church in South Carolina, Jacob Siegel did some fantastic research for this article in the Daily Beast, entitled, “Dylann Roof, 4chan, and the New Online Internet Racism.” It’s a very enlightening—and deeply disturbing—expose on how online racism works, and how young white supremacists are recruited online.
The article describes 4chan, a image-sharing message board that created a lot of the memes—and much of the internet culture we all know and love today—back in the mid-2000s. The forum is largely unmoderated, and everyone posts anonymously, so a trolling subculture inevitably took off. You can be as vile as you want when you cower behind a cloak of anonymity. 4chan has long been infamous for its users raiding other websites and concocting elaborate trolling campaigns as well as for its edgy, nothing-is-off-limits shock value humor. The sub-board /pol/ is known for its explicitly racist content.
These people love to argue that their racism is just ironic, and “for-the-lulz.” And for the most part, this used to be true. Ten years ago, when people called themselves neo-Nazis, it was largely tongue-in-cheek. Anyone on the Steam forums (or any other entertainment forum, for that matter) who called themselves neo-Nazis were dismissed as 4chan trolls trying to be edgy, and were not taken seriously. This is not the case anymore.
The article goes on to note the rise of the Daily Stormer, created by a young neo-Nazi named Andrew Anglin, and how it is modelled on 4chan. The use of memes, random humor, and offensive shock humor is pretty much the same. The Daily Stormer—and the alt-right in general—attached their neo-Nazi ideology to a much wider backlash against political correctness and social justice warriors. Social justice warriors, or SJWs, are advocates of social justice who are either extremists, hypocrites, or both (and they’re often both.) They’re the morons on Tumblr screaming shit like, “Check Your Privilege, White Cis Male Scum!” and posting pictures of themselves drinking cups labelled, “Male Tears.” It’s hardly a surprise that many people—even many young, progressive minded people—would support a backlash against people like this.
Being intentionally offensive for no reason, just to provoke people who are offended way too easily, is a stupid and juvenile thing to do, of course, but it’s understandable. Nobody likes being told what they can and can’t say. People online have long reveled in being able to say things they can’t say on television, on the radio, or in public. There is a sense of rebelliousness in breaking social taboos that can be quite exciting, especially if you’re younger.
Over the last couple of years, the backlash against political correctness and SJWs has transformed into a genuine reactionary movement against all progressive ideologies—feminism, LGBT rights, excetera—to the point where it’s largely impossible to be a social justice advocate without getting lumped in with SJWs by default. This backlash was particularly nasty with GamerGate, anti-feminist movement within the gaming community. I remember when GamerGate first rose in 2014, and watched as several Internet reviewers and comedians—whom I had watched for years and respected—were subjected to death threats, rape threats, and libelous articles from Breitbart. Several people were doxed and had to leave their homes for months—it didn't happen to any of the entertainers I watched, but it was still really scary. The trolling culture of 4chan had spread over the entire Internet—posting or saying anything even remotely pro-feminist or pro-social justice would get you bombarded with hate, especially on YouTube. Nowadays, YouTube has several thriving channels dedicated to harassing feminists—some of these channels have hundreds of thousands of subscribers, it’s fucked beyond belief.
The cauldron of hate unleashed by GamerGate and the anti-feminist community on YouTube was ripe for the alt-right. A whole bunch of angry, bitter, young white men—the alt-right had struck gold. GamerGate may have fizzled out in 2015, but the alt-right movement picked up a lot of the veterans. During this time, the Daily Stormer was experiencing explosive growth. The shock humor of 4chan became increasingly racist and bigoted as it mingled with the Stormer. It soon became almost impossible to distinguish the joking racism from the genuine racism amidst all the layers of irony, sarcasm, and memes.
This takes me back to a big point a made earlier about context, and how it important it is when doing offensive humor. Meme-based humor is completely devoid of context, regardless of whether or not it’s offensive. A racist idea communicated in meme form is a racist idea that won’t be scrutinized—no one will force you to justify or defend it.
That’s bad. The problem is especially bad on websites that share the same memes. Instagram is full of meme pages, all of whom share the same memes, regardless of the political affiliation or the intent of the page admins. In last years election, people LOVED to make memes out of Donald Trump—regardless of whether or not you supported him or opposed him, people were making memes out of him. And the same memes could be seen on the pages of people who opposed Trump and those who supported him. I couldn’t tell which memes referring to Trump as “God Emperor” were in jest and which ones weren’t.
The same problem applies to the shock humor meme pages. Who knows if the meme page admins are genuine racists? None of the fans give a shit, or the pages wouldn’t be so big. The alt-right knows this. They cause confusion by behaving in the same way as the run-of-the-mill edgelords. They can hide under this cloak of “edgy humor” so they can spread their ideologies without detection.
There’s another tactic of the alt-right, and that is to claim anyone who criticizes political correctness—or just makes an offensive, edgy joke—as one of their own. When PewDiePie made the controversial video with the “Death to all Jews” message, several alt-righters tried to claim him. As I’ve said previously, the Daily Stormer billed itself as a fan site. Neo-Nazis left comments like this:
Even Richard Spencer tweeted out wondering if PewDiePie was "one of us."
Obviously, PewDiePie is not. But this incident highlights how murky the waters have become when getting to doing offensive humor online. His humor is like meme humor—random, edgy, and devoid of context. It’s easy for unsavory people to exploit. You can’t make Nazi jokes anymore without attracting the attention and support of actual neo-Nazis. Unless there is a clear context that your offensive jokes aren’t meant to be taken seriously, they can and will be used by the wrong people as a recruitment tool for actual hate groups. When you have a young, impressionable audience, you need to be very careful with your edgy humor with all these sociopaths crawling around online.
Based on his apology on Tumblr, I don’t think PewDiePie fully understands the problem. I don’t blame him, it’s complicated. There’s quite a bit of criticism I have for him. One, he shouldn’t rely on edgy humor constantly anyway, it gets old kind of fast. Two, you have to put your more offensive jokes into context so that your younger viewers don’t mistake you for an actual anti-Semite. And three, a public disavowal of hate groups would be appreciated. Not just on Tumblr, I’d like to see a full video of you condemning actual hate groups that try to use your, your style of humor, and your fans, as recruitment tools.
To be honest, I feel bad for PewDiePie right now. I don’t think he deserves the spotlight and all the negative attention when many other YouTubers do A LOT worse. He just gets it because he’s number one. JonTron, for example, gave an actual interview with Breitbart in December, has retweeted alt-right conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson, and went on a live-stream with another alt-right YouTuber by the name of Sargon of Akkad. He praised the white-nationalist politicians in France (Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France) and said that Germany would be “uncucked” by its populist-right part Alternative for Germany. He hasn’t gotten any real media attention outside of YouTube for this, and he deserves a ton of shit for it because he’s hugely popular (over 3 million subscribers), and also has a lot of kids in his audience. And speaking of Sargon of Akkad, he tweeted out a photo of the analytics of the Daily Stormer and the analytics of feminist pop-culture website The Mary Sue, and mocked the Mary Sue for getting less views than a white supremacist website. And he straight-up admitted the Daily Stormer was a white supremacist site, he didn’t even try to sugar coat it.
This is fucked beyond all comprehension. How do you get away with this shit!?
I think we definitely need to hold popular YouTube standards up to a higher standard than we currently are. I will definitely speak out against any channel that pulls any genuine racist bullshit. PewDiePie isn’t one of these channels, but he does deserve some criticism in the way he does offensive comedy. You need to put your jokes into context. Also, with all the things people are going to be saying about you now due to these wildly exaggerated news articles, you need to do more than just post a tepid twitter apology. As I’ve said before, make a video condemning any hate groups who try to appropriate your image. That would mean a lot more than a simply apology right now.
Of course, PewDiePie can’t be expected to do this constantly. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of parents to monitor what their kids are watching online, and who they are talking to. If you don’t like what they’re watching, don’t let them watch it. If you think they can handle the kind of edgy humor that dominates the Internet, be sure to put it all into context. PewDiePie being let go from Disney made so many mainstream headlines—just imagine how much YouTube and the internet are going to freak out over this.
I wrote this article because the topic of free speech, edgy humor, how-far-is-too-far, and the hate groups that rely on these things to fly under the radar are all things that concern me greatly. I wrote this article because none of the news articles I saw accurately portraying the things PewDiePie was saying in his videos. If your kids are confused as to why their favorite YouTube celebrity is having Nazi accusations thrown at home, show them this article. Hopefully it will help. If they’re confused about why people would freak out over dumb edgy jokes, hopefully this article explains that, too.
Also, monitor how often your kids are online, what websites they’re using, and what kind of language they’re using. And have go outside and interact with each other every once in a while.
Ultimately, I care about accuracy and perspective. I don’t like how mainstream media outlines simplify complex issues into easily digestible soundbites. It’s a huge disservice to journalism. The articles I read about the PewDiePie controversy are all examples of contemporary junk journalism that I despise. They gave nothing even resembling an accurate portrayal of the situation. I did my best to be as accurate as possible, as thorough as possible, and as explanatory as possible.
We live in scary, frightening times. We all need to be more cautious and less reckless. We all need to be more empathetic, more concerned about the impact our words and our actions have on others. And we all need to be more open to a debate with each other, and less open to just throwing around insults and labels. Since I’m not seeing any media source do any of these things, I figured I’d do it myself.