If you follow video game news at all, you’ve likely heard about Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg, YouTube’s biggest star and one of gaming culture’s most recognizable faces, losing a contract with Disney and having his show on YouTube’s premium service dropped after a report by the Wall Street Journal chronicled Anti-Semitic humor in some of his videos. The chief catalyst for this act appears to be a recent video where he paid two Indian men to hold up a sign that read “Death to All Jews.” Kjellberg claims that this was meant to be satirical–a stunt to demonstrate the ridiculous things people would do for money.
I don’t doubt the sincerity of Kjellberg’s claim. Despite the jokes that he may have included in the past–and even inclusive of this most recent one–I don’t think he’s Anti-Semitic so much as he’s tone deaf. It didn’t register with him just how poorly communicated his intent would be, and how hurtful and aggressive the stunt would come off without any kind of context. You could extend the same defense to his previous humor. Now, if he continues with these ridiculous stunts and cheap laughs for pure shock value, that defense will start to lose merit. He needs to learn the lesson this experience should teach him.
Of course, the mere existence of a defense doesn’t make this act excusable. Kjellberg took advantage of two men’s poverty to make a poorly executed joke, turning them into a punch line and possibly exposing them to the same fallout he suffered. This is, at best, an act of questionable ethics. There’s nothing he can say in defense of himself when it comes to the execution of the prank, even if some marginal defense of its intended nature can be articulated.
Nevertheless, Kjellberg is unlikely to suffer any lasting personal or financial damage from this. He still has more subscribers than anyone else on YouTube, and his fans have rallied around him to the extent that they are personally attacking other YouTube personalities who dare to criticize him. Amid all of this, yet another iteration of free speech as it relates to comedy has kicked up.
As can be expected, there’s a sizable portion of the gaming/comedy community that believes nothing is sacred, and anyone who takes offense at any joke is just an overly sensitive SJW who lacks a sense of humor. There’s a noticeable overlap between this community and those who decry safe spaces on college campuses (or anywhere else, really). It’s ironic to the point of hilarity that, for these self-styled free speech crusaders, the only acceptable response to offensive humor is silence–that they should be allowed to make whatever jokes they want (or make any inflammatory statement they want) without repercussion or interference. The same people who mock safe spaces want a safe space set up for them, with that safe space being the entire Internet and all of society.
Traditionally, safe spaces are designated communal areas that are meant to be a place of free expression exclusively for a defined demographic. They are not places people can go to escape new ideas or having to defend their own opinions and beliefs; they are places where people of like experiences and shared values can discuss those experiences and values without another group hijacking the conversation and making it about themselves. The most readily available example would be a safe space for black students on a college campus. In that safe space, they could discuss their struggles with systemic racism without a white student jumping in with a statement that likely begins with, “Well, not all white people,” thereby inverting the conversation so that’s not about how black people struggle with issues of race but how white people struggle with issues of their perceived vilification.
It’s easier for a group of black or transgender students (or any other marginalized group) to discuss the issues they care about when they don’t have majority groups constantly trying to defend themselves (especially when the defense is only against a perceived attack and not an actual one) or questioning the validity of their arguments. I’ve been in far too many discussions about racial issues when a white person chimes in wanting to know why it’s “always all about race;” it’s impossible to discuss those issues with someone like that, because they’ve already convinced themselves the person who made the initial complaint is the real racist. It’s easier to strategize activism and find common ground when there’s no concern that such a person will be participating in the conversation. That’s why safe spaces–and their exclusion of majority groups–are necessary: they serve an identified, meaningful purpose.
But humor that is offensive purely for the sake of being offensive serves no purpose whatsoever. It doesn’t bring attention to social injustice or seek to enlighten the uninformed. Blatantly offensive jokes exist merely to offend, and can have the unintended (or intended) effect of strengthening the evils they turn into humor. Racist jokes only perpetuate racism. Rape jokes only belittle the horrific act of rape. Jokes portraying gay men as effeminate and submissive dandies obsessed only with fashion and design equate those characteristics with homosexuality, pressuring straight men with those characteristic to constantly assert their masculinity and possibly do things physically and emotionally harmful to themselves and others.
That’s why people in minority groups (and those who sympathize with those groups) find such humor offensive, and the only defense people engaging in this humor can offer is that “it’s just a joke.” Which, of course, is one reason why they want any criticism of their humor silenced and any actions against them (such as a boycott, or loss of employment) to be shamed and protested. They have no legitimate counter-argument to the takedowns of their humor, so ad hominem attacks accusing an offended party of wanting to steal all joy and whimsy from the world is what they resort to.
The safe space these people want are not meant to empower groups that are at a disadvantage, but to give groups with distinct advantages even more influence and authority. Even when allowed their offensive freedom, privileged groups engaging in disrespectful expression are hyper-sensitive to criticism, reacting with a level of (for lack of a better term) butthurt rivaling that which they accuse “snowflakes” to express. If you expect offended parties to just stay silent when confronted with offensive material, then you are all but explicitly asking for an environment where you can avoid ideas and opinions that challenge your world view and personal sensitivities: you want what you accuse others of feeling entitled to.
What we’re seeing here is a lack of sympathy and/or empathy: those who peddle in offensive humor fail to see the weight of their words while over-exaggerating the impact of their critics, equating negative reactions and economic backlash with active suppression of thought. Lacking sympathy and empathy is one of the defining criteria of sociopaths and psychopaths. Do believe that every edgy comedian, elitist gamer, or any other “free speech warrior” is a sociopath or psychopath? Absolutely not. Do I believe that every edgy comedian, elitist gamer, or any other “free speech warrior” should be expected to act less like a sociopath or psychopath and more like a citizen under a social contract that demands they conduct themselves with a certain regard for the mental, emotional, and physical state of others? Absolutely. At the very least, if you’re going to peddle in shock and offense, own it. Instead of telling your critics to shut up, actually deliver on your bravado and shrug it off when somebody calls you out. At least then, you won’t be a hypocrite.
After all, it’s not as if everybody wants comedians and other entertainers to only engage in “nice” humor. There are plenty of comedians out there who openly engage in highly-sensitive subject matter. Both Iliza Shlesinger and Jen Kirkman have made jokes that imply that street harassment is acceptable, even encouraged, under certain circumstances. Shlesigner explicitly said that being sexually harassed by an attractive man is “just flirting” in her Netflix special Confirmed Kills, while Kirkman advised men to cat call a woman’s fashion sense in her own special, Just Keep Livin‘. While on the surface these bits may be dismissive of the very real and harmful epidemic that is street harassment, they also brought attention to a larger, more sympathetic theme: we all want to be seen as beautiful and desirable at times, but we want to define our terms and conditions for that admiration instead of having it shoved on us by unwelcome strangers (plus, the sarcasm–or least exaggeration–was evident in both comedians’ performance). There was a depth and meaning in the humor.
There was no depth to Kjillberg’s stunt. He was not communicating a universal truth or sympathetic experience. Sure, there was an expressed intent behind it, but that intent was purely communicated at best and openly mocked a disadvantaged person at worst. It was in the same school of hurtful and harassing humor that is racist, sexist, and homophobic humor even if it doesn’t serve as an extreme example. To his credit, Kjellberg apologized, but he worked in a rant about a grand media conspiracy against him as part of that apology and his legion of fans have turned him into something of a martyr. I’m not sorry for this man. He published offensive humor to the most public and open platform there is, that humor was discussed in the mainstream media, and his employers took action. That’s what happens when grown-ups make mistakes. The world is not his safe space.