PewDiePie is defending himself after an anti-Semitic prank backfired, but does he actually understand what he did wrong?
YouTube star PewDiePie has posted a vlog defending an anti-Semitic “prank” which sparked controversy and caused two men to lose their jobs.
Last week, PewDiePie (aka Felix Kjellberg) published a video in which he used freelancer site Fiverr to pay two men in Sri Lanka known as Funny Guys to hold up a sign which read “Death to all Jews.” Fiverr have since suspended the Funny Guys’ account, which they claim has threatened their livelihood.
Kjellberg maintains that he didn’t think they would go through with the prank, while they have stated that the language barrier prevented them from fully understanding the meaning of the sign.
In his latest video, Kjellberg deflects blame onto “clickbait media.” He begins by launching into a lengthy description (three whole minutes) of what clickbait is, just in case anybody is tuning in from 2005, and repeatedly criticises online news outlets for publishing misleading headlines (although in this instance, the headlines were all accurate). The whole point of the video is to distance himself from responsibility. It’s the media’s fault, he claims, for taking his funny little joke out of context.
“It’s 2017 now, we’re going to have to start separating what is a joke and what is actually problematic,” he says, seemingly appointing himself the arbiter of this distinction. “It might just be my crude sense of humour,” he continues, “I don’t think there’s any actual anti-Semitic thing about it.” He goes on to reference the “political correct police” and insists that anyone who is offended just doesn’t get his sense of humour.
Here’s the thing. If enjoyment of your work is dependent on conditions, if somebody has to be personally familiar with you and your style of comedy in order to not find something offensive, then the odds are you’re not actually that great a comedian. “Context matters,” Kjellberg keeps saying. But the context here is exactly as it appears; he thought that an extreme statement like “Death to all Jews” was innately funny.
Frustratingly, Kjellberg fails to grasp why people are upset. It’s not that anyone truly believes he’s a neo-Nazi, as he seems to think. It’s that in his rush to put out content, and generate the ad revenue which he condemns online news sites for earning, he didn’t think twice about using the Holocaust as a punch line, and then as soon as he was called on it, he began attributing blame elsewhere.
His response is also symptomatic of a broader problem when it comes to how straight, white, cisgender people in the West talk about minorities. The tendency to qualify remarks, the insistence on context, the simple refusal to admit wrongdoing, all reeks of privilege.
But when you’re the highest-paid star on YouTube, that’s just not good enough. You can expect your actions to have consequences. And when you’re the king of the influencers, you shouldn’t be surprised when you actually have, you know, influence.