The Internet may have desensitized us to such language, but that's hardly an excuse, and we should demand better.
Update (09/12/2017, 11:05 AM): PewDiePie issued an apology entitled "my response," in which he said using a racial slur was "in the heat of the moment, I said the worst word I could possibly think of, and it just sort of slipped out." He was "making no excuses" because "there are no excuses for it." He admitted he "can't keep slipping up like this," and that "he's better than this."
Over the weekend, the most popular personality on YouTube, Felix "PewDiePie" Kjellberg, was streaming a round of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds. While trying and failing to take out another player, PewDiePie, who currently has more than 57 million subscribers on the dominant video service, shouted in frustration: "What a fucking nigger." Immediately after, he mouthed a brief but insincere apology—"I'm sorry, but what the fuck"—before replacing the offensive word with another he considered something more appropriate: "What a fucking asshole."
You can watch the clip for yourself here:
PewDiePie hasn't commented since, his last tweet being about how "it sure is windy in england right now. (Because PewDiePie's streams aren't archived on YouTube, I can't currently tell whether this happened before or after.) In the stream, though, he later mentioned that when someone does a "dick move," he "tried to think of the worst word." On that count, at least, he was right.
This isn't the first time PewDiePie has stepped into hot waters this year. YouTube cancelled a second season of its Scare PewDiePie show after a Wall Street Journal report highlighted videos of PewDiePie using Nazi imagery and using an online service to pay poor people to hold up a sign saying "Death to All Jews." PewDiePie defended those videos as satire, and argued the WSJ took him out of context.
"I make videos for my audience," he said at the time. "I think of the content that I create as entertainment, and not a place for any serious political commentary. I know my audience understand that and that is why they come to my channel. Though this was not my intention, I understand that these jokes were ultimately offensive."
(It's also not the first time this year a major gaming-related YouTube creator has seen sharp criticism for racist remarks.)
Battlegrounds is an incredibly tense game, a mixture of planning, improvisation, and quick reactions to events that are often out of your control. Seething frustration is part of the Battlegrounds experience. If you've played a round, you know the feeling PewDiePie is having, as a player escapes your bullets. The difference is that PewDiePie—knowingly streaming to thousands of people, acutely aware that he's one of the most well-known personalities on the Internet, a person with 12 million Twitter followers—chose nigger, a word with a long, dark history, a word that was explicitly designed to dehumanize black people.
There are a lot of words that PewDiePie could have used to express his anger.
The response to the clip has been a standard but volatile mixture of condemnation, anger, defensiveness, and exhaustion that, in 2017, there are people who need to be convinced this is a word the vast majority of the population should think twice before casually uttering.
The fallout elsewhere has been more severe. One of the co-founders of Campo Santo, the studio behind 2015's Firewatch, announced the studio would issue a DMCA takedown of PewDiePie's Firewatch video, in spite of the awareness potentially raised by his video being viewed more than 5.7 million times. Campo Santo did follow through, and the video is down. If you try to watch the video on YouTube, it currently states "this video is not available." A different message would have appeared had PewDiePie chosen to take it down himself.
"I am sick of this child getting more and more chances to make money off of what we make," said Campo Santo's Sean Vanaman on Twitter. "I'd urge other developers & will be reaching out to folks much larger than us to cut him off from the content that has made him a millionaire."
Though Firewatch's official website declares anyone and everyone are "free to monetize" any videos featuring the game, early analysis from lawyers like Ryan Morrison of Morrison/Lee suggest Campo Santo have every legal right to revoke individual licenses to monetize footage of their game. That said, Campo Santo's decision is sure to cause tension amongst streamers and video creators, who are often dealing with contradictory messages on monetization. (See: the presence of guns causing videos to lose monetization status, the way some publishers outright threaten takedown notices if you stream past a certain point.)
Vanaman later told BuzzFeed he "regrets using a DMCA takedown," acknowledging fears over censorship, but declared "he's a bad fit for us, and we're a bad fit for him."
Campo Santo's decision to use the equivalent of a nuclear bomb on YouTube is extreme, but worries over the slippery slope seem overblown. Don't use that word, and you're okay! It's a low bar.
The central source of tension is whether PewDiePie casually spouting "nigger," a word historically—and currently—used to denigrate a once-enslaved population, is evidence of racism, that PewDiePie himself is racist. Even the folks who've used the "it's just a word" defense on social media have largely acknowledged what PewDiePie did is wrong, but take issue extrapolating larger meaning from the incident because of a flimsy apology.
But at what point does ignorance cross into malice, by virtue of tacitly ignoring what you know to be wrong?
After initially sharing my reaction to PewDiePie's comments on Twitter, I heard from a number of people, including a resident of Denmark—not far from PewDiePie's home base in Sweden. I've decided to keep him anonymous, but let's call him Mark. (And to be clear, he gave me permission to share this.) Despite telling me how he's outwardly progressive and part of Denmark's "most far left party," Mark admitted to saying the slur, too. At first, he was appalled, but later, it became part of his lexicon.
"I play and socialize a lot in the online gaming sphere," Mark told me. "I mainly play WoW, and I have directly witnessed how the word nigger has completely lost its historical meaning and power in the circles I operate in. So often is it simple used instead of 'asshole' or any other slur—and yes, I understand how problematic that is—that it just becomes a thing you say. Not because of some deep seated hate for coloured people, but simply from a rhetorical standpoint."
(Watch this video for a prime example of how casually racism is used in an online game. Scroll to 6:24 in this video to watch someone, "in a heated moment," drop the same word as PewDiePie.)
He described it as "my brain just autopilots it out there, without me giving it a single thought."
"The thing is, I don't have an ounce of hate in my body for people of colour," he said.
On paper I am ostensibly your normal progressive activist. My actions from day to day reflect that as well."
Mark pointed to the fact that Denmark's history with slavery doesn't go as far back, didn't grow up around decades of racial oppression, and went largely unexposed to the deep and systemic poverty that often plagues minority communities. These were his reasons for a cultural disconnect from such a powerful word. It became "just another foreign bad word to us, no different than fuck or shit."
"My point is," he said, "I think it would be foolish of me to say that I'd ever be capable of fully understanding the weight of the word when I've never truly experienced these things. That is probably why my gut doesn't feel the same way when I hear/say that word as yours does."
That's rationalization, not an explanation. You should know better, and so should PewDiePie.
As I said on Twitter, the idea that you "accidentally" say slurs of any sort while streaming to thousands of people just doesn't just happen. PewDiePie isn't an amateur; he's a professional who makes millions of dollars each year while playing and streaming games, and one who's routinely been in trouble for trotting out botched attempts at anti-political correctness satire as humor. He knows what it means to perform for an audience, a tightrope of playing a character and yourself. But instinctual moments like this can reveal the ugliest parts of yourself. If, "in a heated moment," you use a racial slur, that's part of who you are.
In replacing "nigger" with "asshole," PewDiePie reveals his own disgusting, if rationale, logic: the two words hold equal weight, there's just one you're not supposed to say in public. Oops!
The thing is, it is possible to say something racist without being a racist, but just because your mouth shits it out without fully internalizing the ramifications and historical weight of the word, doesn't excuse those actions. It's your responsibility to do the hard work of recognizing why you chose to use that hateful word, why it's the one that came to mind in that moment.
It's true that racial slurs of all kinds and other hateful words are standard fare when playing online games, or surfing the Internet more generally. It's part of a mass normalization of ugly rhetoric, a cultural shift where we've become numb to words that would once make us wince, a decades-long form of cultural astroturfing to make racism seem normal in online spaces, a way of using shitposting to make sure spaces remain unsafe for people who aren't like them.
PewDiePie is a public figure who should know better—who does know better—and by acting this way, contributed to the normalization of a word that should hang heavy, a word that should remind us of the great historical injustices the world has served—continues to serve.
Chances are we've all experienced moments where we've said something to intentionally hurt someone, then immediately regretted it, knowing we'd gone over the line. Key to such moments is not only realizing what you did was wrong, but examining how you got there.
A number of years back, while I was still working at Giant Bomb, we had a regular feature where a group of us, myself included, would try to beat this incredibly hard co-op mode in the stylish action game, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet. One time, while streaming, my coworker Ryan Davis uttered a common homophobic slur in a fit of rage—the f word—as things were going badly for us. In the moment, no one said anything, but the room became incredibly tense—we knew this was bad. Ryan, who already sweated a lot, was sweating profusely as we tried to find an off ramp, a way to end the video and figure out what the next move was.
When we left the room, Ryan was immediately distraught, knowing he'd fucked up. Ryan, who tragically passed away a few years back, was a good guy, but he, like myself, grew up in an era where people casually tossed the word around as a derogatory term because, well, that's what people did. I cannot speak for Ryan, nor would I try, but I know my own experience. As a kid, even in college, that was par for the course. Publicly, I'd stopped saying that word. Privately, among my "bros," it would still come up.
It wasn't until later I would learn, by reading about the history of the term and hearing it firsthand from friends who were gay, how awful it was to hear people regularly using a homosexual slur as if it mean nothing, as if it was on the same level as, say, "asshole." It was at that point that I decided to push that word down, to fight habits because I knew better.
When something becomes part of your vernacular, it's remarkably hard to remove. (Anyone who'd recorded a podcast, for example, is acutely aware of how often they say the word "like.") And even when you've managed to extract it from regular, casual conversation, there are always moments when it bubbles up, the result of a psychological indoctrination from years of use. It might never truly go away, but you put in the effort to recognize why it's wrong.
The result of the Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet incident was, so far as I know, the one and only time Giant Bomb has edited a video to remove anything from it; the attitude had always been that whatever happens on camera, stays on camera. In this case, it was removed but not forgotten, as later that evening, Ryan wrote a post calling this that his "worst moment."
"I was shocked myself when it came tumbling out, and instantly felt like the worst piece of shit in the world. Context is meaningless, because that word comes with too much of its own hurtful baggage to ever possibly justify. I want to be crystal clear here: I'm saying this not because of some corporate mandate or some fear for my job. I'm saying this because it's important to me personally that I acknowledge the significance of what was said, and to own it. I feel miserable because that's not me, and it's horrifying to me to think that someone would take that awful outburst as some sort of implicit approval to use that word. That shit is just indefensible."
Ryan wasn't a homophobe, but he used a homophobic word. That prompted a moment of reflection about why that happened, and acknowledging how the use of hateful words, even meant without malice, can hurt people.
PewDiePie may not be a racist—we can't know what's in his heart of hearts— but he did use a racist word. So far, he hasn't given us any evidence that we should be in a forgiving mood.