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HARRINGTON: No more second chances for PewDiePie

Photo by Andrew Himmelberg

Photo by Andrew Himmelberg

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YouTube star Felix Kjellberg, better known by the moniker PewDiePie, angrily used the N-word during a live stream this past week. PewDiePie has previously been the subject of controversy for using anti-Semitic language in a video, which fans argued was used to condemn Nazism. However, the more recent incident cannot possibly be re-contextualized. In his apology video, he talks about “not learning from past controversies,” showing an awareness of patterns in his past behaviors.

The alarming element of this situation is the chorus of people defending his behaviors as part of “gaming culture,” and the greater implications of the toxicity of a growing field in new media.

The most common defense of PewDiePie’s usage of racial slurs was, “We’ve all said things like that when we play games.” It is not that I am a paragon of all that is wholesome, or that I’ve never said obscenities when playing online. However, there’s a difference between swearing and casually throwing out racial slurs.

There’s also a massive difference between the average gamer and PewDiePie, who is by and far the most prominent figure in his field. PewDiePie has over 57 million subscribers on Youtube and his content generates millions of views. His audience is massive, and they will notice when he “slips up.”

PewDiePie is a public figure and should have the ability to self-censor. What is so mind-blowing about this situation is that he said the N-word on a live stream just a few months after being accused of anti-Semitism. He is the subject of a Wall Street Journal article and the center of a debate over race in games media, so his inability to avoid saying the worst possible word is baffling. I’m typically inclined to give people second chances, but PewDiePie doesn’t seem to be learning from his mistakes.

In his early years, there were an alarming number of rape jokes in PewDiePie’s content. He released a statement in 2012 that he’d no longer be making those kinds of jokes and he “never meant to hurt anyone.” I’m not keeping score, but I think the time for second (or fifth) chances is over. In an industry where any comment can be dubbed as a misinterpreted joke or a “stupid mistake,” we need to hold people accountable for their unacceptable behavior.

When we allow public figures to screw up this badly over and over again, we normalize this kind of mentality. “Oh, it was just a joke,” and, “I never wanted to upset anyone,” are hollow excuses and apologies that are repeated ad nauseam and accepted again and again. If the most prominent figures in an increasingly popular and lucrative field aren’t held accountable, then less-popular or well-known streamers and YouTubers have a precedent of seemingly acceptable, toxic or problematic behaviors to emulate.

YouTube and Disney cutting ties with PewDiePie following the “Death to all Jews” incident was a great step forward for punishing this sort of conduct, but it still is not enough. If we as viewers are going to defend PewDiePie as not racist, then we need to stop letting him get away with racist behavior.

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