PewDiePie’s N-Word Controversy Isn’t About Freedom of SpeechPhoto by John Lamparski / Getty Images Games Features PewDiePie
This was settled years ago: unless you’re black, you don’t say the n-word. Full stop. Failure to comply can ruin your career and get you ostracized from mainstream society, as it should. That line about how freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences might as well have been coined about this one specific word. You simply don’t say it.
There are no excuses. It’s not a matter of the First Amendment. It’s part of living in a civilized society. It’s part of being a decent person. It’s part of not being an asshole who’s either consumed with hate or blithely indifferent to perpetuating it. If you don’t immediately condemn the usage of that word then you yourself become complicit.
I’ve known this my entire life and I grew up in the South. I’m a white guy from Georgia. I’m part of the demographic that most people would probably (stereotypically) assume is the most comfortable with that word. I’ve heard extended family members use it casually in conversation, and even as a kid I knew it was wrong and would reprimand them for it. It’s a hard, fast, unbreakable rule: that word is off limits.
Unless you’re playing videogames on YouTube, apparently?
That’s the argument put forth by defenders of PewDiePie, the multimillionaire Swedish YouTuber who has caused controversy before with so-called “jokes” that are actually just racist, bigoted comments. This weekend he called another player the n-word while streaming Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds. He tried to apologize and play it off, but it was too late: you don’t just casually toss that word out, no matter how heated the moment might be, if you’re not already used to saying it. The fact that his mind would just immediately go to that place is incriminating enough.
Various rightwing bloggers, journalists and YouTubers have come out in defense of PewDiePie, accusing his critics of “virtue signaling” and feigning “outrage” over the incident. When the game studio Campo Santo announced that they would file DMCA takedowns to remove PewDiePie’s videos about its game Firewatch, the studio and its designers were targeted by many of these same people. Some of the most vocal defenders of PewDiePie were among the angriest critics of VentureBeat’s Dean Takahashi during last week’s controversy over his Cuphead video. For these people, it’s apparently unforgivable to be bad at a videogame, or to not want your game to be associated with a YouTuber who is comfortable using racial slurs, but totally fine to use racial slurs when somebody kills you in a shooter.
I shouldn’t have to be writing any of this right now. For most of my life there was no public debate about the n-word. It was known to be off limits. The only people trying to debate this are either unapologetic racists or disingenuous hate-mongers who built their careers on pandering to unapologetic racists. Not surprisingly, some of the people who apparently think it’s okay to say that word when you fail in a videogame are some of the same people behind GamerGate. Because, as any ethicist will tell you, the freedom to offhandedly use racial slurs is connected to ethics in videogame journalism.
This isn’t about freedom of speech for these people. It’s about two things: for some of them it’s about normalizing racism, and for others it’s about delegitimizing the mainstream media and gaming industry for their own benefit, no matter what sort of undesirable elements they might have to align with. With the former, well, racists want to create more racists, and are pretty open about that goal. For the latter, the entire right-wing media apparatus has been a shameless grievance engine for decades. It exists solely in opposition to the mainstream media. Both groups are horrible, and although I would never say that overt racists are more respectable than anybody else in this world, the would-be Limbaughs who try to profit off hatred and division, who try to enhance their audience’s brand loyalty by constantly agitating against media outlets and companies that would take a stand against bigotry, are infuriating in a way unmatched by almost anything else today. No matter the goal, the line between these two factions disappears when the latter condones or endorses the former. You can’t say you’re opposed to racism and hate while simultaneously trying to defend and profit from them. If you try to justify racism, or the inherently racist act of using the n-word, you’re just a racist, no matter what you tell yourself.
One of the most surprising things about this entire situation is that, when I sit back and really think about it, like when I find myself explaining this story to my wife, it actually becomes surprising again. If you work in this business you’ve been used to the larger culture war’s encroachment upon games for years, since well before GamerGate. At first nothing about this PewDiePie affair shocked me—not what he said, not that he was the one to say it, not that the usual crew of exploitative vultures tried to defend him to boost their own traffic. But when I boil the broader strokes of the case down to a single-sentence description—a guy from Europe who makes millions screaming unintelligibly at videogames on the internet is totally cool and comfortable with whipping out the n-word, and then gets defended and sometimes even celebrated by tons of people on the internet for saying it—it’s such a laughable and ridiculous scenario that it becomes genuinely confusing. How did we create this world?
The word that I was raised to understand was completely beyond the pale is now apparently something self-righteous, self-proclaimed “gamers” applaud millionaires for using. The angry teens and tweens that used to hurl slurs and obscenities at everybody in the Xbox Live lobby ten years ago are now adults, and part of the culture that created them, and that they in turn helped create, is totally cool with the n-word, the one word above all others that was—and should be—off-limits. Although it’s heartening to see developers like Campo Santo and Simogo speak out against PewDiePie, and to see the legitimate press almost unilaterally agree that his language was inexcusable, the fact that this debate is even happening—that PewDiePie felt comfortable saying that word, and that so many people are defending him for it—is an indictment of the entire videogame community. If you can even call it a community at all.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.