Yet another violent gun tragedy has befallen America — this time, it was journalists who were targeted. A gunman stormed the offices of the Capital Gazette in Maryland, killing five. The mass murderer was inspired by statements by infamous white nationalist Milo Yiannopoulos, who, just two days before, spoke of wanting “vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down.”
Of course, in the wake of this horrific violence, he is using an excuse that is heard far too often: he was just trolling! It was all a joke! We desperately need to recognize that, whether or not he was serious, when someone with an audience of millions of people makes a joke, it has serious impact. People who have these sort of massive followings must be held accountable for what they say, regardless of intent.
A few months ago, I experienced this first-hand with the fanbase of h3h3 Productions, a YouTube channel with nearly six million subscribers. Though a long-time viewer of their comedy videos, I had grown more and more frustrated with the increasing anti-social justice slant of their content. Given they are one of the largest channels on YouTube, they have a significant material impact on the political views of our youth — especially given their legitimately good comedic ability.
That frustration peaked when Ethan Klein, the star of the channel, made a joke on Twitter in which he said he would be violently removing his genitalia due to contact with the inside of a toilet bowl and thus that people should now call him “Ellen.” Given I am a trans woman myself, this concerned me deeply, given it delegitimizes the process and reasons we do what we do.
Given I have a lot of transgender followers on Twitter that also follow the YouTube culture, I screenshotted his tweet and made one of my own in which I warned them of his transphobia. I did not issue any sort of call to action, nor did I expect or intend it to be seen by h3h3 themselves.
Of course, I was very wrong. It became the top post of reddit in a “cringe” subreddit, which then led to h3h3 themselves making a video in which they portrayed me as too easily offended and sensitive and insinuated that I wanted to ruin their career. In reality, all I cared was ensuring that those within my community who could be harmed by such jokes would be warned. Other big name YouTubers latched onto the story and made videos too.
This led to over a month of unrelenting harassment on every social media account I use, as well as people sharing my address and phone number, as well as sending me death threats. It was not a new experience for me — I have even written a previous OpEd about how Twitter’s handling of abuse enables this sort of harassment — but the intensity and duration was far worse than I had ever experienced before. All of this because I was concerned about a joke that someone made.
We live in a scary time when irony and detachment are common coping mechanisms. No one could blame anyone for wanting to use humor and exaggeration to help face it all. But without considering the impact of our words and who they will harm or embolden, we have the potential to do great harm.
Note that I am not calling for “civility” as so many have in the wake of comments by people like Maxine Waters. With so many horrific things happening that some mercilessly defend, we are not all going to get along — as much as I deeply wish it were possible. Weaponizing humor can even be a great way to fight back in our age of internet memes and hashtags — but that is a product of a degree of interconnectedness where people’s words have more impact than ever before. While it is easy for some to pretend as if stuff said on the internet does not matter, the internet in fact ensures that everything they say does matter — whether they like it or not.
Chaos theorists have famously used the hypothetical example of a butterfly flapping its wings causing a tornado several weeks later. In the digital world, which has consumed more and more of our time and attention, this process happens in hours instead of weeks — the winged creature is just the Twitter bluebird instead of a butterfly. In many cases, it can be beneficial, as important causes or information will go viral, but the pace at which it happens is far faster than our society has ever known.
Though no longer accepting, “it was just a joke!” as an excuse would not solve a lot of the problems the lightspeed of social media creates, it is an important step in stopping some of the most harmful. No one should take this as a call to stop joking so often, but rather to hone their comedic talents so they can wield their wit adeptly and ensure it has a positive impact upon the world.