I recently re-read Sarah Nyberg’s I Was a Teenage Edgelord, and a phrase jumped out at me that I hadn’t caught before. She was referring to her time on chan boards and other forums where the goal was for teens and people in their early twenties to do their best to gross each other out with jokes about pedophilia, cannibalism and other such topics. Nyberg called it the “playground of the taboo,” and I feel a passage from her piece is worth quoting verbatim…
My escape from the pain of that life was the internet; trolling, stoking outrage, and defending the indefensible in an attempt to cause drama. Being hated online was an escape, and an excuse to avoid the reality and pain of life. Where I felt anger at the world, at myself, at those around me, I could be the thing I thought was deserving of that hatred, with relative anonymity freeing me from the boundaries of societal expectation. I could be the bad guy, if not in fact, than in legend. The taboo became a suit of armor; each day, I would be more shocking, more edgy, than the last. Defense of racism, sexual deviancy, murder, and more, all vented between discussions of video games and websites, and thankfully?—?though not regrettably?—?contained to those virtual walls. Victimless, but only as far as we could tell in the moment; you can never be sure, when being ironically edgy, who may be legitimately goaded into horrible acts. It’s why we talk about punching up, not down; it’s why intent is not magic. It’s why I don’t tell rape jokes anymore. It is what I regret most from those days.
The Internet is an oddly puritanical place because it is weirdly obsessed with the content of a person’s character rather than the effect of his or her actions. It often is that playground Nyberg talked about, with many folks convinced that the Internet somehow isn’t real, that it isn’t us.
As such, many of these people feel empowered to be, what they think is, ironically Nazi. This belief is what recently laid low YouTube star PewDiePie, who paid people to hold up signs saying “death to all Jews” as a joke. Maker Studios dropped him over it, and in his subsequent apology, he made sure to remind us that “you can joke about anything,” though he did at least admit there was “a right way and a not the best way.” Also, the media is mean, but, you know, so are Nazi jokes, so whatever, Felix.
I’m going to make this as clear as I can. When you do Nazi things, no matter whether in your heart you are just goofing around, you contribute to the sum of Nazi things in the world. Can you joke about Nazis? Of course you can. Here’s a bit I link to every chance I get, and I've lost count of the number of people who have sent me the WKUK “Hitler Rap."
But, as PewDiePie said, there’s a right way and a not the best way. Nazis are funny only when it’s made clear they’re the bad guys, or are parodied to the point of ridiculousness. (See: Springtime for Hitler for more information on this.) Pretending to be a Nazi isn’t, in and of itself, funny. Screaming at strangers about gas chambers may feel edgy and transgressive to you, but in a world where anti-Semitism is on the rise and our president seems to think Jews are in the midst of a false flag operation, it’s mostly just awful.
Look, I grew up in East Houston. There are no Jews there. They might as well have been unicorns when I was a kid. All I knew of them came from books and a field trip to the Holocaust Museum. I kind of get the impression that a lot of the edgelords don’t actually know any Jews either. All of this is just some abstract idea to them. Ones and zeroes in cyberspace.
And when things like anti-Semitism are safe intellectual exercises, it’s easy to pretend that a sign saying “death to all Jews” is a harmless joke. That the person doing so is some merry prankster. But, as Nyberg said in her piece, intent is not magic. If I may expand, no one but Jesus cares what’s in your heart. The rest of us out here on Planet Texas have to deal with the actual effects. Here, in reality, all that a “death to all Jews” sign does is tell people who think it would be awesome to kill all Jews that others agree with them.
You can’t be an ironic Nazi. No one can tell the difference, and the effect is exactly the same as if you were a sincere Nazi. No blow for free speech is being struck when you “Heil Hitler” as a joke. You’re not Andy Kaufman pulling a con. You’re just making the world a more Nazi place. Period.