On 30 May, journalist Carlos Maza, who hosts, writes and co-produces Vox’s political commentary video series Strikethrough, posted a Twitter thread. In it, he claimed that he'd been the subject of multiple instances of harassment by Steven Crowder, a conservative YouTuber with almost four million subscribers. A clip shared by Maza (a highlight reel of sorts, if highlight reels were edited in the Museum of Horrors) shows Crowder repeatedly making fun of Maza’s sexual orientation (Maza is openly gay) and ethnicity.
In the nauseating video, Crowder, like a full-grown middle school bully, calls Maza a “little queer”, a “lispy queer”, a “gay Latino from Vox”, “the gay Vox sprite”, a “lispy angry sprite”, and a “token Vox gay atheist sprite” among other epithets – I will spare you the rest of the list because it’s likely to make you want to hurl your laptop, smartphone, or whatever device you’re reading this on out the window.
“These videos get millions of views on YouTub,” Maza tweeted. “Every time one gets posted, I wake up to a wall of homophobic/racist abuse on Instagram and Twitter.”
Crowder’s response, naturally, came soon after, in the form of a video published on 31 May, in which he claimed Vox was trying to ban his channel. He also made the incredibly bad faith argument that using the term “lispy queer” was all right because Maza “speaks with a lisp” (for the record, I don’t think he does, but that’s not the central issue here), and “refers to himself as a queer”. (Maza, by the way, doesn’t refer to himself as “a queer”, but rather as “queer” – and yes, that makes a world of difference. “Queer” is one of those words that can be both a slur and a regular adjective and you have to look at the context of the sentence in which it’s used to know the intention behind it, but of course such an exercise requires a minimum amount of intellectual honesty.)
In other words, Crowder immediately began painting himself as a victim – another martyr being burned at the stake by the "anti-free speech" left.
On 1 June, Maza pointed out YouTube’s hypocrisy in celebrating Pride (because of course this is all happening during Pride Month). As of now, the @YTCreators Twitter page is decked out in rainbow colors — but what good does that do any of us if YouTube allows this type of behavior to fester on its platform?
The situation escalated over the next few days, and it would be too long to recap here, so just know that it involved a 20-minute fake apology video by Crowder (and I mean fake, not just unconvincing) and an intervention from Olympic ice skater and certified national treasure Adam Rippon. Then, on 4 June, finally, the waters parted, Team YouTube chimed in – and it became immediately clear that its response was going to be insultingly lackluster.
“While we found language that was clearly hurtful, the videos as posted don’t violate our policies,” YouTube’s response to Maza reads in part.
Let’s sit with that for just a moment. In fact, no – let’s check out YouTube’s “harassment and cyberbullying policy”, which is clearly displayed on its website. “Don’t post content on YouTube if it fits any of the descriptions noted below,” the policy reads. Beneath this warning is a list that includes the following: “Content that is deliberately posted in order to humiliate someone”, “content that makes hurtful and negative personal comments/videos about another person” and “content that incites others to harass or threaten individuals on or off YouTube”.
Surely, calling someone a “lispy queer” and a “lispy angry sprite” qualifies as humiliating and hurtful, doesn’t it? And if it’s repeated over the course of several videos, wouldn’t that be harassment? Well, not according to YouTube, which chose to play – of course – the free speech card.
“As an open platform, it’s crucial for us to allow everyone – from creators to journalists to late-night TV hosts – to express their opinions [within] the scope of our policies,” YouTube added. “Opinions can be deeply offensive, but if they don’t violate our policies, they’ll remain on our site.”
Last I checked, calling someone a “lispy queer” didn’t constitute a valid opinion.
YouTube’s most recent move was to remove ads from Crowder’s videos, which, as Maza has pointed out, is nowhere near sufficient. Content creators such as Crowder benefit from building a platform (which he can still do, since his videos remain on YouTube) and exploiting other revenue streams.
Harassment requires context, which means harassers can often hide behind isolated sentences and claim they "did nothing wrong". It also has much wider effects on a person's wellbeing than one thrown insult might. During a phone interview with me today, Maza extrapolated on this, saying: “Anybody who’s ever experienced any harassment knows that hate speech is always coupled with some other demand on the target or some other criticism of the target,” he said. “So when I was in high school, people would yell, ‘F****t get out of the way’, ‘F****t stop talking.’ And the intention of that speech was to get me to do something, but the presence of the slur had a profound effect both on the target and on the audience hearing it.”
The purported urge to protect free speech at all cost because no one should be silenced is deeply hypocritical. If your defense of free speech means you can’t take a stand against bullying, guess what? The very people targeted by this behavior are getting silenced.
“The goal of that speech is obviously to get the targets to stop participating in the speech environment and it works,” Maza said. “I obviously thought about hiding in a cave and never posting again, and YouTube has to have some meaningful defense of why there should be a caveat for why political discussions, by their nature, should include an assumption that you’re going to get made fun of for being gay, or for being a woman, or for being a person of color.”
This silencing has a profound effect on society and political discourse. “On a platform like YouTube, it means that queer people or people of color are afraid to talk about things that might earn the ire of conservative shock jocks,” Maza added. “There are a lot of queer people who don’t have to deal with this on YouTube, because all they do is talk about makeup or fashion. They’re relegated to this one silo of YouTube’s ecosystem because it’s just not worth it to participate in political discussions if you feel like part of doing that is you’re going to get called a queer and YouTube is basically going to say, ‘That’s OK with us’.”
So long as bullies are positively rewarded for their behavior, they will continue to display it. YouTube must stop enabling them on its own platform. It’s a matter of responsibility, of setting the right precedent, and, at this point, of basic human decency.
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