South Africa’s YouTube gaming communities and the violence of ‘humour’

Back in June, South African YouTuber Kyle Olinsky was outed for sending sexually and violently graphic messages to random women on Instagram. In one message, he told a woman that she “can’t say no”, threatening her with rape.

Many were outraged that a man of his status, with a sizeable following on his gaming channel BluRz, was seemingly harassing women online with no remorse.

But Olinsky barely lost a subscriber, and he saw a small surge of followers on Twitter despite taking part in his own social media blackout. Olinsky’s viewers were with him — and when he finally released his apology, his excuse of a proclivity for “dark humour” was enough for viewers who share this same sense of humour to instantly welcome him back to the platform.

Now, when Olinsky mentions on Twitter that he wishes to joke about this ordeal, he receives full support from followers happy to accept that while violent language sent to strangers is misguided, it isn’t inherently wrong. Furthermore, the evil, misunderstanding “media” is at fault for “overreacting”.

This is because the internet allows people from around the globe to foster small communities around whichever commonalities they desire. Sometimes this is merely those who enjoy gaming, and sometimes, more specifically, it provides a safe space to those with toxic views towards women and violence in general.

One of these groups is this portion of the South African YouTube gaming community.

The humour in violence

When Kyle Olinsky posted his video response, he said that he isn’t the only one who enjoys “dark humour” — and he’s right. The YouTube video received over 200 comments, the majority of which agreed that he had done little wrong.

“Kyle, we are by your side,” wrote one user. “We missed you and #BlurredFam will never leave you,” another. To them, the backlash was mere “consequences of such humour”.

But what exactly does this group mean by dark humour?

Dark humour has no definition on which academics agree. Humour itself doesn’t even have one. But black comedy does have a more clear origin; the term was coined by a French surrealist to understand Gulliver’s Travels author Jonathan Swift’s satirical work.

In one of Swift’s better-known essays, A Modern Proposal, he suggests that poor Irish people sell their children as food for the upper class. The essay was intended to criticise heartless attitudes towards the poor, as well as Britain’s unfair policies towards Ireland in general.

More recently, comedian Patton Oswalt invoked dark humour in his comedy special Annihilation. In it, he tackles the subject of his wife’s death, and how difficult it was to grieve while also caring for his young daughter.

Dark humour is often employed to offer new perspective on an emotionally distressing subject. Whether it be satirical or, like with Oswalt, a measure with which to cope, the humour eases human suffering, even just for a moment.

When Olinsky and his supporters say “dark humour”, they do not mean mere morbidity, and his comments to women are not intended as satire about misogyny. Instead, their “humour” is about laughing at gore and victims of intense violence.

A screenshot sent to Memeburn showed that in the WhatsApp group chat housing the “BlurredFam” (Olinsky and his followers), one participant sent a series of gory images. One of these included a man holding the buttocks of a woman with a severed torso and legs, captioned “Pocket pussy? That’s for amateurs”.

When members of the group spoke out against the image, Olinsky told them to “grow the fuck up”. “If you can’t handle a little bit of banter, I’ll pay for surgery, get you boys a pair of solid nuts (sic),” he wrote. Others responded with crying laughing emoji. When asked by Memeburn why he enjoys this type of humour, a member of the community simply replied: “It’s hilarious”.

This aggressive behaviour isn’t out of the ordinary for members of this group chat. When the initial Olinsky article was posted by W24, the chat imploded with support for the YouTuber — but some of the support turned into anger for the woman they believed leaked the screenshots.

“This the hoe?” one member asked. “Let’s find her,” said another. “Find this chick and ruin her life?”

The conversation must have stopped there, as when Memeburn contacted the woman in question, she said she was unaware of any life-ruining attempts. She did, however, receive one message from a boy who “looked 13 or 14 [years old]” calling her a bitch.

Herein lies but one of the dangers of a figurehead like Olinsky dismissing violence as funny: whether he likes it or not, he has power over a group of young people who will grow to learn that there is no consequence for threatening violent acts on strangers.

Why is it funny?

In an attempt to understand this humour, Memeburn asked a few streamers and fans whether they participated in these kinds of jokes and why they thought it was funny. Most responded that they had no desire to participate in the humour, but that it was okay for others to do so.

“I don’t find dark humour to be funny for me personally, but everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” the owner of @Streamers_ZA on Twitter told us. Others shared similar sentiments, and of those that responded they found it funny, none would give a clear explanation as to why.

Of course, it’s often difficult to explain what is humorous to us and why we find it funny, but for something so far off the spectrum of general humour (and so contrary to what humans are geared to enjoy), it’s worrying that many are swiftly accepting the language into their lives without thought.

Sam Wright, better known as TechGirl online, has some experience with this faction of the internet. When she initially wrote about the Olinsky drama and his subsequent response, she says that many of his fans tried to “convert” her to their opinions.”When that didn’t work, I dealt with some abuse,” she wrote to us in email correspondence.

Wright argues that the dark humour comes down to a lack of understanding. “It’s less accepting violence and rather just not having a frame of reference of the severity,” she wrote. Explaining it further: “When my friends and I harass a girl on the internet … we have no way of realising the damage we cause as we have no actual contact with her.”

It’s not difficult, then, to associate this perceived distance from violence as being supported by the violent shooter games many of the members of this group enjoy. When bonding over games, these members have a main point of reference over which to joke, and that common ground is filled with blood and gore — none of which ever physically affects them.

This isn’t to say that all those who play shooter games are going to laugh at severed bodies, but those who follow others who do will naturally face a point of normalisation. When a young member of the “BlurredFam” consistently engages with content that glorifies violence and treats it as a punchline rather than a danger, it’s natural for them to believe that it’s both normal and hilarious.

Additionally, psychological studies have proven the pull of conformity. In Solomon Asch’s widely-cited conformity study, it was found that human beings will naturally align their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviour with those around them. So when told to “grow up”, or when told more than once that graphic violence is just “banter”, members of the group who may have been unsure before-hand could quickly and easily align their own thinking.

This explains why these members believed public response to be an overreaction. For most people, the language the “BlurredFam” employs is not normal. Group chats are not filled with destroyed bodies, strangers are not told they can’t say no to horrific sexual activities. So when news like this breaks, it’s shocking. But it isn’t for those who regularly surround themselves with it, or have conformed to others who do so.

The danger of normalisation

The danger of normalisation is that it can lead to internalisation: when others’ opinions or beliefs are integrated into one’s own identity. The blasé attitude towards graphic violence — often inflicted upon women — is undoubtedly being accepted into these members’ senses of self.

“It is basically impossible to spend so much time doing something … without having some of it transfer over to other areas of your life,” says YouTuber Wingzie, who avoids what little negative humour she encounters on the platform. @Streamers_ZA agreed.

A user who had identified himself as enjoying the violent brand of humour said that he is the same person on- and offline.

“I like to be a real person,” he wrote. “I am myself no matter what sort of environment I’m in.” He asserted that he and his friends “banter” the same way in person.

This internalisation isn’t only dangerous for outsiders like the women Olinsky messaged, but for the members themselves.

In Rod A Martin’s work in The Psychology of Humour, he finds that aggressive humour (that which enhances one’s self at the expense of another), goes hand-in-hand with hostility and open aggression. It also has a negative correlation with relationship satisfaction, and another study found that those who employed it were seen as less attractive in long-term relationships.

These correlations cover the entire umbrella of aggressive humour, which includes sarcasm, teasing and any other joke intended to belittle someone else. It does not touch on humour that may be derived from the graphic violence the members of this particular group enjoy — but it wouldn’t be unfair to contemplate the danger.

Olinsky tells his viewers to accept it — forcing them to choose between being in his group chat that accepts gore as funny or exiting their small community — and he’s backed up by friends. In doing so, the community doesn’t only harm the women they have ambushed: they also endanger their own emotional and mental well-being.

Toxicity of safe spaces

The internet is a safe space for many who may feel alienated by people in their non-virtual lives. It makes it easy for those with specific interests to find and support others like them in a way that was never possible before.

If one thing is clear from questioning gamers about the streaming scene, it’s that they adore their community. When asked to describe it one word, terms like “passionate”, “amazing”, “supportive” all flew into the mix.

But that acceptance feels black and white — and some are quick to excuse Olinsky’s actions because he treats others well.

“If this [article] is about BluRz,” wrote @Streamers_ZA, “I just want to say … he’s an amazing guy! He is friendly, nice, helpful, and very kind.”

But not everyone is so quick to excuse his behaviour. The anonymous source of the WhatsApp screenshots told Memeburn that he never liked Olinsky because of his “disgusting humour”, and after he “publicly humiliated [his] mate”, he was done.

According to the source, some were upset by the gore, but too many of his followers share the same amusement as Olinsky — thus giving him room to continue his behaviour.

Because these online spaces don’t only comfort the afflicted: they also harbour groups that are able to stew in their own toxicity without ever properly engaging with those of dissenting opinions.

By cordoning themselves off, important and nuanced issues become black and white. You’re either “grown up” and down with the “banter” or you’re not. There is little room for discussion when you expect everyone to agree with you.

Not only does that affect our psychology, our very identities, but it hinders and endangers the way we interact with others. It also tarnishes the name of a community otherwise cherished by its members.

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