Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman: Sir Peter Leitch and the trouble with casual racism

Auckland woman Lara Bridger, left, posted a video on social media claiming Sir Peter, right, had told her Waiheke Island was a "white man's island". Photos / Facebook, supplied
Auckland woman Lara Bridger, left, posted a video on social media claiming Sir Peter, right, had told her Waiheke Island was a "white man's island". Photos / Facebook, supplied

Last week it was reported that Sir Peter Leitch called Waiheke Island "a white man's island", and the timing couldn't have been better. Local news in the early New Year had been dominated by shark sightings and drowning statistics but here was something fresh, unexpected and - best of all - controversial.

What's more, it was the gift that kept on giving. Every attempt to minimise the fallout made the situation even more absurd. It was a textbook example of how to turn one ill-advised remark into a miniature disaster. So let's ponder a few of the discussion points left in its wake.

1. The power of social media

It has never been easier for anyone with an opinion or a grudge to widely express their view. In this case, the young woman posted a tearful video that clearly demonstrated the affront she felt at Leitch's alleged remark.

Once upon a time she would have been able to share her anguish only with her nearest and dearest. These days, her potential audience is enormous.

An article referring to the so-called "MBE" rule appeared in response to this incident. It stated that you shouldn't post anything on social media that you wouldn't want your mother (M), your boss (B) or your enemies (E) to see. It's a very good rule but why limit its application to social media? Surely it should be applied to your behaviour in the real world as well.

Leitch would have been well advised to consider if he'd want his boss or enemies to know what he'd said about Waiheke. But therein, of course, lies part of the problem: Leitch doesn't have a boss and his carefully honed image doesn't really allow for the possibility that he could have enemies either. He's "Butch", "your old mate, the Mad Butcher"; he's a loveable larrikin. Who could possibly not like him? Right?

2. The asymmetry

There was a distinct power imbalance between Sir Peter Leitch and the person who "misinterpreted" him. He's in his seventies; she's just 23. He has a knighthood; she holds no such title. He has friends in high places; she probably just has friends. He's a man; she's a woman.

It's difficult to imagine two patrons of the same vineyard having less in common that these particular people on that particular day. This should not be a big deal but it became one when Leitch chose this person on which to unleash his "light-hearted banter"/racist remark (please delete one). Given that he's older, in a position of privilege and supposedly wiser, there was an onus on him to choose his words more carefully.

3. The parallels with ponytail-gate

When John Key pulled a waitress's ponytail, the nation was divided. Key might not remember which side he took during the Springbok tour, but we can all remember our response to the great ponytail grab. It was a polarising event. Some people thought his actions constituted sexual harassment, possibly even assault. Others thought the ensuing kerfuffle was an overreaction, that it was "PC gone mad".

In a similar vein, some people were appalled by Leitch's words. Others think it is much ado about nothing. Some of them wrote to the NZ Herald. "Welcome to the world of today. Where offence is taken at the drop of a hat," said Graham Hansen, Howick. "Well done to Sir Peter," wrote Richard Prince, Tauranga. "[A]re we that precious about what is said?" asked Brian Henman, Algies Bay.

4. The audacious PR strategy

In order to take the heat out of the whole "white man's" situation, Michelle Boag was commissioned to enact a plan so cunning it will surely be used as a case-study in PR courses for years to come.

While ostensibly she was there to defend "Butch", Boag's role, in fact, was to serve as a distraction. Her own racist remark was actually a decoy intended to remove focus from her client. Boag kept her cover throughout, even going so far as to claim she had no idea the phrase "barely coffee-coloured" could be construed as racist when used to judge the shade of another person's skin. She is good.

5. The support of sportspeople

Some sportsmen defended Leitch. Jerry Seuseu said: "My mate Sir Peter Leitch is no racist". Ruben Wiki said: "I can tell you right now this man is not a racist." Monty Betham said: "He is not a racist". It's as if all of the good Leitch has done for Maori and Polynesian communities over the years allows him some special dispensation in regard to his behaviour. It's a flawed argument but those athletes are entitled to support him if they choose.

But you didn't have to have been a league player in order to show your approval of Leitch. Susan Devoy, a world champion squash player back in the day, called Leitch "the least racist person I know" - which made a few people suggest she needs to widen her circle of friends and acquaintances.

That might have been the end of it but this woman also happens to be New Zealand's Race Relations Commissioner, the same person who recently supported a campaign to combat "casual racism". That's awkward. Conflict of interest, much? Honestly, you could not make this stuff up.

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Dwelling on injustices, bad behaviour and modern day dilemmas.

Shelley Bridgeman is a truck-driving, supermarket-going, horse-riding mother-of-one who is still married to her first husband. As a Herald online blogger, she specialises in First World Problems and delves fearlessly into the minutiae of daily life. Twice a week, she shares her perspective on a pressing current issue and invites readers to add their ten cents’ worth to the debate.

Read more by Shelley Bridgeman

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