There was a time a character like The Mad Butcher could make a bad joke and few would know except those within earshot and those they told. Today, nothing has changed except the way they tell others. Instead of verbal conversation with a few friends and family, face-to-face or on the telephone, those who had the comment from someone well-known are likely to put it on Facebook or other social media.

They do so, intending only to share it with their friends. They are not, in most cases probably, intending to publish it to a wider community. If Sir Peter Leitch is wiser for the reaction to his comment on Waiheke this week, so was the offended woman. Lara Bridger soon took down the video she had posted of the incident, saying, "people were going a bit overboard with threats and racist comments". The experience she wanted to share with friends and sympathisers had gone "viral", generating an online debate that was by no means universally sympathetic to her point of view.

Should she have been surprised? A 23-year-old surely is familiar with the way something like this can take flight on the media that her age group uses for just about everything from filing personal photographs to following world news. Yet she clearly did not expect her post to circulate so widely and furiously. This is the perhaps the most instructive lesson from the event.

It has been said often enough that nothing is really private on the internet. Messages may be limited to a network of "friends" but each of them has another network of friends, and so it goes on. It works exactly like gossip, except that it does not have gossip's unreliable hearsay. The authentic audio and video, or the original text message as the case may be, can be heard, seen or read by everyone who receives it on the internet.

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How many years of living on this web will it take before we treat it with more caution?

When things happen, such as a brush with a well-known person, and we don't want it to be a subject of general debate, save it for places that are safe. And if you are the well-known person, of course, be careful what you say in jest to somebody with a cellphone.

For many readers of Wednesday's Herald that day's report of the Waiheke incident was the first they knew of it and many did not think it deserved to be on the front page. But the debate raging on social media was worthy of attention. It generated a debate in our columns too. Are we too sensitive about race these days, or does even innocent "casual" racial comment genuinely hurt?

Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy explained that it does hurt, and Sir Peter has acknowledged that it does. So has his defender, Michelle Boag. So should everyone who stops to think about it. Racism lies in all reminders given to those of a minority race that they do not possess the power of the majority. Whether the reminder is serious or jocular, deliberate or subconscious, it hurts.

And no, racism is not an indigenous minority claiming special rights and status. That does not hurt the majority.

Lara Bridger inadvertently started a useful debate this week but all who use social media need to realise this subject is not for the faint-hearted.