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'Tis the season to be sorry: When free speech meets social media


The year has begun with a flurry of apologies from well-known New Zealanders who never guessed they had crossed a line into racism or sexism.

In early January, Sir Peter Leitch was the first offender away from the blocks in the racism stakes. He had upset a young Maori woman, Lara Wharepapa-Bridger, with his remarks at a vineyard about Waiheke being a “white man’s island”. Her tearful Facebook post clocked up more than 100,000 views; in response, the Mad Butcher apologised “unreservedly” for giving offence, and insisted she had simply “misinterpreted some light-hearted banter”.

His apology didn’t end the controversy. Much of the subsequent debate in the media swirled around whether his being racist or not could be decided by considering his undoubted good works or whether slips of the tongue revealed a less likeable side to his character. Few doubted that Leitch was generous to Maori and Pasifika communities, but some weren’t so sure about the way he often expressed himself and what that meant.

Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy flip-flopped on the issue before the brouhaha was resolved by the brilliant PR practitioner Michelle Boag taking one for the team. She caused an uproar by saying the complainant had said she was “black” when, in fact, she was “barely coffee coloured” — thus diverting attention from Leitch entirely.

Sir Peter apologised

Boag wouldn’t go as far as an apology but admitted she had been guilty of “casual racism” that, like many New Zealanders, she had previously been unaware was a problem.

The media got so much mileage out of this storm, they tried their luck again with a Facebook selfie of comedian Jimi Jackson in what they claimed was “blackface” but looked more like Nutella.

The denunciations didn’t get very far. As Jackson pointed out to his 816,000 fans on Facebook, the first obstacle for those crying racism arises from the fact he is a white Maori. Whether this means therefore that he is a “person of colour” is a moot point but it certainly helped take the wind out of his critics’ sails.

Also, at the time he was dressing up for a kapa haka television skit; the make-up was brown not black; and his name is Jackson — so when he suggested he should be known as “Jimi Blackson” it seemed kind of funny. (“Jim Brownson,” he said “wasn’t as cool.”)

The story might have rolled on but white journalists — who dominate the media — realised it put them in an uncomfortable position. Alex Casey wrote on The Spinoff: “As a Pākehā woman, it’s not my place to comment on the complexities of the Jimi Blackson controversy.”

That can only be seen as a tactically wise move. Given the paucity of persons of colour in the media, it would have been a bit rich to attack a Maori as racist for using bronzer from your lofty position of white privilege. Pot, kettle, black — or brown or white — and all that.

Nevertheless, having been unwilling to take him on over racism, Casey pinged him for derogatory language towards women, in her post titled: Shocker: Turns Out Jimi Jackson’s a Misogynist Bully Too.

And it’s true that Jackson had replied in derogatory and demeaning terms to a woman on Facebook who told him he was stupid and to grow up.

Although comedians are meant to be transgressive — just ask Jimmy Carr or Amy Schumer — he nevertheless offered an apology of sorts. He defended himself by claiming the woman had unfairly brought his family into the frame, having implied that as a father he had a responsibility to set an example to his young son.

It was a lame apology of the “I-lashed-out/ A-bad-person-made-me-do-it” variety, and Jackson defended himself with far less conviction than on the “blackface” charge.

It appears the normally unrepentant Jackson made the apology mainly because he will be the star of a new Maori TV show, Jimi’s World, this year and the producers really don’t want the programme to be boycotted or slated by those in the media who have already taken agin him. Someone must have taken him aside for a pep talk.

The ultimate result of the publicity, of course, no doubt means even more people will watch his show and his already phenomenal Facebook following will rocket. And if 800,000-plus Facebook followers means nothing to you, be aware that Richie McCaw has a mere 500,000.

Wellington writer and blogger Emily Writes also felt she had to perform the ritual abasement required when someone falls foul of the cultural police. Last year, on her blog Mama Said, she had written a post about the movie The Legend of Tarzan a playful, funny and sexually charged account of her feelings towards Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård. It had zoomed around the world and she obviously decided to have a second bite of the viral cherry.

Her post, Pound My Yams: Emily Writes Gets the Horn for Idris Elba, found a home on The Spinoff. It was a poor cousin to the genuinely funny Tarzan piece but the real problem, it turns out, is that Idris Elba is an actor of colour. (I think that’s the correct way to describe him; I certainly hope so. Anyway, it’s clear he’s not a white Maori.)

Writes has been attacked before for her exuberantly sexual stance towards men she fancies but it’s obvious she wasn’t anticipating an attack on the grounds of her racial propriety.

In a scathing piece, Caught in the Thirst Trap: White Gaze on Black Bodies, published on The Pantograph Punch, Lani Lopesi accused her of fetishising and objectifying black men. I thought at first it might have been a post by the notorious prankster Cassidy Boon, who enraged New Zealanders in 2015 by alleging the haka was misogynist and promoted domestic violence, which followed an equally inflammatory YouTube post about suing a man for rape who had saved her from drowning. But, unlike Boon, Lopesi was sincere and Writes took her analysis of her shortcomings very seriously.

She took this line of Lopesi’s attack particularly to heart: “There was no consideration for what it means to sexualise a black body through a white gaze. A body which is by default subjugated to thousands of years of oppression – that’s incomprehensible to those of us who are not within that body.”

Writes not only took down her post, she wrote an abject apology: “I failed to recognise that I was… a white woman objectifying a person of colour… I’m grateful that Lana and others took the time to educate me when they didn’t have to. 

Well, Lopesi also educated many of us about just how daft identity politics can be. Especially those who find it incomprehensible to think of Idris Elba as oppressed. He’s tall, rich, famous, talented and handsome; he’s desired by millions of women; he’s been tipped to be the next James Bond. If that’s oppression, I’m all for it.

It’s hard not to wonder what Elba himself would think. I imagine that when he made his hammed-up video full of sexual innuendo for a charity competition to help educate girls in Africa, he never guessed he should have added a rider: “This sexually charged competition is open only to those who are as oppressed as I am; no lascivious white women need apply.”

I’m not sure whether this repeated whack-a-mole policing of thought crimes achieves much apart from igniting media storms. I doubt very much that the Mad Butcher or Michelle Boag will change their views on race, whatever they are, or that Jimi Jackson and his followers will think about women differently because he has been taken to task in public. Or that Emily Writes and millions of other white women will stop fantasising about Idris Elba.

What it does achieve, of course, is that they’ll learn to bite their tongues in public — as will many of their fans — whatever they might think privately.

Freedom of speech often seems less important than boycotting, blacklisting, embarrassing or hounding the errant person out of their job if someone else doesn’t agree with them or makes an occasional slip-up. Too often, Voltaire’s maxim seems to be turned on its head: “I may not agree with what you say but I’ll fight to the death to shut you up.”

Much of the problem, of course, lies with the megaphone that social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have handed those who want to bully others and silence them. And the mainstream media are only too willing to fan outrage over incidents they deem to be racist and sexist purely for their sensationalism.

Personally, I’d rather that the media — including social media — worked New Zealand audiences into an uproar over the wealthy foreigners flooding the country who have no commitment to Maori development or Treaty obligations and who are boosting house prices beyond the reach of poorer Maori and Pasifika families. Or the policy makers who are allowing foreign nurses, labourers and chefs to snap up jobs that should be available to locals and thus help drive down wages. Or our disastrous policies on prisons, where Maori are heavily over-represented.

Pillorying people over occasional comments others think are racist or sexist provides much easier pickings for the mainstream media, of course. The sustained uproar last year over a comment by one of the ultra-wealthy Real Housewives of Auckland that included the term “boat nigger” showed just how easily the public is played. Expect to see much more of the same this year — despite it being an election year — while our society’s deeper problems fester on.

No prizes for guessing who really wins from these distractions and exactly who is happy for them to run and run. The last thing the Establishment wants is for progressives to shift to a focus on class instead of identity politics. That way the vast crowd of the dispossessed might find a voice. And perhaps a party to vote for that actually represents their interests.


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