Stray comments can explode in the face of anyone

Is Peter Leitch, the Mad Butcher, racist? Probably not.

Is Peter Leitch, the Mad Butcher, racist? Probably not.

OPINION: Sir Peter Leitch (otherwise known as the Mad Butcher) has been accused of making racist remarks to a Maori woman at a vineyard on Waiheke Island. Leitch responded that his comments were a misinterpreted joke. Because it is early January, perhaps, this became the biggest news story in the country.

Is Leitch racist? I really couldn't say for sure since I don't know  him. Looking at his track record it seems unlikely, however.

Was his accuser being overly sensitive or acting in bad faith? There's no reason to assume that either. We tend to avoid race, religion and politics in casual discussion. Unless you know the other person, you just have no idea whether they'll appreciate it.

Even then it can be risky.

When British man Roy Amor saw there were immigration officials outside his workplace back in 2010, he turned to a black colleague and joked that he had better hide or the officers might pick him up. No normal person would ever say this to a stranger, but Amor's colleague was a very close mate who didn't mind the joke. 

However, a third person not involved in the conversation did take offence and filed a formal complaint alleging that Amor had been racist at work. Amor's employers promptly suspended him and emailed him several days later, outlining the procedures for the investigation against him. Upset at the prospect of losing his job of 30 years and, presumably, the scarlet letter that comes with the accusation of racism, Amor took his own life.

Another person whose life was turned upside down by an ill-conceived comment was Justine Sacco. The chances are that name doesn't mean much to you, but for a few days in 2013 Sacco was the most famous person on the internet. Before departing for a trip to South Africa, she tweeted  "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get Aids. Just Kidding. I'm white!", which was intended as an ironic joke about American attitudes towards Africa.

Despite only having 170 followers, however, Sacco's tweet was somehow picked up by a writer for Gawker, a venal and now defunct website, which publicised the comment. While Sacco was still in flight, the Twitter mob worked itself up into a  frenzy. When she finally landed she turned her phone on to discover that she was a worldwide trending topic on the social media site and had, in fact, been publicly fired by her employer.

Human communication has an ambiguous quality that means even the best of us put our foot wrong from time to time. What these stories show is that you do not need the profile of the Mad Butcher for a stray comment to explode in your face. In the era of social media, anybody could find themselves a target of the digital mob. 

So what happens if you are unlucky enough to find that  a dumb comment incurs the online wrath of social justice warriors? As it turns out, Sacco has some good advice.

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A year after her story went viral, the writer responsible for her public shaming ran into problems of his own. Fed up with video game players complaining about media coverage of gaming issues, he tweeted that we ought to "Bring Back Bullying". In reaction to this comment, an advertising boycott campaign was mounted against his employer. Things became pretty hard.

But one of those people who reached out to support him was Sacco. Here is how he summarises her advice to him: "Do nothing. Never tweet. Never apologise. Never say anything at all. Be an inert bundle of molecules and let the world tear itself apart around you."

There is something to the "don't engage" approach. While it is nearly always a good idea to personally apologise to anyone you've actually injured, the same doesn't necessarily go for the wider public. The crowd does not act like the individual. Those who are personally injured seek atonement and reconciliation; mobs seek new sources of outrage to perpetuate themselves.

And it cannot be said enough that social media creates a bubble that distorts how we perceive the world. For example, a small minority of New Zealanders use Twitter regularly to consume news and read the views of interesting people. However, most users – even those who fancy themselves as influential – have followings that are very small in absolute terms.

How many of the most active New Zealand Twitterers have a worldwide following that numbers even half the population of a town like, say, Timaru? The number is vanishingly small.

And the reality is that outrage over a single controversy can't be sustained indefinitely. New things to be outraged about come along like clockwork.  And, like a dog barking at a passing car, the mob's attention will be drawn away soon enough.

 - Stuff


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