Sasha Borissenko: Newly appointed president of NZ Law Society apologises for offensive Instagram post

OPINION:

Jacqueline Lethbridge was elected the 32nd president of the New Zealand Law Society and will take over the reins in April 2022. But after the Martelli McKegg partner reposted a video of congratulations that included a song with the N-word as its title on Instagram, it seems she’s not off to the best start.

According to a Law Society spokesperson, on the night of October 15, Lethbridge re-shared a congratulatory post and unbeknownst to her, that post “included a song which used offensive language”. Her audio was switched off at the time and as soon as she was aware of it, Lethbridge immediately removed the post.

An apology was later made via Instagram in addition to an apology to the Law Society Council.

“Late last week I re-shared a story from a follower that included an inappropriate song. As soon as I became aware of this I removed it. I want to unreservedly apologise to anyone who might have seen this and who, rightfully, might have been offended by it,” Lethbridge said.

The New Zealand Law Society accepted Lethbridge’s explanation that she made a mistake and acknowledged her apology, a spokesperson said.

“It was not her intention to share inappropriate material and this is a reminder for all in the legal profession of the risks of sharing content posted from other people on social media. The Law Society acknowledges that the post, on the face of it, would cause offence and hurt.”

For context, the word – of Spanish and Portuguese origin – came about as a result of slavery in the 17th century, where Africans were deemed as less than human, who could be sold and bought, were brutally murdered, and had no rights.

In May, a University of Waikato professor apologised after saying the n-word in full during a lecture on representation and reclaiming terms. At the time Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon said the incident could be used as a learning experience not to be repeated. Last year, Auckland’s Lynfield College said it would censor racial slurs from teaching materials after a student filmed a teacher using the n-word while reading a passage from a book.

Apologies and nuance

On the issue of the apology, the song in and of itself isn’t offensive when used by the descendants of those who had to endure it.

Rather it’s offensive when white people either use the loaded term to incite racial hatred, or blindly appropriate it for social capital without recognition of its historical significance.

For context, in 2018 musician Kendrick Lamar stopped a white woman from singing his song that included the word on stage during a concert. He told Vanity Fair:

“I’ve been on this earth for 30 years and there’s been so many things a Caucasian person said I couldn’t do. Get good credit, buy a house in an urban city. So many things – ‘You can’t do that’ – whether it’s from afar or close up. So if I say this is my word, let me have this one word, please let me have that word.”

Has political correctness gone bad? Suppose it has, dealing with the sense of discomfort and inconvenience of having to widen one’s vocabulary to avoid using the n-word seems a drop in the bucket relative to an uncontestable history of oppression, human rights abuses, and systemic issues for people of colour.

This situation is entirely different but having had a marketing and communications role at a law firm in a past life I would urge lawyers to post on social media with caution. Reshared posts could be perceived as endorsements, even if the intention – or mens rea – is lacking. Social media policies mean people can be fired if they bring their companies into disrepute.

Semantics, sure, but the devil is in the detail, which seems apropos given lawyers are traditionally known for their meticulous nature.

Where to from here?

Lethbridge will officially take up the role as president in April 2022. In the meantime:

“The [Law Society] does not condone offensive behaviour or language and has put significant effort in recent years into encouraging appropriate behaviour and improving diversity and inclusion within the New Zealand legal profession,” a Law Society spokesperson said.

Some of the initiatives to drive change include: changing the Law Society’s constitution to give Te Hunga Rōia Māori o Aotearoa and the Pacific Lawyers Association representation on the Law Society Council with full voting rights; advocating for taonga to be worn in court; and ensuring that its communications reflect the diversity of the legal profession alongside tools and resources to support greater inclusion.

Looking ahead, the Independent Review of the statutory framework for legal services will consider how commitments to the bi-cultural foundations of Aotearoa and inclusion and diversity can be strengthened, the spokesperson said.

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