The actor Liam Neeson is all over the news this week, following some comments he made in an interview with Independent correspondent Clémence Michallon. While discussing his latest film Cold Pursuit, he revealed that several decades ago a friend of his was raped. Since the perpetrator was black, his response was to spend a week prowling the streets, hoping he would find a black man to kill in ‘revenge’:
“I went up and down areas with a cosh, hoping I’d be approached by somebody – I’m ashamed to say that – and I did it for maybe a week, hoping some [Neeson gestures air quotes with his fingers] ‘black bastard’ would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could,” another pause, “kill him.”
This has caused justifiable concern, that Neeson behaved in such a dangerous and racist manner. Many people have noted that this is the literally ‘lynch-mob’ mentality, where the protection (or avenging) of women, is considered justification to murder black people.
It’s also prompted a predictable push-back, from people claiming that during the interview, Neeson was not advocating anything racist, but rather, confessing to a previously held attitude that he now repudiates. It was behaviour borne out of rage, and he now acknowledges that it was both wrong and destructive. His defenders say that this introspective admission of past sins is something that should not be punished by social opprobrium and the label ‘racist.’ Perhaps (they say) such honesty should actually be encouraged.
There is indeed value in examining and speaking about how one thought and behaved previously. And in expressing contrition for past actions. It’s also valuable to hear how people who grew up in violent surroundings (such as Northern Ireland during the ‘troubles’) might have internalised a violent attitude themselves. As Sunny Hundal points out, if a Protestant was murdered in Belfast, gangs would go out looking for a Catholic to murder in retaliation.
But the public interest in hearing such confessions does not mitigate or excuse the behaviour. I’m not sure Neeson himself has claimed that it does, but the rush to defend him signals just that.
Nor does confessing to a change of heart—from racist to non-racist, or from violence to non-violence—really mitigate the thoughts, intent and actions in the first place. I like Liam Neeson’s work, but it’s right that we re-assess his personality and what we think of him in light of his comments. How can we not? He has an absolute right to introspective free speech, but we have the right to make judgments about him based on his public pronouncements. No-one forced him to say what he said, in the way that he said it.
There is a wider issue here, in which Neeson’s comments and the reaction to them are instructive. Black people have been telling us for years (centuries) that society treats them as lesser human beings. That the streets are far less safe for them than they are for white people. That people will find the slightest excuse to hurt them, even kill them. They have consistently pointed out that racism does not usually appear in a white sheet or with a Nazi tattoo, but can manifest itself in ‘normal’ spaces and among upstanding members of society.
As they have done this, the rest of society has dismissed and ignored their concerns, moaned about ‘political correctness’ and pointed to racial equality legislation as proof that there is no problem.
Only in the last few years, and only due to movements like #BlackLivesMatter, have we begun to understand how our fellow citizens live their daily lives—under threat. We should have listened to them before now. It should not have taken an accidental confession by Qui-Gon Jinn that he was once a raging, homicidal racist, for us to consider the possibility that the men and women of colour were right all along. As Gary Younge says:
The next time someone asks me why I have a chip on my shoulder, I need no longer brush the question away with disdain. I can say, with all sincerity: “Because there may well be an Oscar-nominated actor out there who wants to kill me, so I have to be alert at all times.”