When Liam Neeson appeared on Good Morning America earlier today to address what he said during his interview with “lady journalist” (his words) Clémence Michallon here on The Independent, I was unsure what to expect.
Rarely have I been as shocked by an interview as I was by the one Michallon did with Neeson during the press junket for his latest film. The well-publicised claims he made that he wandered the streets of London looking for a “black bastard” to set upon after hearing that someone close to him had been raped by a black man 40 years ago have gone transatlantically viral.
“I’m not racist,” Neeson said early in his GMA interview, but when asked what the “teachable moment” was later on, he responded: “We need to talk about these things … We all pretend we’re politically correct … You sometimes just scratch the surface and you discover this racism and bigotry and it’s there.” Of course, not being racist until you scratch the surface doesn’t really count as not being racist at all, whether or not your friend was raped.
Some people are racist enough that they would never bother to conceal it; far more people default to racist assumptions under pressure. This is why a lot of people, when sold a story about immigrants taking their jobs or threatening their families – or about one immigrant who once raped or killed someone – swing politically far to the right with very little resistance.
Collectively, these groups are very valuable to some very dangerous politicians. Donald Trump et al depend on their supporters to embrace cognitive dissonance: to say “I’m not a racist” at the same time they say stuff like: “Liberals can’t face up to the fact that Mexicans, Muslims and black people are more likely to be violent criminals.”
Perhaps this is why former England football star John Barnes appeared on Sky News to say that Neeson “deserves a medal” for his honesty. He reckons admitting that “we are all unconscious racists” is the beginning of a positive conversation. The image of a white person being handed a medal for admitting their unconscious racism is jarring, to say the least, though it is true that ignoring one’s own prejudice is much more damaging than acknowledging and trying to fix it.
It’s a sad reflection of the time we live in when the baseline expectation of white people is so low that laudable actions include admitting murderous racist intent rather than privately harbouring those thoughts, then taking them to the ballot box.
My colleague Kuba Shand-Baptiste has already written eloquently about the myth of the “black brute” and the psychological effects a racist society has on all its inhabitants, and I would advise you to carefully read her thoughts and consider what they say about the experiences of people of colour today.
For my own part, I wonder what the friend of Liam Neeson – who he says has “passed away” – would think of him co-opting her story during a movie promotion tour. Would she be happy to hear him repeatedly talk about his own “primal urges” (a phrase he mentioned more times than I could count on Good Morning America) and how they informed his career? Or would she think it was deeply ironic that a story about her being raped by a man became a story about the “primal urge” of another man to “defend her honour”?
The human instinct toward revenge is one thing; the narrative that surrounds a woman’s “honour”, how it depends upon her sexual purity or monogamy, and how the men around her feel a responsibility to violently defend and enforce it is another. The ownership of women and the loss of female purity is used again and again to legitimise violent male behaviour. Think of Trump’s “Mexican rapists” and the neo-Nazi anxieties about “race-mixing” with “our” women.
“I was trying to show honour … to stand up for my friend in this terrible, medieval fashion,” Neeson said. He was met with a social media avalanche of support. “If someone raped my daughter, I’d go full-on Liam Neeson too,” said one Twitter user.
Another, more thoughtful tweet that caught my eye described the experience of a woman who had been through a similar experience to Neeson’s friend.
“The Liam Neeson confession is exactly why I lied at 16 and told my adoptive family that my rapist was Italian because they’re Italian,” she wrote. “I knew if I said he was black it would ignite a bigger rage and become all about that. Some ‘not racists’ are just waiting for the opportunity.” This is a story about racism and about sexism. A woman’s story is so rarely her own that sometimes she has to lie about the facts to avoid a catastrophic response.
“Violence breeds violence, bigotry breeds bigotry,” said Neeson in the final seconds of his GMA interview. It was a cliche that could have come straight out of a publicist’s mouth. We know these things to be true, but we also know that more complicated things happen under the surface.
Films that celebrate a vengeful, paternalistic type of masculinity breed mindless violence in the name of honour. Damsels in distress whose predicaments excuse everything a hero does to save them breed a tolerance for collective punishment and a view of women as convenient objects for men to use to increase their social status.
Hollywood’s own lack of diversity is hardly blameless and breeds the mentality that “all black people” are the same, increasing the risks of someone with underlying prejudicial impulses believing in collective retribution.
In other words, there is a lot of work to be done in Neeson’s own industry which could help to prevent violence against black people and women in the future. No one’s expecting him to solve the whole world’s problems on his own. But if he’s really sorry, he could start work today in the place where he can.