This image released by ABC shows Irish actor Liam Neeson on
This image released by ABC shows Irish actor Liam Neeson on "Good Morning America". Picture: Lorenzo Bevilaqua/ABC/AP

Liam Neeson shouldn’t be ‘cancelled’

In the past couple of days the actor Liam Neeson has caused a stir after he recounted a disturbing story in an interview with The Independent promoting his new film.

Neeson said he once sought out revenge after a close friend told him she was raped by a black man. Enraged Neeson spent a week hanging outside a pub hoping a "black bastard" would emerge and have a go at him so he'd have an excuse to murder them.

Neeson's case has opened up an important debate about what should happen when we discover people have racist, sexist or homophobic pasts.

It is clear that Neeson's actions were awful. As multiple commentators have pointed out, his story highlights how we can all have underlying racist views, ones which can lead to dehumanising and violent consequences. What is also clear however is that Neeson is deeply ashamed of his actions, something he has now repeated multiple times. As he says quite bluntly, "it was horrible, horrible, when I think back, that I did that."

Despite this clear remorse however many do not seem to be willing to forgive Neeson. He has been labeled a racist by many, with calls for him to be metaphorically 'cancelled'. Premiere screenings of his new film have literally been cancelled in the United States. The story is quickly becoming a defining part of him.

Liam Neeson appears with host Robin Roberts on Good Morning America after the backlash over his interview about his racist reaction to a friend’s rape 40 years ago. Picture: Lorenzo Bevilaqua/ABC/AP
Liam Neeson appears with host Robin Roberts on Good Morning America after the backlash over his interview about his racist reaction to a friend’s rape 40 years ago. Picture: Lorenzo Bevilaqua/ABC/AP

Looking at these responses though, I cannot help but ask, what are they achieving?

Racism, alongside other forms of bigotry, is created by our society. No one is born racist. It is not inherent to any one of us. Therefore those who have once held racist views, or done racist things, have had the capacity to change these sentiments. This is extremely important. If we want to create a world rid of racism these sorts of changes are something we should want to foster. This necessarily means creating space for forgiveness and redemption, even potentially for previous violent acts.

This is the change that we can clearly see in Neeson. In two short days he has reflected on his actions in the initial interview and in a follow up interview with Good Morning America, expressing deep shame, and saying he shared the story as a lesson.

"In this country, it's the same in my own country too, you sometimes just scratch the surface and you discover this racism and bigotry, and it's there," he said. "Violence breeds violence, bigotry breeds bigotry."

Yet much of the response to him has largely ignored this. He has quickly been labelled as racist, both then and now, with that label likely to stick for quite some time.

While this may be cathartic is does not help. Responses that do not allow people to change can force people to hold on to previously held views, and in particular could push people into racist communities or organisations that support those sentiments. More likely it will make people who have racist pasts want to hide them. This has the potential to lead to deep shame, lying and most of all an inability to talk about the capacity for change. It pushes important discourse about the causes of racism, sexism, homophobia and other bigotry into the dark, labeling everyone either as 'good person' who has never done a bad or racist thing, or a 'bad person' who is inherently bigoted and stuck like that for life. It is an approach that is deeply unhelpful.

In response to Neeson, the writer Kuba Shand-Babtiste argues similarly, stating that Neeson's story is important as it highlights how racist sentiment can impact us all:

"For what it's worth, I'm glad that Neeson was so forthcoming about this story that he "never admitted" to anyone else. Because it has shed light on a phenomenon that too few understand and that we need to talk about."

As a high profile person Neeson's story has the potential to be extremely important. It highlights the dangers of racist sentiment, but also shows how we can all learn from these experience and change our views. From one of the world's biggest action stars, this is very valuable.

This does not mean that we should 'give a cookie' to Neeson for being willing to tell his story. This is a high profile person with a lot of power, and it is now incumbent on him to prove the worth of his words through ongoing proper anti-racist action.

He should answer questions about their past and we should hold him accountable for these actions.

Yet at the same time 'cancelling' Neeson, or even labelling him a racist, doesn't achieve anything. It says once a racist, always a racist. This limits any discussion about the potential for change, breeding resentment and anger and likely make the situation much worse.

Neeson's story is vile. But it is also important. It highlights how racist sentiments can breed, but also how they can change over time.

People changing racist, sexist and homophobic views is a good thing, and it is one we should try and celebrate.

We could use Neeson's story as evidence of how racist sentiments should and can change. It is disappointing that, alongside the anger, which is important, this is not something we are doing in regards to this case.

Simon Copland is a freelance writer.

@SimonCopland