Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Liam Neeson and the row over racism: why honesty is always the best policy

We all have a shadow side to our personality, says Fionola Meredith - and it's safer to be aware that it exists

Liam Neeson with host Robin Roberts on a US talk show the day after the furore erupted
Liam Neeson with host Robin Roberts on a US talk show the day after the furore erupted

Look, of course what Liam Neeson did, all those decades ago, was completely wrong. That his close female friend was allegedly raped by a black man is no kind of excuse for his behaviour. We can all agree on that.

There can never be any justification whatsoever for prowling around with a cosh, vigilante-style, seeking an encounter with some random, innocent black man in order to indulge in some kind of grotesque, race-wide retribution for the crime committed against his friend.

The thing is, Neeson knows this now. That was the point he was trying to make. He caught himself on in these hateful, vicious, vainglorious antics and he stopped what he was doing.

He says he is ashamed now of the "primal urge to lash out" in such a hideous way. "It was horrible, horrible, when I think back, that I did that," Neeson said. "It's awful. But I did learn a lesson from it."

The lesson he learned is that beneath the ostensibly civilised surface of society, and even - whisper it - perhaps within ourselves, all kinds of violent, inadmissible and unspeakable impulses lurk.

Neeson himself said he was shocked by his own reaction. He didn't know he had it in him. Presumably he now realises that it's better to be open about the darkness within human nature and the terrible damage it can do, especially if it's left unexamined, rather than deny all knowledge of it.

Instead of queuing up to condemn Neeson we should - as the footballer and anti-racism campaigner John Barnes, who suffered terrible abuse during his career, has insisted - be praising him for his honesty in "outing" himself in this way.

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To do so is not to condone what Neeson did or wanted to do, all those years ago. It's to acknowledge him for confronting his own former bigotry and 'fessing up to it.

It would be entirely different if Neeson was in any way trying to defend his past thoughts and actions. He's not. He's saying that they are a profound source of shame to him, as the man he is today. But many people have reacted as if he hasn't changed at all - that he's still that same benighted young man wielding a cosh, and thus someone to be strenuously condemned.

Is that fair? Is there to be no hope of redemption, of people calling themselves to account for past desires and actions that they now deeply regret? Must we be forced to believe that once racist, always a racist?

Neeson made the comments when he was being interviewed about his new film Cold Pursuit, which deals with themes of revenge and retribution, and so he has also been criticised for using these revelations as a way to promote the movie.

But this did not strike me as a cynical PR move. There are many ways for a celebrity to promote a film that do not involve revealing shameful personal details about their own life story, thus causing a global outcry and the cancellation of the movie's New York premiere.

I don't know exactly what combination of naivety, bravery and Ulster bluntness caused Neeson to speak out. His card was already marked last year, however, when he dared to remark that while the MeToo movement against abuse and harassment in the entertainment industry was overall healthy and necessary, there was the danger of creating "a bit of a witch-hunt". You'll recall how that one went down.

So Neeson must have realised what would happen, if he admitted to having previously had murderous revenge fantasies about black strangers. You can't say these things and expect to get away with them. He should have known that his head would be demanded, served up on a platter. Once the keening mob has declared you evil, and thus beyond redemption, it never lets go.

Of course, it's much easier to rail against Neeson than to actually engage with the point he was making.

Being on the side of the morally superior virtue-signallers means you never have to examine your "shadow", as the psychologist Carl Jung called it: the dark, unknown side of your own personality. "Everyone carries a shadow," said Jung. "And the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is."

Coming from Northern Ireland, Liam Neeson knows all too well about the bitter, murderous prejudices that can lurk in our deepest heart of hearts.

We all have a shadow side.

The real danger, as Neeson may have realised, is in pretending that it doesn't exist.

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