Liam Neeson correct on a Hollywood witch-hunt that could demonise all men, not just the abusive ones
Actor trying to articulate what many feel about the growingly fundamentalist MeToo movement, says Fionola Meredith
In a recent RTE interview Northern Ireland actor Liam Neeson said that there was "a bit of a witch-hunt" happening in Hollywood at the moment following numerous allegations of sexual misconduct in the entertainment industry. He also said the MeToo movement to expose hidden harassment was "healthy".
On the face of it, that doesn't make much sense. I mean, have you ever heard of a healthy witch-hunt?
But while Neeson might not have put it particularly elegantly, he's on to something here. He's struggling to articulate what many of us are secretly thinking.
Yes, the MeToo campaign has been a necessary, powerful weapon against highly privileged and abusive men who have got away with all sorts of atrocious behaviour in the past, and now might think twice about doing the same in the future.
Time magazine recognised that important fact when it named the 'Silence Breakers' - effectively, the global MeToo movement which spontaneously rose up in the wake of Harvey Weinstein's disgrace - as its Person of the Year.
That's the healthy bit, in my view.
But now there's a growing sense that the feverish momentum generated by MeToo is taking it to extreme, divisive places. Increasingly it seems that all men should be regarded as potential abusers, all women as radically oppressed victims
In the maelstrom vital distinctions between relatively trivial incidents - such as that tired old classic, the hand-on-knee move - and much more serious, even criminal, instances of misconduct are getting lost.
The presumption of innocence is frequently cast aside in favour of the presumption of guilt, purely on the basis of accusation. This is really dangerous and it does nothing to serve victims of harassment, assault and rape. They deserve better than lynch mob justice.
When Neeson spoke about an ongoing witch-hunt he must have known it would get him in big trouble. You can't say those sorts of things these days without a deluge of self-righteous outrage and vicious personal invective crashing down on your head.
Of course, he isn't the only one: the actor Catherine Deneuve, along with 100 other female French artists, writers and academics, also used the term.
They claimed that MeToo had changed from a legitimate protest against sexual violence into a puritan witch-hunt that unfairly demonises men.
Everywhere the movement is criticised - even if witches aren't mentioned - the reaction is the same. Those who express any kind of scepticism are howled down as rape apologists and abuse-deniers, or as lobotomised victims of internalised misogyny, guilty of despising millions of female victims of male violence. And that's just the printable stuff.
Even those who have previously been revered as inspirational feminist icons are not immune. Booker prize-winning author Margaret Atwood, whose dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale imagines a totalitarian religious society in which women are enslaved, has now been vilified for daring to question the excesses of MeToo. The 78-year-old author has wryly noted that: "It seems I am conducting a War on Women, like the misogynistic, rape-enabling Bad Feminist that I am."
This new band of zealots are secular rather than religious fundamentalists, but they are fundamentalists nonetheless. They deal in absolutes, and will not tolerate dissent. As Atwood explains: "In times of extremes, extremists win. Their ideology becomes a religion, anyone who doesn't puppet their views is seen as an apostate, a heretic or a traitor, and moderates in the middle are annihilated."
Unfortunately there is currently a concerted attempt to annihilate Atwood herself, to beat her down until she retracts or apologises.
I hope she does neither. We need her courage and insight more than ever in these fanatical times.
The big problem with the term witch-hunt is that it can imply you are searching for something that does not exist.
There are undoubtedly witches - in this case, powerful male harassers and exploiters - in Hollywood and elsewhere, and their victims are right to call them out.
Then it's up to the legal system to provide justice. The legal system may be flawed and insufficient, but it's infinitely better than trial by foaming zealots on social media.
For the extremists who have hijacked the MeToo movement, a witch is anyone who dares to challenge them, and they reserve a special kind of hateful vitriol for female sceptics like Deneuve and Atwood.
Fundamentalism tends to be an irony-free zone.
Heaping misogynistic abuse on other women in the name of women's rights - it would be funny if it wasn't so stupid, tragic and dangerous.