The tricky business of forgiving Liam Neeson

Does Liam Neeson deserve to be shunned for all of eternity? No. Most importantly, do we need to sincerely listen to black people about why they are hurt by his comments? Yes, writes Joyce Fegan

We have more in common, you and I, than we do in difference. Though nowadays, that can be hard to tell.

When US president Theodore Roosevelt took office in 1901 he became the leader of a country that was economically shaken and a people who felt different from one another, a palpable disconnect between the privileged elite and the beleaguered working class.

So Teddy Roosevelt took it upon himself to take the train around the US, not just visiting the states he had won in his election campaign, but visiting the places where people didn’t vote for him. He did this train journey every spring and autumn for six weeks at a time. He did it, he said, to make Americans feel a common sense of citizenry. We have things in common, “as a people”, he would say.

Nowadays, in the age of Trump and Twitter, there is very little common sense of citizenry. The 0-60 rush to outrage sends us into one of two camps, good or bad, left or right, right or wrong, places without middle ground and devoid of grey area.

This week we had the pillorying of Liam Neeson for admitting he once had violent thoughts about killing a black person after a friend of his was raped.

Liam Neeson

Understandably triggering for a descendant of a slave, or for anyone whose family members were beaten, burnt, or hanged? Absolutely. Deeply infuriating for a black person supposedly living in post-racial America, but silently discriminated against on a regular basis? Without a doubt.

Neeson became saint or sinner. You were either righteous in your outrage or you were told that you were vastly overreacting. Him? An instant pariah, his decades of work, both paid and charitable, became suddenly invisible to us. Some say his career may even be over.

There was rupture, but we seem to have little capacity for repair in this Trump-Twitter age. We throw all babies out with the bath water. It’s called splitting, a psychological term, more commonly known as all-or-nothing thinking. It’s where we cannot process a dichotomy of both positive and negative qualities in ourselves or in another person. A person is either good or bad. We cannot bring the good and bad parts together into an acceptable whole.

It’s like the publicly declared vegan and climate-change activist who is seen wearing a cashmere scarf. She is rounded on by her own liberal tribe and ousted from the fold for this seemly unforgivable crime.

The ongoing nurses’ strike, there are polarised camps here too. You either stand with nurses or you don’t. Some believe their strike is putting patient safety at risk, others understand that understaffing and the inability to retain trained nurses is putting patients’ safety at risk 365 days a year.

We seem to be splitting and polarising like never before.

Pulitzer prize-winning historian and biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin was being interviewed on NPR the day before the US midterms last November. The writer, known for her meticulous attention to detail and evidenced-based argument, was asked about the state of world. “It is certainly the most partisan time in my lifetime,” she said.

Leaning on facts, she referred to how American politics worked in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. She cited how Republican and Democratic members of Congress “played poker together” and how “they drank together”.

Speaking specifically about the progress made in the 1960s, she referred to the passing of the Civil Rights Act, the establishment of publicly funded journalism in the form of NPR and PBS, the passing of voting rights, and of medicare.

“It was an extraordinary time,” she said, “when Republicans and Democrats worked together.”

But nowadays, we see those with opposing ideologies as “other”, as a traitor. It is hard to work together to get anything done when you view colleagues or fellow citizens, either online or in real life, as the enemy.

Then there is the next level, where we people intentionally spout out abuse, firing off missives from the greasy screens of handheld devices.

In Ireland, we have an asylum seeker, Ellie Kisyombe, who is running for public office in the upcoming local elections. She was profiled in the news last weekend.

The vitriol towards both the journalist and Ellie online was disgusting, so much so that the journalist in question signed off Twitter for the week. No doubt the cyber wrath was a stirred-up controversy contrived and fuelled by a small few who troll for an unpaid living. Their ideology does not reflect my Ireland. To be honest, I am not sure whose Ireland it does.

Is Liam Neeson in this category of person? No. Did he unknowingly reveal an unconscious bias? Yes. Does he deserve to be shunned for all of eternity? No. And most importantly, do we need to sincerely listen to black people about why they are hurt by his comments? Yes.

In the age of Twitter and Trump, we have to relearn the basic human skill we teach our children, the one that is emphasised by Irish psychologist Joanna Fortune — that fundamental concept of rupture and repair.

I make a mistake, an honest, genuine one, I hurt you, and I am sincerely remorseful. You hang around with your understandable hurt for a while. And then we join forces. I listen to you, I learn and we move forward. All-important progress is made.

As Ms Fortune says in her TED talk on social media and public shaming, we need to get better at talking, reading, and reflecting before we respond, and before we rush to see what the herd is thinking.

But not for a Hollywood actor’s sake, for our own.

The likes of Trump and trolls delight in division, but humanity thrives on understanding, forgiveness, and togetherness.


More on this topic

Readers' blog: Liam Neeson has been judged far too harshly

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