I’ve been a fan of Liam Neeson for a long time. I don’t mean “since the first Taken” movie long. I mean Excalibur, Rob Roy, The Dead Pool long. So the events surrounding his comments in advance of Cold Pursuit gave me a lot to think about.
For those of you who somehow missed it:
- Cold Pursuit is a story of blind vengeance.
- In a press event leading up to its release Neeson, attempting to highlight the pointlessness of this kind of pursuit, told a personal story of a time he went out blindly pursuing vengeance. He, fortunately, caught himself before he acted on that pursuit, sought out guidance from his spiritual advisor, and learned to be a better man. At least, that’s the story he was trying to tell. The details, however, told a second story.
- When he returned from an out-of-town trip, a woman close to him confided she had been raped. He demanded to know who — a description — something that would let him pursue the matter. Of his many questions about the person’s identity and appearance, the one he got an answer to was “what race is he?” He was black, she told him. So the actor went about town for a few weeks looking for a black man to assault in return.
- Not surprisingly, there was quite a strong reaction to the admission that he set out to commit a racist crime, and only good fortune prevented him from having the opportunity to hurt an innocent man before he came to his senses.
- At first, he seemed to feel he could explain, and help people understand that he’s not a racist, and he was talking about why this kind of revenge is a bad thing. Somewhere along the line, he realized that this kind of explaining was not going to make anything better. He hired a good publicist and followed their advice — a simple press-release statement, no interviews, and he went dark for a bit to get his name off the front pages.
If you’re unclear on how or why this was received as a phenomenally racist recounting, there are lots of folks who have already explained that better than I can. You can get a quick overview/education on that topic here.
[Noted: these words get used a lot of ways today. I use “bigotry” to reflect the actions of individuals, and “ism” to reflect the effects and impact of the larger structural and power-relational systems. Which means “racism” — intentional or through blindness — can exist even where “bigotry” does not.]
I felt a lot of empathy for the guy during all that. A man in his 60s, not even from the US, who grew up in a time and place where unreasoned hatred was grounded not in skin color but in religious sectarianism — I can completely see how he did not think he was talking about “race” but was offering a very personal lesson in why the kind of revenge depicted in his movie solves nothing.
I can see that he was ill-equipped to recognize the racist elements of this story, and I can understand how he was caught off-guard by the reaction. I can see how he can’t envision himself as “a racist” because he does not knowingly experience himself as bigoted. And if he only sees “racist” as “bigotry,” then I can understand how he does not see his actions as part of a larger systemic issue.
I can see that he was talking about long-ago. Something he knew was wrong, had learned better, and was trying to tell others that it was wrong, as well.
None of that changes the fact that “seeking out a person to kill based on their skin color” is pretty much a lynching and there’s just no making it not an act of bigotry. There’s no making “the assumption that you can kill a random black man because your friend was raped and that is somehow OK” not a reflection of the racist structures and influences in the broader culture.
So yeah, one of my favorite actors and a generally stand-up guy had behaved in a manner both bigoted and racist.
But something about that statement bothered me.
Yeah, your White Fragility.
I mulled that one over for quite a while and finally concluded that no, I wasn’t feeling fragile about any of the information above. I felt there was something missing. Something…else. Like, in focusing on this point, there was another point being missed.
I set it aside for a while. Those other points could just be missed for a bit — this one was too important. I’d wait til this conversation had a chance to play out, then go back and see whether there was anything else that still mattered to me later.
A Little Later
I was struck by Trevor Noah’s take on “the whole Liam Neeson thing.”
He pointed out that here we have a guy who spoke fearlessly, identified his behavior as wrong and abhorrent, and apologized for it. Noah’s concern: if we punish people for speaking with integrity to the fact that these things do happen, and that good people do experience them — then we risk shutting down the conversation.
I thought this was a good point — that there might have been more long-term good in connecting Neeson with someone who could help him understand the reaction and the racism. With a little education, he could be a terrific and influential ally, whereas silencing his sincere comments might have a chilling effect on others.
I still hope he’ll use this experience as a launch point to seek out that education. But it’s not the job of people of color who were hurt by his remarks to teach him the history of racism in his native country or his adopted one.
No, that’s not what was bothering me.
A Lot Later
I set the matter aside. The important topics were being discussed, and whatever else was bothering me wasn’t significant enough to try to divert that. The conversation raged, then gave way to more recent news and fresher outrages. Once the noise level died down, that quiet voice in the back of my head became audible.
We’re talking about the end of the story — but nobody has talked about its beginning.
We talked about the harm he could have done if he had carried out this racist act, and the generalized harm entailed in the fact that he set out to do it at all — but nobody was talking about the person he had actually harmed.
He came back from out of town, heard his friend’s story, and immediately set out to “avenge her honor.”
“She handled the situation of the rape in the most extraordinary way,” he said. “But my immediate reaction was … I asked, did she know who it was?”
He then describes taking evening walks every night for a week — telling her “oh, nothing’s wrong, just going out for a walk” — in the attempt to place himself in the path of a person he can blame, and upon whom he can take vengeance.
His focus in telling his story was on his reaction; after all, he was making a point about vengeance. And when the noise died down, I saw that this was the thing that had been whispering at the back of my mind.
I realized that my discomfort wasn’t about the conversation that was being had — but the one that wasn’t.
The Other Story
Since Neeson chose not to identify the woman, most reports simply call her his “friend.” But his description (her asking him about his nightly walks, for example) suggests they were, at the least, housemates.
A woman who normally lives with a man in the house is on her own for a bit. During that time, she is raped. When the man returns to town, she has first to make the crucial decision of whether to tell him or not.
Will he judge her? If they are in a relationship will be leave her? Blame her?
She chooses to confide in him.
Does he comfort her? Support her? Reassure her?
He angrily demands more details of her traumatic experience — not for any reason relating to her well-being, but so that he can seek revenge.
Revenge? Nobody has done any wrong to him. She is the person who has been wronged. Vengeance or justice is hers to claim, not his.
He leaves the house every night for a week. When she asks if anything is wrong, he casually tells her he is just taking a walk. After she has confided in him what is likely the worst and most hurtful event of her life, he walks out on her every night for a week, leaving her to figure out on her own whether he is - angry with her? Can’t stand the sight of her? Can’t bear to be in the same house with her?
And why? To “defend her honor,” he says.
Think about that phrase — what it means, where it comes from. It hails from a time when women were property, and “damaging” one was the legal equivalent of vandalism [quite literally. It has only been in the past century or two that rape has been legally defined as a crime against a woman. Until then, it was considered a property crime against the man that “owned” her]. To “defend a woman’s honor” isn’t about defending her; it’s about publicly restoring her chattel value. About recovering the damage that was done to him by someone else using his property.
Setting It Aside
I felt a lot better, once I had nailed what was bothering me. I hope that young lady received appropriate support from somewhere. I can even forgive my favored actor for being so awful to someone who needed his support — not because it’s OK, but because it’s not really about him. Every day, women are raped. And every day, friends and family members who should support them through such a horrible time focus instead on their own feelings, without seeing how their response makes it worse for the real victim. If those of us who have been raped weren’t able to forgive people for that, 20% of the world’s women would be left with no friends or family.
Like many people, he’d done the wrong thing at every turn (in terms of supporting his friend). Like most people, he was totally unable to see that failure. I understood what I thought had been missing from the larger conversation, and why I thought it was important. But ultimately, if you laid this info out, most people would recognize the ways he failed his friend.
The extent of the arguments that were raging as to whether seeking out a black person to kill is racist clearly demonstrated that the conversation on racism was by far the greater need. I could set this topic aside.
I had identified what was bugging me, brought it into the light, and was done with it. Or so I thought. But there was one more realization awaiting me.
We know that most women are raped by people they know. The cinematic stranger-kidnapping scenario is an outlier.
Which means it is possible that Liam’s friend knew exactly who raped her.
If that’s the case (and statistically, it’s incredibly likely), then the reason Liam’s friend couldn’t describe her attacker is because she didn’t want to.
This large man (over six feet tall), a former boxer, got angry and demanded to know “WHO did this to me [you]?!” She may well have been intimidated, and then set aside her own needs — at such a crucial moment! — in order to protect him.
If I tell him it was Tommy from down the pub, he’ll be out the door in a heartbeat. He’ll tear up the pub, and beat Tommy to within an inch of his life. Liam will go to jail. Tommy will go to hospital, or worse. Our friends will choose sides. I’ll lose what little support and normalcy I have, and if Liam kills him, his life will be ruined and Tommy’s life will be over.
“I-I don’t know.”
And as he peppers her with adjectives — tall, short, dark, fair — he finally throws out one that can’t be applied to anyone they know: “black.”
I don’t know enough Irish history to understand what that may mean in Ireland. Here in the U.S., there is a long history of lynching black men based on false accusations of rape, propagated by white women as well as men. The myth of the terrifying black man waiting in the alley to rape the white women is an archetype of American lore.
Liam Neeson failed a woman he cared about by treating her as property and placing his needs above hers at a time when she needed him to be a better man. If his friend was lying about the race of her assailant, her actions are little different — using a racist stereotype as a screen.
Neeson tried to recover the damage to his property by seeking out a target based on race. And if he’d found one — if he’d killed an innocent black man, and spent the rest of his life in prison — his friend would still run into Tommy down at the pub.
I think I’m gonna be struggling with this a bit longer.