Liam Neeson has been ‘cancelled’, which is internet-speak for ‘cast out’. Overnight he has gone from being the avuncular star of ropey American thrillers to being ‘trash’, persona non grata, a foul, nasty man Hollywood should no longer indulge. His crime? He confessed, during an interview, to having once had a terrible thought, a thought he is now deeply ashamed of, a thought so wicked that when he thinks of it now he has to catch his breath and re-compose himself. Yes, that’s right: the Twittermob has become so unforgiving, so myopically obsessed with taking people down, that it is now persecuting even those who express deep regret about their past bad behaviour.
Neeson was promoting his new action blockbuster Cold Pursuit in an interview with the Independent. In the film, the son of Neeson’s character is killed by a drug gang and Neeson’s character goes looking for revenge. This is basically the storyline of every Liam Neeson movie. Warming to the film’s theme, Neeson opened up to the Indie about his own ‘primal’ urge for revenge. He told the story of how, years ago, someone close to him was raped. The victim dealt with her ordeal well, he says, but he didn’t. He wanted vengeance. He asked the woman in question what colour her attacker was. She said black. And Neeson says he ‘went up and down areas with a cosh… hoping some black bastard would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could kill him.’
This is unquestionably a bad thing to have thought and a bad thing to have done. Neeson, in his rage over a rape, was engaging in the horrible art of collective guilt, seeing all black men as legitimate targets for the crime of one particular black man. That is racist and wrong. But here’s the thing: Neeson knows this. He admits the wickedness of his thinking. It makes him ‘ashamed’, he says. ‘It was horrible, horrible…’ As he recounts his ‘primal’ desire for vengeance, his voice quakes. Neeson is clearly disgusted with himself. He did not make this confession to promote the collective judgement of black people or race-based vengeance, but to do the opposite: to highlight how awful and corrupting such feelings are. The thirst for vengeance is ultimately a destructive thing, he says — an unusually nuanced take from an actor promoting a Hollywood thriller about vengeance.
Yet none of this matters to the Twittermob or to those sections of the media that love nothing more than hanging out to dry individuals who have thought or said or done bad things. The ritual public denunciation came swiftly and furiously. The insults flew in: Neeson is disgusting, a racist, a white supremacist. Fellow actors chipped in too. ‘Liam Neeson shocks Hollywood’ with his ‘racist revenge fantasy confession’, said one report. Here’s the twisted irony: the very thing Neeson was condemning in his earlier self — his primal need for vengeance — was now on full display by his haters and detractors. The primal nature of Twittermobbing was clear for all to see. Neeson may have grown out of the urge for vengeance, but many ‘social justice warriors’ have not. They play the primal game of vengeful public shaming on an almost daily basis, gleefully hunting down anyone who has ever misspoken, mis-thought or made a moral mistake.
That Neeson’s expression of regret for his past thoughts counts for nothing in the eyes of the new morality police is striking, and worrying. It points to a streak of very anti-human fatalism in the Twittermobbing phenomenon. The new witch-hunters are not in the business of forgiving people — even people who confess to their one-time horribleness — because they fundamentally believe that people cannot change. That if you once had a racist thought you will always be racist. That if you made a homophobic joke ten years ago, you will be a homophobe forever. This is why they engage in the low pursuit of ‘offence archaeology’, as the journalist Freddie de Boer described the trend for poring over public figures’ every past statement and deed in search of something nasty or embarrassing that might be used against said public figure today — because they think people do not change, that their wickedness is ingrained, that they suffer from original sin and it cannot be washed away.
This borderline religious, mark-of-Cain style view of humanity is far more nauseating than what Neeson said to the Independent. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Neeson was being brave: he was confessing to something shameful in order to advise people against giving into their primal instincts. What is really horrible is not Neeson’s public confession but the moralistic mob’s rush to judge him as stained, as permanently wicked, as morally broken, simply because he once erred, and erred badly. This instinct to ‘cancel’ people on the basis of past moral errors is one of the ugliest traits in modern public life. It is uncharitable, illiberal, misanthropic and, to use one of Neeson’s words, primal.