Liam Neeson – villain or hero?

Sheila Fahy

Since yesterday, I have been in a quandary as to how I feel about this issue. Was Liam Neeson to be commended for acknowledging his inappropriate racist outburst when as a young man he discovered a close friend had been raped by a black man? Or is he to be shunned, and his new film boycotted, because as a young man, he wanted to blame and assault any black man who came across his path because he was so angry about the rape of his friend?

Let’s be clear, there is no question that Neeson’s racist reaction was unacceptable on every level. But that isn’t the question here. Is it better to speak out and own our biases or to say nothing and pretend they don’t exist?

Unconscious bias is a sleeping prejudice: without knowing, it infiltrates all our decision-making. I have it. You have it. We all have it. When it is suddenly awakened because we are under attack, it can be shocking. The attack might take the form of being challenged at work, or a child being bullied at school or a friend being assaulted. From nowhere this inappropriate prejudice rises to the surface to assist with fight or flight. It is a product of our experiences, our background, received wisdom and fake news. It’s there, like it or not.

So how do you deal with something dormant that lies within us? Like Liam Neeson, you have first to recognise that you are biased. Pause. Resist lashing out. Take time to make a more reasoned decision.

Where am I now on this issue? I am in the John Barnes camp: better out than in. I think it can only be a good thing that we are talking about the most dangerous prejudice of all: unconscious bias.


Comments published on Employment Talk do not necessarily reflect the views of Allen & Overy.

Read comments below or add a comment
  1. Verity Sayers says:

    A thought provoking article…
    Generally, I think it is better to speak out about unconscious bias. We live in a diverse society and if we want it to be a fair one then we all have to recognise and train ourselves to overcome our unconscious biases. And it definitely isn’t helpful to demonise unconscious bias, or the people who speak out about it. We seem to all be instinctively “biased” to some degree from a very early age, judging by some of the recent studies (e.g. the facial preferences shown by three month old babies towards people of a similar race).
    Having said that, I think Liam Neeson showed bad judgment by bringing up the fact that he wanted – 40 years ago – to take his anger out on someone for a crime committed by someone else of the same race. That isn’t unconscious bias, but an intended hate crime formed in the irrationality of anger. There’s a risk in him speaking out so publicly that others might see his former feelings as a validation of their own (and we haven’t exactly managed to eradicate race hate crime). I think his words would have been better left unsaid

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