Liam Neeson scandal has lessons for workplaces

11 Feb 2019 By Denise Keating

We should not be so quick to condemn the actor without considering the broader implications for inclusion, writes Denise Keating

Liam Neeson hit the headlines following an interview to promote his latest revenge thriller Cold Pursuit. In highly personal remarks, Neeson described how after learning a female friend was raped by a black man, he roamed the streets hoping a black man would approach him, so he could kill him in revenge.

The reaction to the interview has been massive and swift, split between outrage and support for Neeson’s honesty.

Neeson grew up in a war zone – Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Projecting modern race issues onto the incident, as many commentators are doing, is simply irresponsible. The state of inter-community relations between religious and ethnic groups at the time were a world away from today. The other problem is American projection; conflating the race situation in the US with other places.

Neeson told Good Morning America: "We all pretend we're all politically correct in this country... in mine, too. You sometimes just scratch the surface and you discover this racism and bigotry and it's there."

This was a real lived experience for Neeson. As the actor Terry Crews tweeted in response to the furore: “He absolutely revealed what births a white supremacist. But what’s worse is those who practice it and NEVER reveal it."

We exist in a society where we are often defined by race. But jumping on a person who admits to having had an issue with race simply discourages others experiencing similar issues from seeking help. After all, when luminaries such as Bonnie Greer say Neeson had "probably put paid to his career", Gary from Nottingham isn’t going to risk telling anyone about his own issues. Instead, they’ll internalise those feelings or seek support from anonymous groups online – a recipe for radicalisation.

Legislation has played a bit part in pushing any open discussions around any of the nine protected characteristics – race, gender, sexual orientation etc – underground.  Line managers are uneducated about the law, discrimination and how to handle workplace discussions. This means they lack confidence and when they want to ask a question relating to a staff member, they will often ask a colleague to avoid being accused of being racist, sexist or something else. We at enei encourage employers to invest in simple training sessions and source practical guidance and advice to help train line managers and build their confidence.

Outside the workplace is a whole new dilemma. People share inappropriate jokes or social media material, thinking it is funny, particularly within their inner circles.  Social media organisations need to do more to limit such material, and they also have a role to try to educate the public. Right now, their role is passive, which avoids them being blamed – but where is the guidance people need when using social media?

A key part of our work with line managers is unconscious bias testing and training. Tests may show that an individual has a bias against specific groups, including ethnicities, and the training is designed to show we are all unconsciously biased. The proven way to improve workplace cultures is for the individual to acknowledge and counter any bias, understanding that biases are a perfectly normal product of your life experiences. It’s not about jumping on the outrage bus.

The real shock is not that young people in Ireland thought violence would resolve their emotional turmoil. It’s that in 2019, Neeson escaped publicists and agents for long enough to tell his story. Would his critics rather he pretended it did not happen or that he speaks out and explains to a younger generation how violence does not solve problems? 

Denise Keating is chief executive of enei

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