We live in an age where a past tweet – or admittance of a past thought from decades ago – can see an otherwise upstanding and well-respected public figure ‘cancelled’. I’m of course referring most recently to Liam Neeson’s admitting in an interview he roamed the streets of Northern Ireland for a week looking for a random black man to kill after his friend told him that she was raped by a black man, mind you this anecdote was used in the context of promoting his latest film Cold Pursuit.
The story was horrific, shocking and sparked immediate backlash and debate, though interestingly Neeson found himself being defended as well, namely by former Liverpool and England football player John Barnes. And more recently by actor Michelle Rodriguez, though she herself has apologized for her fairly tone-deaf defence of Neeson, claiming he could not be racist due to how passionately he kissed black actress Viola Davis his on-screen wife in Widows.
Although for all his terrible thoughts, Neeson didn’t actually do anything wrong in the eyes of some despite his terrible thoughts and motive but for many, he’s now ‘cancelled’, a term used by the court of public opinion which means someone is removed from relevancy and their career. Though let’s not take away from the harm of his comments, a seemingly casual admittance of wanting to kill a random person certain race because of the actions of another individual. Discriminating on an entire race for the actions of a few individuals is a clearly ridiculous, racist mindset and reality that has been historically felt by people in ethnic minorities and far too often, hence the fierce backlash. And despite Neeson thankfully not acting on his thoughts, they possibly came from a place of ignorance if he expected no blowback whatsoever.
The conversation is an intriguing one, about seeking revenge and admittance of racist, hateful thoughts – Neeson didn’t actually act on his thoughts and kill a black man but that didn’t stop the New York premiere of his new film Cold Pursuit being cancelled and his press run for the film all but stopping dead in its tracks.
‘Cancelling’ has happened dozens of times since the #Metoo movement began and deservingly so for the vast majority of the so-called cancelled people but some people have brought up the fact that the ‘cancel movement’ is being weaponized to take down people even for poor jokes, with Kevin Hart losing his Oscar hosting gig over past homophobic jokes.
While it is most often celebrities being ‘cancelled’, it often feels it could happen to any one of us – if you’ve been using social media for a long time, especially when you were younger, you may have said some questionable things that could be brought up against you if people were so inclined. Which could even have been jokes about sexuality or race, while you were in your younger more ignorant phase. This happened to James Gunn in 2018 as you may know, controversial and poorly phrased jokes from several years ago lead to his firing from the third Guardians of the Galaxy film despite vocal protests from avid fans of the films, a few prominent actors and the Guardians cast themselves.
No one is immune and while we should hold people accountable for their actions, past and present, do we all want to live in a world where any past mistake, no matter how long ago or minor should exile people from their careers forever? Of course, it’s all dependent on context, the severity of the action one’s action and whether the person has shown a willingness to learn since - we can’t possibly put sexual harassers and Liam Neeson in the same boat but cancel culture cancels indiscriminately.
‘Cancelling’ leaves no room for discussion of what motivated past actions, growth, immaturity and maturity, any mistake means someone is ‘cancelled’, we move on to the next one and wait to pounce on whoever screws up next. The problem is that this doesn’t allow for any nuanced conversation of complex moral or ethical issues when it does come to people involved in more controversial incidents, you’re either cancelled or not cancelled and this binary way of looking at morality doesn’t help anyone.
In a perfect society no one makes mistakes or ever has bad thoughts but that’s the thing, we don’t live in a perfect society and acting like we do via cancel culture only hinders potential positive discourse in addressing the darker sides of the world we live in.