Liam Neeson Controversy – A Psychological Perspective

Recently in an interview with the Independent newspaper Liam Neeson spoke about an incident which happened 30 or more years ago. He spoke about learning from a friend that she had been violently raped, he found that the perpetrator was black. In an angry desire for revenge he spent about a week to a week-and-a-half going out looking to be set upon by a black person so that he could seriously harm them.

Liam Neeson continues to say that after about a week-and-a-half he came out of this dark place and questioned what he was doing and was horrified by his actions and shocked that he had this primal response within him. In in interview with Good Morning America Liam Neeson explained a bit more about what happened and answered a question about how he had got more details than just the colour of the attackers skin. I think that when he was telling the initial story he was just focusing on the important elements relevant to what he was talking about which was that once he had a characteristic to look his rage around that became the focus of the rage. He said in the interview that if the person had been British, Irish, Scottish, etc., he would have reacted the same to that.

What I wanted to share in relation to this story was that I have recently written an article for Dr David Lewis, author of Triumph of the Will? which is a book about how Hitler the man became Hitler the leader. The article I had written was focused on the work of Dr George Estabrooks who wrote a book in 1943 called Hypnotism. In that book is a chapter about Hitler and about crowd manipulation which I felt was relevant to a lot of what is going on in the World today and when this story about Liam Neeson broke I felt that it had some relevance to this as well.

My background, for those who don’t know, is in psychological therapy, specifically focusing on family support, anxiety and anger problems and depression. I am also a hypnotherapy instructor.

From what I have seen and read about what Liam Neeson said there seems to be a clear divide between those who think that this happened a long time ago, there hasn’t been a string of evidence to say he has carried on with racist behaviours over the last thirty or so years and he is describing something that could happen to pretty much anyone given similar circumstances. Then there is the other side which says he is obviously racist that he should be condemned for what he has said about how he behaved, that he shouldn’t work again, that he has ruined his career in a 17 minute interview whereas Kevin Spacey took years to ruin his career and that there is no excuse for the behaviour he described.

The article I wrote for Dr David Lewis was about mass hypnosis, or mob mentality, so it has a different angle to a single person who takes on a desire for revenge and violence towards a group of people based on the actions of a single person, but where it has relevance is in the way that the actions of one person can lead to emotionally charged people generalising their negative feelings to a whole group of people, especially if there is an underlying climate of negative viewpoints towards that group already creating a negative stereotype.

In the article, I wrote about how Dr Estabrooks described five components of mass hypnosis:

• Emotional contagion
• Restriction of the field of consciousness
• Social sanction
• Feeling of omnipotence
• Removal of inhibitions

Emotional contagion is where an individual gets swept up in the emotions of a mob or group. Restriction of the field of consciousness is where your awareness is narrowed to just one ‘reality’, so in the case of mob mentality you find yourself in a situation where everything on TV gives one version or reality ‘this group of people is bad/evil/dangerous’ etc, people you interact with perhaps talk with this perspective, the news you see and hear give this perspective. People are social animals and dependent upon the opinion of the group and will do things to conform to the group’s ideals. In mobs, there is a ‘group social sanction’ where people can develop a feeling of omnipotence which can lead to them feeling invincible and feeling like they can do anything and so more likely to follow along with anything presented with an attitude of expecting success. By being around the group certain behaviours are treated as acceptable and expected. This all leads to a removal of inhibitions leading to people doing things which they would never dream of doing in a ‘normal’ state of mind.

There are many examples of people behaving in unacceptable ways because of this process. There are example in ‘mobs’ like the London riots and riots which took place in other cities in the UK in 2011 where people who had never been in trouble with the police before, who were described as people who would never behave with violence, damaging property and looting, did these behaviours. When asked why they behaved in these ways they often replied that they didn’t know, they just seemed to get swept up in the situation.

Over recent years there have been many examples of people acting out of character and being abusive and committing crimes towards muslims, these types of crimes and abusive behaviour increase when terrorist attacks occur which are linked to a terrorist who also happened to claim to be muslim. So, the actions of a single person led to people generalising anger and hate and sometimes a desire for revenge onto innocent muslims. You hear about people setting fire to mosques and targeting groups of muslims without any evidence of those innocent muslim’s guilt.

The more emotional someone gets the more black-and-white they see things. The more emotional a person is the more their higher cortex is shut down and “high-level control over thought and emotion [transfers] from the prefrontal cortex to the hypothalamus and other earlier evolved structures” meaning that your thoughts and behaviours are all run through the survival brain which focuses on fight, flight or freeze, meaning you get an amygdala hijack and can be driven by anger or anxiety which can then dominate your thinking and in some cases can lead to obsessive thinking. Most people are likely to be familiar with when this happens from the flight or freeze side of things where they get stuck in obsessive negative rumination (worrying) driving behaviour to avoid the perceived threat. The flip side of this is being stuck unable to break-free of anger rumination driving behaviour to fight the perceived threat and get revenge.

“The amygdala’s emotional response provides a mechanism to work around the limitation of the prefrontal cortex’s reasoning. For example, the prefrontal cortex will remember what your ex-partner looks like, that petite brunette who dumped you for a new lover. It is the amygdala that is responsible for the surge of fury that floods your body when you see someone who looks even vaguely like your former mate. And “vaguely” is the operative word here. For when the amygdala tries to judge whether a current situation is hazardous, it compares that situation with your collection of past emotionally charged memories. If any key elements are even vaguely similar–the sound of a voice, the expression on a face–your amygdala instantaneously lets loose its warning sirens and an accompanying emotional explosion.” (From: Anger and the Brain: What happens in your head when you get angry)

It doesn’t make violent, aggressive or racist behaviours morally right, however, it does explain various behaviours. Because this process happens “vaguely” you can see how having a known identifiable feature like the colour of a perpetrators skin being something which triggers the anger which drives anger thinking and behaviours. I have worked with people who have experienced domestic abuse where I have been teaching group courses with a female instructor and when I have offered to write on the flipchart paper the women on the course have said things like “typical man, always telling women what to do”. When the female instructor has stood up deciding to write on the flipchart paper the women on the course have said things like “typical man, making the woman do all the work”. They would also frequently describe that “men are violent”, “men are horrible”, etc., and would say these opinions apply to all men. I would know these descriptions don’t apply to me, but they don’t know that. Part of the course I taught was for the women to see the way the female instructor and myself interacted and related to each other and as well as the material we covered over the 8 weeks of the course they would interact with me, I would interact respectfully back and they would see the interactions between the other instructor and myself and will hopefully realise that their generalisation of “all men are a certain way” is incorrect.

As humans, we generalise, we stereotype even if when we don’t mean to and we can easily tar others with a brush because of a single individual. In relationships people may tell their new partner “I am not your ex” because they are treating them as if they are going to cheat on them, they are constantly suspicious and untrusting etc. Following wars people can tar an entire country of people with a brush as if somehow all the people in that country are evil and can’t be trusted.

This is all made more likely when considered through the lens of the five components of mass hypnosis mentioned above where there is a backdrop of conflict, violence and revenge as being a part of everyday life and a backdrop of racism and negative descriptions about black people where the media support this idea, for example in England in the 1960’s there was a Conservative politician who said about voting Labour or Lib-Dem if you want black people being your neighbour and voting for them if you don’t – this won them their seat. This environmental backdrop narrows your field of consciousness and sanctions these violent behaviours and opinions as being acceptable among a prominent group of people giving the illusion of these behaviours being more acceptable. Liam Neeson’s highly emotional reaction to what he was told would have likely driven his thoughts and behaviours rather than the rational part of his brain (until he somehow saw what he was doing and came to his senses). In this highly emotional state Liam likely felt omnipotent and had no inhibitions, he probably had no thought of harm to himself or thoughts about consequences or what others would think of him. This is helpful in survival situations where rational thought about consequences and risk of harm to yourself and thoughts of not wanting to harm others might make you not put your all into fighting and so put you at greater risk of harm, but in situations like revenge or being angry at work or in other harmless or ‘threatless’ situations you can lose jobs, hurt (emotionally or physically) loved ones, etc., and regret your actions afterwards.

As an example of how anger can give a feeling of omnipotence and reduced inhibitions, many people have perhaps felt uncomfortable returning something to a shop, yet when they are angry in relation to what they are returning they have no problem complaining, they don’t feel self-conscious. Or when a parent is embarrassed about the behaviour of their child in a supermarket but then it reaches a point where they are now angry and they start shouting at their child in the supermarket. Later they may be embarrassed about the situation, but at the time they have gone from self-conscious to solely focused on being angry. Or getting angry about something at work and so telling the boss where they can shove the job and walking out only later realising they have lost their income and what the consequences are. As someone autistic with black-and-white thinking this kind of thing is something over the years I’ve struggled with where I would just quit a job and realise the consequences later, or quit a course or relationship etc., and later have to deal with the consequences of my actions.

Something that motivated me to write this was because I see it in the context of the World we are living in today which is rarely talked about. When the Brexit results were announced, there was a rise in racial hate crime, the outcome and all of the negative media about ‘immigrants’ and ‘migrants’ may have legitimised racial views, people talk in private about ‘immigrants taking our jobs/coming here and being given benefits and homes/being terrorists/rapists/child sex abusers, etc’ (whatever the various negative opinions are relating to different groups of individuals. From working within the social care sector and closely with the police over the years I know that reality is very different compared to what you read on the front of newspapers and hear from people when they share their opinions. When terror attacks happen these also lead to a spike in hate crimes, many of these crimes are obviously targeted at innocent people who had nothing to do with the terror attack etc, many of these people would never condone the attacks, yet they get targeted as if they are somehow bad people. There was also a rise in hate crimes (larger than the usual rise that seems to happen when elections occur) following Donald Trump becoming President in the US.

Some of the people who commit these racist crimes tell similar stories to Liam Neeson in that they found something highly emotional, causing them anger or fear which locked their mind on the idea of protecting their loved ones/their community and having thoughts of (or actually carrying out) violent acts without thought for consequences. These people previously showed no signs of being racist, so weren’t people who were actively racist perhaps with a small group of racists or online etc, but found a stimulus that legitimised this, but are people who were driven by their emotional brain and its desire to protect themselves, their family and community. This drive may have been helpful thousands of years ago as an animalistic response like you see in other apes where if one tribe of apes approaches the tribe sees that ‘other’ as a threat, knowing they will fight you and if you don’t fight then you, your family and your wider tribe will likely die, so you fight. But there are few situations in modern life where we need to react in this way. Unfortunately biology takes a long time to catch up with progress we have created with our intelligence.

So in closing this long (sorry!) blog post. Liam Neeson’s actions that he described can’t be condoned, but can be understood as not meaning that he is a bad or evil person who should never work again and whose films we should all boycott etc, but that he had an extreme emotional reaction to some shocking news which sent him to a dark place that fortunately he came out of and learned from before he did harm to anyone and should be allowed to openly talk about this without threats of how he shouldn’t get future movie roles or how he should be vilified etc.

It isn’t right to go out with the intent to cause harm or kill innocent people and not doing it because a situation never arose (no-one ever came out of a pub and started on him) doesn’t make it okay, clearly the implication from what he has said is that if someone had started on him he would have responded with extreme violence. He is right in that violence usually just leads to more violence and hatred to more hatred. He is also likely to be correct in describing that the anger just took hold. It is likely he went through a deeply emotional period of time where his thoughts and actions were filtered through the anger as described above. One of the ways of tackling this is to be mindful, to step outside of yourself and observe your thinking, feelings and behaviours objectively, to engage the higher cortex. This breaks down the emotional brains hold and can help give a realisation of what you are doing and give you a chance to break-free from the grasp of the emotional thinking. This is what seems to have happened for some reason after a week-and-a-half.

I feel that it is important that Liam Neeson should be able to openly share his story and that although it may be very uncomfortable to hear and we will all hopefully have feelings of disgust about the thought of the actions etc., it should be approached and talked about in a constructive way. That is what I have tried to do here, I have tried to share some of the human nature stuff that doesn’t condone actions, but does explain them and does help to put into contexts that someone isn’t a bad person because of a period of bad thinking or behaviour.

There are many people who may relate in some way who may recognise themselves in some aspect of what he describes where they recognise that some incident or series of incidents or news reports or rhetoric etc., have led them to develop racist or aggressive views towards others who are likely to be innocent, where they have generalised beyond being disgusted, scared or angered by the actions of an individual and holding views about the consequences that individual should face, to tarring a group with that brush. My hope would be that by Liam continuing the dialogue and engaging in interviews rather than shying away that people can learn and grow from this. I hope that interviewers take the stance of acknowledging and condemning the actions but focusing on what can be learned and on the importance of being able to be open about things. One thing as a therapist is that when someone tells you something you find shocking and uncomfortable to hear is the importance of not judging the individual and allowing them to speak helping them to understand that unless you feel there is a risk of harm to anyone (or harm or a criminal offence has taken place that needs reporting etc) that this is a safe place for them to talk about it. Once people fear judgement for their views they can stop sharing them and then not get help moving on from them. Obviously here Liam wasn’t in therapy, he was talking to a journalist and has since had to talk to many more about the same issue, but the same applies, that if it is portrayed that it is wrong to say “this thing happened and I just got this overwhelming urge to hurt x type of people (or whatever the thing is) and I just need to talk to someone about it because it scared me…” then these people will be stuck dealing with it themselves, not seeking help and not moving forward and some may end up drifting back into the anger etc., and find it becomes more consuming.

Anyway, that is my two cents (or 3235 approx words), as they say…

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