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Liam Neeson, Reaction Formations and Hysteria

Liam Neeson photo Recently Liam Neeson confessed, in an interview by Clémence Michallon about his latest film, Cold Pursuit, that he had once had a racist reaction when a woman friend of his told him she had been raped by a black man.

“I went up and down areas with a cosh [edge], hoping I’d be approached by somebody – I’m ashamed to say that – and I did it for maybe a week, hoping some [uses air quotes with fingers] ‘black bastard’ would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could kill him.”

There was a swift reaction to this confession. A few hours after the confession was broadcast, the premier of Cold Pursuit was cancelled by producers. And others were calling for his scenes to be taken out of a previous film, Men in Black. In addition various celebrities were criticizing him. Piers Morgan, the talk show host, compared him to members of the KKK, describing him as “the purest personification of racism.” He added, “I wouldn’t feel like roaming the streets with a weapon, intent on killing any black person who annoyed me.”

There were also those who came to his defense. Sports commentator John Barnes, a black man, said he respected Neeson for being honest about his feelings and noted, “We are all unconscious racists.” Whoopie Goldberg, on the TV show, “The View,” also spoke out. “People walk around sometimes with rage. That’s what happens. Is he [Neeson] a bigot? No.”

This incident highlights the atmosphere of hysteria that currently surrounds the topic of racism directed against blacks. People right now are in terror of anybody saying anything that could vaguely be interpreted as racist. The moment we hear or read anything that may smack of racism on any white person’s lips or pen, there is a knee-jerk reaction to condemn and completely repudiate that person as evil. People in general are no longer able to think calmly and reasonably about race. Instead, they have hysterical reactions such as those aimed at Liam Neeson.

For decades black radicals have excoriated white Americans for being racist. This has constituted a form of terrorism and has caused whites to feel afraid of—even in terror of—saying anything about blacks. The atmosphere is similar to the one that prevailed during the McCarthy era in the 1950s, when anyone who said anything that could be construed as pro-communism was immediately labeled as “evil.”

The source of this hysterical reaction is a psychoanalytic defense mechanism called “reaction formation.” Freud was the first to discover this unconscious process, describing it as a method by which people could hide certain feelings from themselves (feeling they did not want to admit they had) by convincing themselves they had the opposite feelings and meanwhile condemning others whom they suspected of having the feelings they have censored in themselves.

Freud discovered this and other defense mechanism while analyzing his psychoanalytic patients in the early 1900s. Most of our mind, he theorized, is unconscious because humans don’t want to know what their deepest motivations are, particular those thoughts or feelings that go against their ideal image of themselves.

Hence, the producers and celebrities who were the quickest to condemn Neeson were most likely the biggest racists of all. In their desperate need to deny their own unconscious racism, their reaction formations kicked in and they reacted quickly to prove their own innocence by coming down harshly on Neeson. Reaction formations abound when culture becomes hysterical.

In actuality, Liam Neeson is to be commended for having the courage, integrity and honesty to look at himself in an objective way and to admit something which no true racist would ever admit. In addition, we should understand that Neeson comes from a Catholic background, where confession, redemption and forgiveness are a major theme of the religion. Indeed, self-honesty is an important part of all religions and philosophies.

Today, in this age in which unreasonable behavior is made to seem reasonable and reasonable behavior is made to seem unreasonable, an honest man like Neeson gets shamed. This leaves many young people today feeling confused about what to believe. It leaves many older people feeling similarly conflicted and hence modeling misguided values.

The trend seems to be headed toward the demise of cultural stability, with radicals and rebels, along with their reaction formations and hysterical thinking, taking over our culture.

Liam Neeson, Reaction Formations and Hysteria

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York and has been practicing for over 37 years. He works with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. He has graduated from three psychotherapy institutes and received a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Washington Square Institute in 1981. He has been an Adjunct Assistant Professor of psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2002 and has authored thirteen books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as four novels and a book of poems and drawings. More recently he wrote 20 screenplays (winning four first-place awards at festivals) and produced and directed two feature films.

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APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2019). Liam Neeson, Reaction Formations and Hysteria. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 12 Feb 2019
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