Nigerian feminist author offers takedown of online social justice orthodoxy

I’d never heard of Nigerian feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before today. She’s written novels, short stories and books about feminism over the last 20 years. But yesterday she published something on her own web site which is making waves on social media today. I guess the simplest way to describe it is as a form of very well written self-defense to particular charges about her feelings toward trans people. But it’s also something more than that. It’s an indictment of social justice mobs online.

The backstory here is that in 2017 Adichie said something about trans women in an interview: “My feeling is trans women are trans women.” That led to her being labeled transphobic by some of the same people who’ve said the same about author J.K. Rowling. Here’s the statement that set things in motion:

Among those who criticized Adichie were some former students of hers, people she’d taught in writing workshops. One of those people was Akwaeke Emezi, a trans writer who has had an ongoing feud with Adichie ever since. Responding to those criticisms is clearly what prompted the three-part essay published yesterday. This is from part two:

When I first read this person’s work, which was their application to my writing workshop, I thought the sentences were well-done. I accepted this person. At the workshop, I thought they could have been more respectful of the other participants, perhaps not kept typing dismissively as others’ stories were discussed, with an air of being among people below their level. After the workshop, I decided to select the best stories, edit them, pay the writers a fee, and publish them in an e-magazine. The first story I chose was this person’s. I wrote a glowing introduction, which the story truly deserved…

After I gave the March 2017 interview in which I said that a trans woman is a trans woman, I was told that this person had insulted me on social media, calling me, among other things, a murderer. I was deeply upset, because while I did not really know them personally, I felt they knew what I stood for and that I fully supported the rights of trans people, and that I do not wish anybody dead…

When this person’s publishers sent me an early copy of their novel, I was surprised to see that my name was included in their cover biography…

I knew this person had called me a murderer, I knew they were actively campaigning to “cancel” me and tweeting about how I should no longer be invited to speak at events. But this I felt I could not ignore.

Adichie sent a letter asking that her name be removed from the book cover. She is clearly still outraged that someone could attack her online and still think it was okay to try to benefit her career from the association with her:

This person has created a space in which social media followers have – and this I find unforgiveable – trivialized my parents’ death, claiming that the sudden and devastating loss of my parents within months of each other during this pandemic, was ‘punishment’ for my ‘transphobia.’

This person has asked followers to pick up machetes and attack me.

This person began a narrative that I had sabotaged their career, a narrative that has been picked up and repeated by others.

And that leads to part three of the essay which is less about personal drama and more about general observations of what the world has become thanks to a witches’ brew of social justice and social media:

There are many social-media-savvy people who are choking on sanctimony and lacking in compassion, who can fluidly pontificate on Twitter about kindness but are unable to actually show kindness. People whose social media lives are case studies in emotional aridity. People for whom friendship, and its expectations of loyalty and compassion and support, no longer matter. People who claim to love literature – the messy stories of our humanity – but are also monomaniacally obsessed with whatever is the prevailing ideological orthodoxy. People who demand that you denounce your friends for flimsy reasons in order to remain a member of the chosen puritan class.

People who ask you to ‘educate’ yourself while not having actually read any books themselves, while not being able to intelligently defend their own ideological positions, because by ‘educate,’ they actually mean ‘parrot what I say, flatten all nuance, wish away complexity.’

People who do not recognize that what they call a sophisticated take is really a simplistic mix of abstraction and orthodoxy – sophistication in this case being a showing-off of how au fait they are on the current version of ideological orthodoxy…

I have spoken to young people who tell me they are terrified to tweet anything, that they read and re-read their tweets because they fear they will be attacked by their own. The assumption of good faith is dead. What matters is not goodness but the appearance of goodness. We are no longer human beings. We are now angels jostling to out-angel one another. God help us. It is obscene.

That’s as good a description of woke social media mobs as I’ve ever seen. It captures the hypocrisy, the dogmatism and the sense of public performance. As mentioned above, this is getting a lot of attention online with several articles already published about it. I’m sure the backlash will be swift.

One of the few good things about cancel culture is the way in which it reveals there are some people on the other side of any number of social and partisan divides that you may, nonetheless, have something in common with. In this case, if I’d been asked if I had anything in common with a Nigerian feminist author prior to today, my answer would have been no. But modern life is full of surprises.

It really does feel as if this battle is going to continue between those of us who believe in free speech and open discussion and those who just want to shout down and deplatform anyone who dares to disagrees with them. This is a reminder that some of the best allies in that fight may come from unexpected places.

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