Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie captures the hypocrisies of too many “social justice” fanatics | Kenan malik


“The more she wrote, the less sure she became. Each message scratched yet another scale of self until she felt naked and fake. So Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote about Ifemelu, the central character of his 2013 novel. Americanah. Through a series of beautifully observed novels that skillfully map the fractures of the contemporary world – Purple hibiscus, Half of a yellow sun and Americanah – Adichie has become one of the most eloquent voices in English-speaking Africa. She has also become a fierce protagonist in debates about racism, feminism and free speech.

Much of Adichie’s work addresses questions of identity in a globalized world and, in particular, what it means to be black and to be a woman. In a world of contested identities, this has inevitably drawn her into a number of controversies, especially with trans activists. Last week, she published a three-part essay titled It’s obscene, gone viral, picked up by the newspapers worldwide. The essay is both a passionate defense of itself against its detractors and a devastating polemical reflection on the state of public debate today.

In 2017, Adichie donated a meeting on Channel 4 News in which she insisted that “when people talk about” Are trans women women? “My feeling is that trans women are trans women.” She added that “if you have lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world grants to men and then changed your gender, it is difficult for me to accept that, then we can assimilate your experience to the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning as a woman and who has not had the privileges that are men ”.

The interview, and his subsequent defense of JK Rowling’s views on trans rights as “reasonable,” led to backlash about her “”transphobia”. Among his fiercest critics was another Nigerian novelist, Akwaeke Emezi, who identifies as non-binary – neither male nor female. “I hope there are others who will pick up machetes to protect us from the harms that transphobes like Adichie and Rowling seek to perpetuate,” Emezi tweeted in January.

In It Is Obscene, Adichie critiques two writers who attended her creative writing workshops in Lagos. She befriended the two, she says, and helped them get published. But the two, in her opinion, betrayed her friendship by targeting her on social media and spreading malicious lies. She never names Emezi, but leaves no doubt that they are the second writer she refers to. Emezi replied that Adichie’s essay “was designed to incite hordes of transphobic Nigerians to target me.”

Personal stories of trust and betrayal become, in part three of Adichie’s essay, the backdrop for fierce criticism of social media and the nature of public debate. She is particularly scathing towards “people who ask you to ‘educate’ yourself … while not being able to intelligently defend their own ideological positions, because by ‘educate’ they actually mean ‘parrot what I’m saying. , flatten all the nuances, wish for complexity ‘”.

Many will recognize the trends described by Adichie. Thanks to the confusion between the private and the public, what could have been disagreements within a friendship is now often played out on social media. The growth of identity politics has placed people in silos and made disagreement often seen as a challenge to one’s being. The view that social justice requires the application of the right social etiquette means that too often “what matters is not kindness but the appearance of kindness,” as Adichie puts it. The result is a culture in which people are quick to take offense but also easily attracted to violence or cruelty, and in which people are rarely seen as acting in good faith.

Much of this can be seen in the contemporary debate on trans rights. Trans people clearly face discrimination and bigotry, an issue recognized by feminists like Adichie and Rowling. But much of the trans rights debate takes place at the level of language and identity. When feminists disagree with trans activists about what it is to be a woman, it is not seen as a legitimate debate and women’s right to engage with their own identity, but as a questioning of the “existence” of trans people.

Identities are important, but they are not the same as existence. To question the boundaries of particular identities is not to deny the existence of someone. There are certainly fanatics out there who would harm trans people and deny them their basic rights, even existence. Adichie is not one of them. Most feminists are not considered “transphobic” either. Adichie or University of Oxford Painting Selina todd or Rowling as bigots only turns what might have been an important debate about how to defend trans and women’s rights into a self-defeating struggle over identity.

It also means that women who have a “false” view of identity become ostracized. The latest case is that of the textile artist Jess from Wahls, whose work was banned by the Royal Academy from his shop because of his alleged “transphobic views”.

Trans activists often argue that too much of the public debate focuses on controversies over feminists such as Adichie or de Wahls challenging trans views on identity, rather than prejudice and discrimination. that trans people face. There is some truth to this, but it is the almost inevitable consequence of placing greater importance on policing what is acceptable to say about identity than on questioning. material damage.

At the same time, there are questions to ask Adichie. By turning private anger into a public protest, It Is Obscene itself becomes the kind of performance Adichie warns against. His publication of private emails without consent crosses a border. She rightly denounces the complacency of many of her detractors, but there is also self-justice in her controversy. And by condemning young people as being given to “a cold-blooded seizure, a hunger to take and take and take, but never to give,” she risks making the kind of generalizations she rightly criticizes. .

The very nature of the public debate that Adichie dissects so lucidly also frames her response. Without leaving the cage of identity debates, we will be able to defend the rights of neither women nor trans people.

Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

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