Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s three-part essay on public debate, criticism on social media and cancel culture has met with a mixed response. While some have called it eloquent, many others have deemed Adichie ‘transphobic’ — a trait that her delicately interwoven words and indisputably elitist writing skills in English language carefully hide.
Here’s the entire controversy in a nutshell: In a 2017 interview on Channel 4 News, Adichie had said “trans women are trans women”, meaning they cannot be completely regarded as women, which invited severe backlash. She later called British author J.K. Rowling’s ‘TERF Wars’ essay, regarded as a ‘transphobic manifesto’, a “perfectly reasonable piece”. Which, quite frankly, taints Adichie’s long advocacy for LGBTQ rights. Last week, she published on her website a personal essay titled ‘It Is Obscene’, seemingly calling out the ‘betrayal’ of two writers she once mentored and whom she considered close friends. She has since removed the essay but not before it was picked up by journalists and commentators across the world.
Since the essay was written in three parts, let’s break it down in three parts:
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Part I: Wokeness
Though it’s the third part of the essay, Adichie’s attack on cancel culture is what stood out the most for me. Her takedown of wokeness is what younger millennials and Gen Z typically get to hear from their seniors.
“In certain young people today like these two from my writing workshop, I notice what I find increasingly troubling: a cold-blooded grasping, a hunger to take and take and take, but never give; a massive sense of entitlement; an inability to show gratitude…” she writes.
I disagree with this reading of the younger generation, which has proven itself to be more politically charged and environmentally sensitive than the generations that came before, especially with scores of protests around the globe in 2019. We find it difficult to show gratitude because, well, there’s nothing to be grateful for when we have been handed this divisive, broken world with all its inequalities, which are only on the rise. This over generalisation of the entire generation by Adichie based on her experience with two people is the problem Gen X and boomers suffer with.
But what Adichie writes next made more sense than anything else: “an ease with dishonesty and pretension and selfishness that is couched in the language of self-care; an expectation always to be helped and rewarded no matter whether deserving or not; language that is slick and sleek but with little emotional intelligence; an astonishing level of self-absorption; an unrealistic expectation of puritanism from others; an over-inflated sense of ability, or of talent where there is any at all; an inability to apologize, truly and fully, without justifications; a passionate performance of virtue that is well executed in the public space of Twitter but not in the intimate space of friendship.”
The language on social media discourse is obscene, with people, as Adichie writes, “choking on sanctimony”. Even in liberal circles, the space for difference of opinion is shrinking by the day. It is scary to tweet if you don’t toe the line of the “prevailing ideological orthodoxy of the day”. Such circles are clearly visible, so is the stale commentary.
It is patronising and alienating, and people must pay attention. The best example for the patronising language the Left ideologues employ, according to me, is illustrated in Khushwant Singh’s book Train To Pakistan. When Iqbal reaches Mano Majra to inform people of the need for various government reforms, the villagers just smile at whatever he says, never once understanding his ‘language’.
That’s the problem with the Left discourse — whoever it is they’re talking about, their language is not reaching them. Their sophisticated ideas are expressed in the most boring, privileged, snobbish way.
The unrealistic levels of puritanism that Adichie writes about in her essay are regularly unleashed by the Left and liberal influencers, especially on Twitter, on anyone with a ‘deviant’ opinion, even when that opinion is not hurtful or hateful. In that, Adichie’s take that opinions are ‘parroted’ and not well-informed is justified, and something that we should take note of. Homogeneity of ideas won’t take us very far. Like Adichie writes, “And so we have a generation of young people on social media so terrified of having the wrong opinions that they have robbed themselves of the opportunity to think and to learn and to grow.”
By not signing some petition calling for the ‘cancellation’ of cancel culture and delving into the language employed by the Left and liberals on social media, Adichie adds a much-needed nuance to the debate, and one is hopeful that people would ditch fancy words to deploy everyday, simple-to-understand words in their discourse.
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Part II: Is it obscene though?
Adichie keeps her gun pointedly towards the ‘wokes’ of the world. But what about the ideological Right? How can everyone conveniently keep the ‘Right-wing’ out of cancel culture, when their cancellations are not only more real, but even get violent and cause real harm, with direct influence on policies of a Right-wing government.
When an Adichie or a J.K. Rowling are ‘cancelled’ by liberals for their problematic takes, all they have to suffer is social media denouncement and two weeks of media attention. But when the Right ‘cancels’ an artist — say, Taslima Nasreen or Salman Rushdie — there are serious repercussions because those cancelled are disenfranchised from their home country and forced to seek asylum in other nations, where they spend the rest of their lives as fugitives.
Nasreen should especially be aware of this culture. When she pissed off the Right, she faced death threats and is now forced to live in exile, but when she pissed off the Left, her writing was called “bad” and there were incessant criticisms from perhaps inconsequential 20-somethings.
When Left and liberals question racist undertones in Enid Blyton’s writings, they don’t go to libraries and burn her books down or force her out of school literature.
If the Left has a problem with a movie, they write long critiques of it and point out its perceived fallacies on social media; the Right sends goons to film sets to beat the makers up and stop something still in the process of creation.
So the next time you talk about “cancel culture”, don’t focus your lens on the Left and liberals. They’re not taking arms against you or mobilising groups just because they don’t agree with your views.
Adichie’s essay goes on and on about those who have criticised her, but doesn’t so much as even mention the intolerance exhibited by Right-wing groups across the globe. Why don’t we hear anything from the Nigerian author about the Twitter ban in her home country? Is that not cancellation?
It would do all commentators eager to lecture the millennials a great service to look at where the ‘cancellations’ are coming from, instead of focusing their energies on just one group whose cancellations are more ideological than involving literal, physical threat.
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Part III: On ‘transphobia’
Though the essay is more about Adichie’s problems with her former students and friends, and less about trans rights, the undiscussed issue sits like a trumpeting elephant in the centre of the room. It must be addressed.
Somewhere in the middle of the essay, Adichie says she didn’t mean to sound exclusionary with her remark that ‘trans women are trans women’, and would like to reiterate that it doesn’t mean she wants to take away their agency.
Adichie offers a clarification on what she had said in her 2017 interview to Channel 4 that first sparked this controversy:
“Then I gave an interview in March 2017 in which I said that a trans woman is a trans woman, (the larger point of which was to say that we should be able to acknowledge difference while being fully inclusive, that in fact the whole premise of inclusiveness is difference.),” Adichie said while explaining how she was termed a transphobe.
One thing that people with similar stance as Adichie forget is, while inclusivity can only be found in difference, reiterating that “trans women are trans women” doesn’t make any sense. Yes, a trans woman’s lived experiences are different from a cis woman’s. So are a lesbian’s experiences different from a cis woman’s and an Asian woman’s to a black woman’s. We don’t hear anyone say “lesbian women are lesbian women” or that “a black woman is a black woman”. Because when it comes to womanhood, there is indeed nothing that separates us. The same goes for trans women. They are women, with a different lived experience.
Adichie says trans women, before their transition, enjoyed the privileges of being a man. She conveniently overlooks the inner battles and recurring struggles that pre-transition transpersons fight because their gender doesn’t align with their selves, or the discrimination, even violence, they face for being effeminate.
Still, it would be a stretch to call Adichie a ‘transphobe’. To label anyone a trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) and transphobic and homophobic, even though they advocate for the rights of all people, is reductive. Such name-callers are acutely aware that the final word on what is ‘transphobic’ and what isn’t, lies with my trans friends.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)