This essay, on novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, transgender rights and the nature of contemporary public debate, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 20 June 2021, under the headline “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie captures the hypocrisies of too many ‘social justice’ zealots”.
“The more she wrote, the less sure she became. Each post scraped off yet one more scale of self until she felt naked and false.” So wrote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about Ifemelu, the central character in her 2013 novel Americanah. Through a series of beautifully observed novels that deftly 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 of anglophone Africa. She has also become a fierce protagonist in debates over racism, feminism and free speech.
Much of Adichie’s work wrestles with questions of identity in a globalised 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, most notably with trans activists. Last week, she published a three-part essay entitled “It Is Obscene“, which went viral, picked up by newspapers across the world. The essay is both a passionate defence of herself against her critics and a blistering polemical reflection on the state of public debate today.
In 2017, Adichie gave an interview on Channel 4 News in which she insisted that “when people talk about ‘Are trans women women?’, my feeling is trans women are trans women”. She added that “if you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men and then change gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are”.
The interview, and her subsequent defence of JK Rowling’s views on trans rights as “reasonable”, led to a backlash about her “transphobia”. Among her fiercest critics was another Nigerian novelist, Akwaeke Emezi, who identifies as non-binary – neither male nor female. “I trust that there are other people who will pick up machetes to protect us from the harm transphobes like Adichie & Rowling seek to perpetuate,” Emezi tweeted in January.
In “It Is Obscene”, Adichie criticises two writers who attended her creative writing workshops in Lagos. She befriended both, she says, and helped them get published. But both, in her view, betrayed her friendship by targeting her on social media and spreading malicious falsehoods. She never names Emezi, but leaves no doubt that they are the second writer to whom she refers. Emezi responded that Adichie’s essay “was designed to incite hordes of transphobic nigerians to target me”.
The personal stories of trust and betrayal become, in the third part of Adichie’s essay, a backdrop for a ferocious critique of social media and the nature of public debate. She is particularly scathing of “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 say, flatten all nuance, wish away complexity’”.
Many will recognise the trends that Adichie describes. Thanks to the blurring of the private and the public, what once might have been disagreements within a friendship are now often played out on social media. The growth of the politics of identity has placed people into silos and ensured that disagreement is often seen as a challenge to one’s being. The view that social justice requires the enforcement of the right social etiquette means that too often “what matters is not goodness but the appearance of goodness”, as Adichie puts it. The result is a culture in which people are quick to take offence but also easily drawn to being vicious or cruel, and one in which people are rarely seen as acting in good faith.
Much of this can be seen in the contemporary debate over trans rights. Trans people clearly face discrimination and bigotry, an issue recognised by feminists such as Adichie and Rowling. But most of the debate about trans rights takes place at the level of language and identity. When feminists disagree with trans activists over what it is to be a woman, this is seen not as a legitimate debate, and the right of women to engage with their own identities, but as a questioning of the “existence” of trans people.
Identities are important, but they are not the same as existence. Challenging the boundaries of particular identities is not to deny someone’s existence. There are certainly bigots who would harm trans people and deny them basic rights, even existence. Adichie is not one of them. Nor are most of the feminists deemed to be “transphobic”. Painting Adichie or Rowling or Oxford University academic Selina Todd as bigots only turns what might have been an important debate about how to defend both trans and women’s rights into a self-defeating tussle over identity.
It also means that women who have the “wrong” view of identity become ostracised. The latest case is that of textile artist Jess de Wahls, whose work has been barred by the Royal Academy from its shop because of her supposedly “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 on the harm and discrimination that trans people face. There is truth to that, but that is the almost inevitable consequence of placing greater store on the policing of what is acceptable to say about identity than on challenging material harm.
At the same time, there are questions to be asked of Adichie. In turning private anger into a public display, “It Is Obscene” itself becomes the kind of performance Adichie warns against. Her publication of private emails without consent crosses a boundary. And in condemning young people as being given to “a cold-blooded grasping, a hunger to take and take and take, but never give”, she is in danger of making the kinds of generalisations that she rightly critiques.
The very character of public debate that Adichie so lucidly dissects also frames her response to it. Without breaking out of the cage of identity debates, we will be able to defend the rights neither of women nor of trans people.