The Feminist vs. The Cancelers

Celebrated Nigerian feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie revives the debate about "cancel culture" and transgender issues—and her critics prove her point

Seven years ago, early in the social justice revolution of the 2010s, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was one of that revolution’s icons. Her call to arms (“We should all be feminists”) was incorporated into Beyoncé’s song “Flawless” and showcased at the 2014 MTV Music Awards, with the word FEMINIST looming large in neon letters. Today, as the revolution rolls on, Adichie has emerged as a voice of dissent—or, to detractors, a voice for bigotry.

Adichie recently caused controversy with a long essay titled “It Is Obscene: A True Reflection in Three Parts.” The piece is a cri de coeur against the self-righteous zealotry of current social justice politics, particularly online, and against what has come to be known as “cancel culture.” It is also a very personal story about being maligned by two fellow Nigerians, former students from her writing workshop, because of her disagreement with some aspects of the transgender rights movement. The former students, whom Adichie does not name but others have, are activist OluTimehin Adegbeye and activist/writer Akwaeke Emezi.

Adichie pulls no punches. Her portrait of a certain type of social justice activist—characterized by “a massive sense of entitlement,” “dishonesty and pretension and selfishness that is couched in the language of self-care,” and “an astonishing level of self-absorption”—is spot-on, and a devastating indictment:

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 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.’ …

Ask them a question and you are told that the answer is to repeat a mantra. Ask again for clarity and be accused of violence.

This climate, Adichie writes, is terrible for young people whose intellectual growth is stunted by fear of wrongthink:

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.

The essay has clearly struck a chord, with enthusiastic responses across political lines. But there have also been predictable rejoinders from the social justice community. The Daily Dot highlighted the opinions of people who believe that “Adichie is using her influence and audience to essentially harass a trans author,” among them a tweet from a criminal lawyer with over 20,000 followers accusing Adichie of “flex[ing] her cishetero dominance” and even of trying to be too white.

Both The Daily Dot and the British LGBT Foundation picked up the charge that Adichie had “misgendered” someone (presumably Emezi, Adichie’s former student, who identifies as non-binary). The charge mystified me at first, since Adichie’s essay consistently refers to Emezi as “they,” “them,” and a “person.” Then I got it: Adichie’s crime is that, in describing her past interactions with Emezi, she quoted from a 2018 email exchange with the publishers of Emezi’s debut novel, Freshwater, that used female pronouns—which Emezi also used at the time. In fact, Emezi’s own website still features extensive excerpts from reviews of Freshwater that refer to the author as “she.”

But the most vehement retort to Adichie comes from Vox writer Aja Romano, who is not just a social justice purist, but probably the purest purist that ever did pure. Adichie’s “cancel culture screed,” Romano decrees, is “pernicious” and a “dangerous distraction.” (Along the way, there’s a gratuitous dig at the length of Adichie’s essay, and its “estimated reading time of 16 minutes,” which turns out to be six minutes less than Romano’s previous Vox essay on cancel culture from May.)

What’s so dangerous and pernicious about Adichie’s piece? Apparently, “we’re having the wrong conversation.” The right conversation, according to the Official Arbiter of Conversation-Having, is “about whether one of the most famous feminists in the world is actually transphobic”—a “conversation” in which, clearly, the only acceptable answer is “yes”—“and what it means for trans women if she is.”

Adichie’s main offense is this passage from a 2017 interview:

When people talk about, “Are trans women women?” my feeling is trans women are trans women. But I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man, with the privileges the world accords a man, and then sort of change—switch 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 in the world as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are.

I don’t think it’s a good thing to conflate everything into one. I don’t think it’s a good thing to talk about women’s issues being exactly the same as the issues of trans women. What I’m saying is that gender is not biology. Gender is sociology.

I have my disagreements with Adichie. For one, I disagree that biology is irrelevant when it comes to gender—not in the sense that someone who is biologically male should never be considered a woman or addressed by their preferred name and pronouns, but in the sense that biology makes such a person irreducibly different from women who are biologically female. (Obviously, the same goes for transgender men.) I also don’t believe that men, generally, are accorded more “privileges” than women in all modern societies, at least not in most advanced industrial liberal democracies. In many social milieus, a “feminine” male child may be more disadvantaged than a female child—which is not to say that such an experience can be conflated with the female experience.

Still, agree or disagree, I think Adichie’s 2017 interview offered thoughtful, nuanced, and interesting observations. Romano, however, sees only a catalog of thoughtcrimes: Adichie used the phrase “switch genders,” which doesn’t conform to the dogma that transgender people have always had a core gender identity at odds with their biological sex. She “hewed uncomfortably close” to the idea that trans women don’t lose “male privilege” if they transition! (She didn’t.) Worst of all, she refused to unconditionally state that “trans women are women” and insisted on “trans women are trans women,” which might exclude trans women from the “broader category of womanhood”! And then, instead of shutting up after being criticized, Adichie chose to publicly defend J. K. Rowling’s right to express her opinions on transgender issues!

Romano laments that with both Rowling and Adichie, the conversation quickly turned to “cancel culture” rather than the underlying issue of what they said. But maybe that’s because, in both cases, social justice activists responded to what they said not by engaging their arguments but by trying to “cancel” them and condemning their views as harmful, “violent,” and beyond the pale. (For example, on Twitter in April, Emezi accused Rowling and Adichie of “trying to kill” children by denying them access to health care and wrote that they “would happily see children dead, see me dead, see trans people dead.”)

Indeed, the “conversation” we must have per Romano is clearly one that allows for no dissent:

It should be about figuring out why women with so much education and so much initial empathy wind up adopting a belief system so dedicated to othering people who are already vulnerable and at-risk.

It should be about how political debates about trans identity negatively impact the mental health of 94 percent of trans teens

In other words: We need to talk about why we should not permit “political debates about trans identity.” Won’t somebody please think of the children!

As it happens, this claim is not only manipulative, but essentially fraudulent—what we skeptics call a fictoid.

Romano’s link leads to the National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health 2021 by the Trevor Project, based on an online sample of nearly 35,000 young people (ages 13 to 24) who volunteered to complete a questionnaire after outreach by social media ads. Let’s stipulate, arguendo, that such a survey can yield reliable data. That “94 percent” figure seems to be a reference to the finding that “94 percent of LGBTQ youth reported that recent politics negatively impacted their mental health.”

But this is drastically different from Romano’s version: it’s “recent politics,” not “political debates about trans identity.” The survey was conducted between October 12 and December 31, 2020, i.e., at the height of election drama. Not to be flippant, but who amongst us didn’t feel at that point that recent politics were bad for our mental health? It’s also worth noting that the survey sample did not consist solely or even predominantly of “trans teens”: nearly half were 18 or older, and just 38 percent were “transgender or nonbinary,” with another 18 percent “questioning” their gender identity.

The thrust of Romano’s essay is that “cancel culture” is good because we should suppress and stigmatize public conversation that causes ill-defined psychic “harm.” Notably, this does not simply mean rhetoric that attacks, mocks or demonizes transgender people; it is any speech that dissents from trans activist orthodoxy (which not all trans people accept!) even while stressing support for transgender people’s personal freedoms and civil rights, as both Adichie and Rowling have done. (I discussed Rowling’s position in more depth in 2019.)

Romano’s piece is also awash in flagrant double standards. For instance, Adichie and Rowling are held responsible for the views of more extreme “TERFs” (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) who sometimes depict all transgender women as predatory males using a female identity to manipulate and exploit women, because there are some commonalities. On the other hand, Adichie and Rowling’s detractors are not held responsible for people who use threats of physical and sexual violence against women labeled “TERFs,” despite commonalities.

I’d reject guilt by partial association in both cases and hold individuals responsible for their own words and beliefs, or others’ words and beliefs that they actually endorse, not for people and viewpoints with whom they share some points of agreement. But Romano also downplays fairly violent rhetoric actually used by one of Adichie’s opponents.

Adichie writes (referring to a tweet by Emezi) that one of her former students “asked followers to pick up machetes and attack me.” In response, Romano complains that Adichie “decontextualizes” the comment to portray it as personal and violent. What Emezi actually wrote was, “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.”

True, it’s not quite as personal or direct as Adichie’s description suggests. But would Romano demand the same precision from like-minded activists claiming to be targeted by violent speech? (That’s a rhetorical question.) How precise, for that matter, is Romano’s own claim that “those who say they are boycotting Adichie in response to learning of her transphobia are being harassed” on Twitter? (The link shows snarky and dismissive responses to one boycott tweet.) Meanwhile, Adichie says in her essay that her critics’ social media followers used her personal grief to harass her, telling her that her parents’ recent deaths within months of each other were punishment for her “transphobia.” Romano, predictably, makes no mention of that.

“Responses to X prove the need for X” is a pretty tired trope. But in this case, the trope fits: The sneering, sanctimonious critical responses to Adichie’s essay absolutely prove her point. This is especially true of Romano’s screed, which boils down to a testy defense of “the prevailing ideological orthodoxy,” demands denunciations and suppression of dissent, and takes Adichie to task for failing to repeat a mantra.

For more from the past week’s transgender culture wars, check out my subscribers-only newsletter to be posted tomorrow.