Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Free Speech, and Transphobia
The author’s 2022 Reith Lecture was an eloquent defence of free speech in the age of social media — but also evasive when it came to regressive opinions
In addition to her writing, the well-deserved rise to fame of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s was thanks to her fearless insistence of writing beyond a singular story. Her works, her words, and her ideas shattered the singular role accorded to her and those who looked like her by the White gaze.
Adichie instead fiercely argued in favour of the multifarious and pluralistic reality that many of us inhabit instead of the drab monotone categories created for us. She spoke about the value of acknowledging and honoring the reality of our lived experiences, which are more akin to a palimpsest. And she warned of the dangers of pretending otherwise.
As Adichie succinctly put it in her 2009 TED Talk, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
This is precisely what makes Adichie’s latest foray into essentially transphobic views so upsetting, as it is entirely predicated on her inability to see beyond a singular story of womanhood. And her opinions have once again come to the fore in the context of her 2022 Reith lecture.
The Reith Lectures are the British Broadcasting Corporation’s premier annual series in which prominent intellectuals, writers, and public figures are invited to discuss broad themes. This year has been slightly different in that four public figures have been asked to deliver speeches around the theme of freedom.
Much of what Adichie said in her lecture is true. Whilst literature is not exactly in peril, its creators certainly are — only earlier this year Salman Rushdie was attacked on stage for the sin of writing something someone objected to.
But a significant portion of her arguments were as troublingly vague as they were unsubstantiated. They also seemingly treat virtual censorship as being an evil on the same level as the rise of the far-right in terms of its deleterious effects on freedom of expression.
According to Adichie, the world is now in the grips of moral stridency; where those deemed to have committed “secular blasphemy” face the wrath of “virtual vigilante action whose aim is not just to silence the person who has spoken but to create a vengeful atmosphere that deters others from speaking.”
This is her definition of “social censure” and condemnation of cancel culture (a facile and confected term, but we’ll get to that in a moment). And whilst there are grains of truth, the foundation of her premise seems rather flimsy.
Admonishment for its own sake is annoying and can even be upsetting. But it is a stretch to equate all social media backlash as constituting the same without delving into the provenance and words of your detractors.
Are they furious because you spoke up against injustice, or against the far-right politics they support? Or are they caustically responding to you having spoken down to a marginalised and vulnerable community? Are they using slurs, or are they sarcastically and snidely asking you to reconsider?
Castigation is hardly the best form of educational encouragement, but it is markedly different to death threats and slurs.
Adichie’s first real exposure to social media backlash came in 2017, where, during a Channel 4 interview, she refused to agree that transwomen are women because they were born men.
She later doubled down in a Facebook post arguing “…that trans women are trans women, that they are people who, having been born male, benefitted from the privileges that the world affords men, and that we should not say that the experience of women born female is the same as the experience of trans women…”.
And in a related interview published a week before her Reith lecture, Adichie made it clear that she had not reconsidered her essentially TERF views.
These views, which have dominated mainstream public discourse, if not necessarily feminist thought, in the Global North, have real-world impacts. It’s been barely a fortnight since the Colorado Springs shootings, which specifically targetted the transgender community.
It is especially ironic that Adichie’s view of transwomen and gender is rooted in a specifically colonial construction of gender, body, and sexuality given the themes her writing grapples with.
It is also saddening at a time when transphobic rhetoric has become a key part of rightwing politics and policies in much of the world that Adichie has decided to stand with those denying the validity of transwomen’s existence.
Much has been written about Adichie’s comments, but, tellingly, most of the responses from Nigeria and Africa have been ignored by Western media.
I’d like to point out an article by the African scholar Dr B Camminga in response, which cogently analysing responses to Adichie’s 2017 comments from the continent and from transwomen in Nigeria. The article is open access, and I highly encourage you to read it.
Camminga makes many thought-provoking points, and points out the irony of Adichie’s feminism being inspired by the bio-logic of Western discourse — “a discourse structured on historical power”. In other words; a single story.
Rather than being certain of the validity of this particular story, they argue that Adichie should instead begin “…by acknowledging history, geo- and corpo-political difference, along with colonial impositions of language and gender and how terms travel and have imperialist tendencies but can and do transform…”.
Words matter, and can be used to either include lived experiences different to our own or cruelly excise them from our views as well as our vocabularies.
Adichie knows this. She is a writer who consistently grapples with semantics, and questions the underlying power structures within those slippages.
It goes beyond provenance of authorship — who gets to tell the story is sometimes not as important as why they are being allowed to, and which narrative finds a platform.
We live in a world where freedom of speech has been vitiated by social media and online discourse, it is true. But, I would also argue, there has also never been a moment in history where so many views can be expressed outside the trammels of traditional power structures.
Literature is not in peril. The single story, however, is.