God help us indeed!
Chimamanda Adichie’s website crashed for a few hours this week when she published an eloquent takedown of cancel culture where she discussed two former students who’ve accused her of transphobia. Since then, debate has been raging on social media. While some applaud Adichie for her beautiful prose and her views on cancel culture and her denunciation of a polarised social media climate, others have been critical of her views, which they consider transphobic.
I had my first taste of cancel culture when I was 12. Following tabloid rumours that a pop idol whose music I’d grown up listening to, used hard drugs, I remember tearing up and throwing away all her posters.
Thankfully, my ‘snowflake’ behaviour didn’t go as far as binning her music. It was only a few years after that I realised her alleged drug use didn’t take away from her talent or my enjoyment of her music.
Cancel culture is rarely black and white, as in the case of Harvey Weinstein and his abuse of power – we will never look at any of his productions and see them the same way again, as separate from the man. Thankfully perhaps, he was on the business side of the industry rather than creative. It is not always so black and white though – Tiger Woods and his philandering, Tom Cruise and his Scientology, many celebrities who have tweeted utter nonsense over the years whose sexist, racist or otherwise offensive tweets come back to haunt them when they are famous.
Where do you separate the person from their art or their sporting talent? While Chrissy Teigen is a hero to many thanks to her outspoken trolling of Trump, the model recently had to apologise for her past behaviour when receipts of her bullying behaviour surfaced in the form of old tweets trolling several people.
“We are all more than our worst moments” the model offered while acknowledging her privilege that she was “lucky enough to be held accountable for all their past bullshit in front of the entire world.”
While Adichie’s takedown was a literary masterpiece in that art of the takedown, the identity of the anonymous former students soon went public, with Nigerian writer Akwaeke Emezi confirming on social media they were one of the two former students Adichie has written about.
Adichie writes that one of the students in question “asked followers to pick up machetes and attack me” — an apparent reference to a January Twitter thread in which Emezi wrote: “I trust that there are other people who will pick up machetes to protect us from the harm transphobes like Adichie & [J.K.] Rowling seek to perpetuate. I, however, will be in my garden with butterflies, trying to figure out how to befriend the neighborhood crows.”
This poignant reaction was following a Channel 4 interview with Adichie where the author said about trans women, “When people talk about, ‘Are trans women women?’ my feeling is trans women are trans women.” Adichie has apologise since and explained that what she meant was while trans women face tremendous oppression and must be supported, we should also be able to acknowledge real differences between transgender women and women who are not transgender, without suggesting that one experience is more important or valid than the other.
This hasn’t of course stopped the comparisons to J.K. Rowlings who also faced criticism and calls for cancellation following her views who many felt were anti-trans. It probably didn’t help Adichie’s case that even after her apology for the miscommunication of her thoughts in the 2017 Channel 4 interview, in 2020, Adichie spoke out again, this time in defence of J.K. Rowling.
Much of the criticism comes from those who call into question Adichie’s views that, “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.”
Of course, painful experiences of prominent transgender figures like Laverne Cox destroy the argument of assumed privilege. “The binary narrative, which suggests that all trans women transition from male privilege, erases a lot of experiences,” Cox said speaking of her past struggles.
Wherever you stand on this divide, as valid and vital as some of these debates are, is it however necessary to take up metaphorical pitchforks and machetes and attack an author for having an opinion that doesn’t align with ours? Can we still not enjoy the work independent of their opinions? The 12-year-old me would probably disagree, so strong in her mind the connection between the art and the artist.
As for the 43-year-old me, I feel this is partly why this essay resonated so much with so many. Stripped away from the literary gossip fodder of who was being targeted, it is a mirror to our society both on and offline where we are too scared to express and opinion for fear of being cancelled, or in Adichie’s words:
“There are many social-media-savvy people who are choking on sanctimony and lacking in compassion. … People who wield the words ‘violence’ and ‘weaponize’ like tarnished pitchforks. …
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.”