Adichie shares a personal experience with cancel culture, but her essay is deeper than just that
|Jen Monroe||Jun 21||1|
On June 15th, acclaimed feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie posted an essay to her website that is both a recounting of a personal story and an indictment of the mindset of those who set out to “cancel” someone. The personal story is one as old as time, of a person seeking to use their connections to a prominent person to climb their ladder. Adichie does not mention the person she is speaking of by name but left enough breadcrumbs for readers to figure out she is speaking of fellow Nigerian feminist writer and activist Akwaeke Emezi, referencing certain comments they (Emezi identifies as non-binary) made on Twitter concerning a 2017 interview in which Adichie stated that trans women should be considered distinct from biological women.
The personal aspects of the story can be hard to read; Adichie tells the story of how she allowed Emezi into her home and promoted her work despite having concerns over how they crossed certain boundaries she had expressed, only to have Emezi use her name and reputation twice over. Through her writing, you get a real sense of the pain, confusion, and anger Adichie felt at being used by Emezi both as a punching bag to gain attention on social media while at the same time writing her emails begging for forgiveness and going so far as to put her name on their book as a way of implying a mentor/protegee relationship. Even more confusing is how once journalists started assuming the mentor/protegee relationship that was being suggested Emezi lashed out at them on Twitter for making that assumption. All of this drove Adichie to email Emezi’s publisher to ask that her name be removed from the book’s cover, as it seemed that Emezi was upset at the connotation that they had anything to do with her and besides, why would an author want to have the name of someone they seemed to hate on the cover of their book.
Adichie isn’t stupid and she calls Emezi’s moves for what they were — opportunism. What’s especially interesting about this story is how it illustrates how bifurcated the worlds of social media and the real world are; Emezi seemed to think she could insinuate Adichie is transphobic for likes and retweets while using her name on the cover of their book, presumably to increase attention and sales. I don’t know how someone thinks that would work — did they not think someone would notice their book cover? Did Emezi think nobody would ask about that dichotomy, possibly setting herself up for her own cancel session? Most importantly, did Emezi think Adichie would never speak on the situation publicly?
Adichie touches on that last question in discussing whether it is best to publicly address such situations or stay silent to avoid giving oxygen to a story. It’s a struggle I understand, it can be difficult to decide if a certain battle is worth fighting. I applaud Adichie for sharing her story, I’m sure it was not an easy decision and one which she knew would open her up to criticism.
And the criticism has been harsh — Adichie has once again been painted as someone who is trying to harm trans and non-binary people under the guise of opposing cancel culture. It’s an absurd claim, as Adichie’s story does not mention nor does it have anything to do with gender affiliation. Is the implication here that it is inexcusable, or at least “the wrong discussion”, to call a person out for their awful behavior if they happen to be trans or non-binary? To me, it seems that focusing on the person in question’s gender orientation instead of their behavior is the wrong discussion to be having right now.
Framing Adichie’s piece solely through the lens of critiquing cancel culture sells it a bit short, however. In Part Three she addresses the attitudes and motivation behind such acts, the first paragraph of which has stuck with me since I first read it
“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; 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.
I find it obscene.”
Reading that paragraph, I was reminded of a conversation I had with a friend after a particularly disappointing breakup where he said something to me I didn’t understand at the time, “she didn’t know to be embarrassed about how she was treating me.” I thought, how in the world can someone not know to be embarrassed over treating someone poorly? Adichie’s explanation makes that concept make sense to me now -- a person like the type Adichie is describing would never know to be embarrassed by their behavior. Because when one can explain away bad behavior with “slick and sleek” language that justifies it to oneself, how would one ever know?
Adichie’s piece is deeper than being a critique of cancel culture. She is seeking to name and criticize the pathologies that lead people to engage in such behavior; she uses the word “obscene”, which I can agree with, but I’d add the word “cynical.” I don’t know what happens to a person’s soul that allows them to look at relationships in such a cold, transactional way, just that I can’t imagine living that way.
Perhaps that is the real root of cancel culture; people who are so self-absorbed and narcissistic that they cannot conceive of their targets as actual people or realize they should be embarrassed by their behavior. For them, the only person who really exists is themselves, everyone else is simply an avatar. If this is the case, there is a much deeper rot that will need to be addressed and fixed if we are to move past this moment.
I’ll leave Adichie’s closing words to close out here
“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.”