People have told me I’m on the wrong side of history, but I still want to be their friend
It’s rare to see a woman really let her anger glitter, unhindered by any fear of accusations of hysteria or worse, so what a blast of delicious fire Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has given us. Her essay It Is Obscene, published online last week, is ostensibly about two former students of hers who denounced her on social media after she gave an interview to Channel 4 in 2017 in which, when asked if she thought trans women were women, Adichie made the tautological but now highly controversial reply, “Trans women are trans women.” Instead of just calling her, one of Adichie’s students “went on social media to put on a public performance,” she wrote. The other tweeted that people should “pick up machetes to protect us from transphobes like Adichie”, and still assumed Adichie would endorse her book.
Really, the essay is about a strong current in modern culture. “There are many social media-savvy people who are choking on sanctimony and lacking in compassion… People who demand that you denounce your friends for flimsy reasons in order to remain a member of the chosen puritan class,” Adichie writes.
Anyone who has been on social media in the past decade has seen what Adichie is describing. Three years ago, I wrote about the fondness of a certain kind of man to police the way women talk about their lives, telling them they’re being exclusionary of trans women if they mention female biology. This so outraged someone I knew that they lost the ability to tell me directly and instead tweeted to their followers that, despite being my “friend”, they disagreed with what I wrote. Fair enough, but when someone feels it is more productive to tell the world how they feel about something you said rather than just tell you, it feels less like an honest disagreement and more like someone burnishing their own brand.
Adichie describes this performative rush towards public proof of purity as “American feminism”, and I’ve been thinking a lot about American puritanism recently. The US was originally colonised by the pilgrims, a group of people who believed Europe was too louche for their pure Calvinist ways, and so headed west. America thinks of itself as a very free country, and in many ways it is, but it has always maintained this strong strand of purer-than-thou-ism. You can see it in everything from American exceptionalism (“We’re better than all other countries!”) to Gwyneth Paltrow’s absurdly successful lifestyle website Goop, with its “clean” eating and “clean” cosmetics (“I’m cleaner than everyone!”).
It has become almost the norm in US publishing houses for staff to protest against books because they believe the author to be morally impure and this offends them, from Woody Allen to Mike Pence. This demand for purity has now extended to fictional characters. Earlier this month, author Elin Hilderbrand apologised after some readers objected to one of her teenage characters making a joke about Anne Frank, and she promised to remove it from future editions of her novel. Similarly, the novelist Casey McQuiston apologised and removed a character’s comment about Israel after a Twitter user complained it “normalized” the Palestinian occupation.
I’m of the old-fashioned belief that no legal belief should be suppressed, however much I may disagree with it, because the public can and should make their own choices. Donald Trump is allegedly having trouble finding a publisher for his book, partly, one literary agent told Politico, because “any editor bold enough to acquire the Trump memoir is looking at a factchecking nightmare, an exodus of other authors and a staff uprising.” The factchecking, granted, would be onerous, but not to publish a memoir by a former president, especially one as historic as Trump, would be absurd. People talk a lot these days about the fear of being on the wrong side of history – a concern that can only be hypothesised – but pretending history didn’t happen is never the right side of anything.
I know some people think I’m on the wrong side of history because I believe my gender is a feeling and my biology is a fact. This is known as a gender-critical belief and it is protected under the Equality Act. Nonetheless, I’ve lost at least a dozen friends over this – mainly from the US, but also in the UK, friends who have told me my beliefs are transphobic, even when I tell them that I support everyone’s right to live the way they want. It’s always heartbreaking, but also bewildering. Most of us are in the same political tribe, so when did differences of opinion become so unacceptable to so many liberals and lefties? Many of my friends supported Jeremy Corbyn, and even though I found his frequent proximity to antisemites truly upsetting, I didn’t drop them from my life. I’m old enough to know there’s a difference between denouncing bigotry and demanding everyone march in lockstep with you. If you’re more interested in performing your own purity than understanding people’s plurality, you’re not looking at progress, you’re looking into a mirror.