I got into a discussion recently about who gets to talk about what, and how to talk about them, when it comes to topics of racism, feminism, etc.
That’s what came to mind when I read a certain part of an interview, excepted below, in The Atlantic. The writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the subject of that interview.
She has firsthand experience with the swift and intense outrage that can flow toward an individual in the age of democratized publishing. Say something potentially objectionable these days, and you will hear about it from every direction. Adichie’s characterization of women and transgender women as being fundamentally different ignited a firestorm of controversy last spring—and though she later clarified what she meant, she never really backed down.
I like what she says here about language orthodoxy and the left:
Goldberg: One of the many interesting things about you is your intolerance or impatience for jargon and groupthink and you periodically get into a kind of useful trouble by speaking your mind. It’s fair to say that you’re associated with a liberal worldview, but you seem to be a little bit frustrated lately in sort of this—I don’t know what you would call it—Darwinian process of winnowing out people who sound heterodoxical. Is that fair?
Adichie: The problems in the left interest me more because I just think that there’s an increase in—“intolerance” is maybe putting it simply—but there’s a feeling that you’re supposed to conform. It is no longer in my opinion actually liberal. There’s language you’re supposed to use. There’s an orthodoxy you’re supposed to conform to, and if you don’t, you become a bad, evil person, and it doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past or what you stand for. You just become evil and you’re demonized, and it makes me uncomfortable because I think it’s problematic in so many ways. I think people are frightened of saying what they think, and I think that’s a bad thing for society.
Goldberg: They’re frightened to say what they think. But sometimes the group the thing is directed against has legitimate reasons to be offended.
Adichie: I’m a person who believes very strongly in ideas of inclusion and hearing everybody’s story and that sort of thing. And so we do need to hear. I am also … I think it’s too easy again to say that the answer to bad speech is more speech, but in general I think so. Part of the problem, I think, with censoring is that sometimes there’s that ever-so-slight assumption that that thing might be true.
Goldberg: And where do you think it’s coming from?
Adichie: My sense is that the American left 50 years ago wasn’t like this. People still believed what they did about inclusion. Today there’s an increase in self-righteousness, and there’s also a sense in which you have to speak for everyone. So if you write about a white woman, for many parts of the left it’s valid criticism to say you ignored Mexicans and Bangladeshis. And I’m just thinking, “No.” People have to be allowed to tell the story. I don’t necessarily want a white woman telling the Nigerian woman story. Right. And so maybe it’s coming from knowing that the left is not, in fact, as inclusive as it thinks it is. And so because of that, I think that the people allowed on the stage are too few … you know, the grand stage of who gets to decide what to talk about.
Maybe the answer is to shut things down. But I don’t want to. I think that a lot of it is well-meaning. I think that what these young people on college campuses are trying to get at is an acknowledgment of that power … I think I know a lot more about whiteness than white people know about blackness.
Coates: No, I think … obviously I’m a fan of people being able to write about other people when doing it respectfully. I love Ragtime, Coalhouse Walker—
Goldberg: Right. Doctorow did a successful job of writing [historical fiction featuring black characters in early 20th-century America].
Coates: Yeah Ragtime’s great. But he was very, very respectful of the experience, as you should be about anybody’s experience. Unfortunately African Americans and certainly Africans in American culture have a long history of being presented by other people in a fashion that is, shall we say, at the very least not respectful. So all that baggage comes with it. When it gets refracted through, “Who has the right?” which is not a question I would encourage to be asked, but—that’s, you know, what I mean, the context and the place. My only point is that I want writers to write about whatever they want to write about.
Adichie: So do I. So do I. … I’m like, ask me. I’ll tell you because don’t you know.