Criticism

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Twitter Essay on Intellectual Integrity, Civil Discourse, and Good Faith

While I must admit with some embarassment that I haven’t read any of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novels or non-fiction (she’s on my long list of must-read writers whom I have somehow managed to not find the time to read), I know her as a major public figure in the literary world (she’s big; she’s been featured in Beyoncé’s ***Flawless). I did, however, happen upon what many are calling her “Twitter essay.” On her website, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes about twitter and intellectual discourse in a fascinating essay that goes disappointingly off the rails. While I try to stay out of ideological arguments on Twitter and the internet in general (especially arguments that have nothing to do with me), there was something I noticed about Adichie’s essay that I felt I couldn’t leave unmentioned. It’s an issue common to internet discourse in general, but also common to social media discourse. It has implications on our current concepts of intellectual integrity, critical integrity, civil discourse, and good faith, so I feel I must comment.

In brief, Adichie became personal friends with a student who attended one of her workshops. Later, on social media, the student publicly criticized some comments Adichie had made about trans women. More specifically, the student, whom the New York Times identifies as Akwaeke Emezi, publicly critiqued a controversial statement Adichie made in an interview on the United Kingdom’s Channel 4: “I don’t think it’s a good thing to talk about women’s issues being exactly the same as the issues of trans women.” Adichie was addressing a debate in feminist discourse involving whether trans women experience male privilege prior to transition.  

I don’t want to address the debate itself here because I believe the debate itself is outside the scope of this essay. I can’t begin to discuss the experience of trans women because I am not a trans woman myself. My experience as a cis woman is distinct from the experience of a trans woman. To characterize women’s issues as distinct from the issues of trans women is to ignore nuance, but to claim that Adichie’s comments are transphobic is also to disregard nuance as well, and I believe to misread the spirit of the comment reproduced above. To lump Adichie’s comment above in the same category as the irresponsible and hurtful comments made on social media by J.K. Rowling about trans women would be wrong as well, I think.

We Can All Do Better. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
We Can All Do Better. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

What I want to talk about in this essay is something a little different. I want to talk about our need as a culture to make space for intellectual nuance and debate—especially about polarized and polarizing topics—but within a space of sufficient academic rigor and intellectual integrity that puts generosity, civility, kindness, and nuance at the forefront.

Adichie claims to be doing this in her essay. But she fails miserably.

She falls short of the intellectual and critical integrity she claims to uphold.

All it takes is one mischaracterization of the facts to make me mistrust a piece of writing. In writing, trust is earned. When my mistakes are pointed out, I hope to correct them immediately. In this blog, you’ll find the occasional correction throughout, and I encourage writers and readers to reach out to me if they notice a mistake. This is what it means to have intellectual integrity. It doesn’t mean you never makes a mistake. It means that you try your best to get the facts right. You find the primary source. You look to the original. You vet your sources and use reliable ones. You do your research. It doesn’t mean you never get it wrong, but intellectual integrity means that when you get the facts wrong, you fix the error. It means that you are willing to reconsider your position if new facts come to light. It also means that you try not to distort or misrepresent the facts in the service of your argument.

Adichie writes “This person has asked followers to pick up machetes and attack me.” When I first read the essay, I was horrified. I know how quickly social media can create an atmosphere of hate and violence against women, and most especially against trans women. I have myself been the recipient of this hate. Feminist writers, women, and trans women are often the victims of direct threats online.

But when I looked at Akwaeke Emezi’s twitter feed for the original comment, I found this: “I trust that there are other people who will pick up machetes to protect us from the harm transphobes like Adichie & Rowling seek to perpetuate. I, however, will be in my garden with butterflies, trying to figure out how to befriend the neighborhood crows. Find me on the gram.”

Was this really the comment Adichie references when she claims (twice in her essay) that the “person… asked followers to pick up machetes and attack me”? (Someone please correct me if Emezi called upon people to attack Adichie with machetes elsewhere in her Twitter feed, but I couldn’t find anything. I honestly still can’t believe it.) Is Adichie incapable of reading or understanding figurative language or am I missing something?

This comment sounds hardly like a call to ask followers to pick up machetes and attack Adichie. Either Adichie is a terrible reader, or she’s doing exactly what she’s asking us not to do on Twitter, which is to read things in bad faith. If anything, Emezi seems to be modeling the possibility of choosing peace as an alternative to the common knee-jerk response on Twitter to pick up the metaphorical machetes.

And because of this mischaracterization, I am unable to trust anything else Adichie writes. Like so many things written in anger and shaped by anger, the essay feels like another bad Twitter thread. It posits intellectual rigor and claims to state the bare facts, but fails at achieving its original premise. Because Adichie so mischaracterizes these comments, when she writes “there isn’t more to the story,” I simply don’t believe her.

This is deeply unfortunate, because if this essay were written from a place of intellectual integrity, it would have much to offer us. Adichie is a great writer. She writes eloquently about the nature of fame: “To be famous is to be assumed to have power, which is true, but in the analysis of fame, people often ignore the vulnerability that comes with fame, and they are unable to see how others who have nothing to lose can lie and connive in order to take advantage of that fame, while not giving a single thought to the feelings and humanity of the famous person.”

There are other ideas in this essay that are worth exploring. Adichie writes about the “pretension and selfishness that is couched in the language of self-care.” Self-care has indeed been co-opted by marketers, but also by other manipulators who will cloathe their cruelty in the figurative language of healing. And we are right to think more deeply about the “passionate performance of virtue that is well executed in the public space of Twitter but not in the intimate space of friendship.” A whole book could probably be written about the many “social-media-savvy people who are choking on sanctimony and lacking in compassion, who can fluidly pontificate on Twitter about kindness but are unable to actually show kindness.” There are certainly professors “who claim to love literature – the messy stories of our humanity – but are also monomaniacally obsessed with whatever is the prevailing ideological orthodoxy.”

Adichie writes: “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.”

The problem with all this is that Adichie doesn’t extend the same good faith when writing about Emezi’s Twitter comments. She doesn’t show good faith when it matters and thus undermines her entire argument.

It’s too bad. We rely on our leaders and thinkers to model civil discourse (especially when those leaders have so many damn honorary degrees and awards). When these leaders fail to model it for us, while posturing at doing so, we are truly in obscene territory.

Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at Amazon.com (affiliate link)

Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at Bookshop.org (affiliate link)

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She is the editor of Sphinx Moth Press.

Janice runs an online poetry workshop. Learn more about it here.