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Cancel Culture and the Possibility of Nuance

image of multicolored speech bubbles

In June of 2021, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie posted a short essay titled “It is Obscene: An Essay in Three Parts” on her website. Adichie, author of award-winning books like Americanah and We Should All Be Feminists, was famously featured in the Beyoncé song “Flawless,” reciting a basic outline of feminist thought between the pop singer’s verses. Adichie’s essay explores her relationship with two former students, who she frames as poisoned by online cancel culture. She laments that her students (and many young people like them) possess

“an ease with dishonesty and pretension and selfishness that is couched in the language of self-care . . . language that is slick and sleek but with little emotional intelligence; an astonishing level of self-absorption; an unrealistic expectation of puritanism from others . . . a passionate performance of virtue that is well executed in the public space of Twitter but not in the intimate space of friendship.”

Though the two students are unnamed, the second student was quickly identified as writer Akwaeke Emezi, a young novelist who accused Adichie of transphobia on Twitter. Emezi, a non-binary writer whose debut novel Freshwater was critically acclaimed, has written extensively on black trans identity through fiction and memoir alike.

It’s a bit reductive to label this a “feud,” though many news sources (like NPR, to name one) have succumbed to the temptation. There is clearly animosity between the two parties, but “feud” implies something entirely personal, even petty. While their personal history does come up in Adichie’s essay, it’s more accurate to say that Emezi and Adichie embody diametrically-opposed moral stances towards cancel culture, an opposition partly rooted in a generational divide.

While many have applauded Adichie’s essay, accusations of transphobia have taken over the conversation about her piece. Some wonder if her essay is a smokescreen, an attempt to deflect attention from Emezi’s original condemnation of Adichie’s brand of feminism. Has “Condemning cancel culture has become a reliable way to obscure transphobia,” as writer Aja Romano suggests in their article on Adichie for Vox?

Adichie summarizes her controversial stance on trans women in a 2017 interview. She said in a response to a question about trans identity,

“When people talk about, ‘Are trans women women?’ my feeling is trans women are trans women. But I think 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.I don’t think it’s a good thing to conflate everything into one. 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. What I’m saying is that gender is not biology. Gender is sociology.”

While some of these points are generally accepted (trans women indeed have different experiences from cis women), her response has been described as alarmingly close to TERF ideology. Not all trans women possessed much in the way of privilege before their transition, especially if they are people of color. Adichie has also faced criticism for an article she wrote defending J.K. Rowling, who peddles blatantly transphobic rhetoric in the guise of promoting gender equality. At the same time, many critics of Adichie have ascribed bad-faith motivations to Adichie’s actions where there seem to be none. For example, Adichie has come under fire for releasing her essay during Pride Month, even though Pride celebrations are still largely non-existent in Nigeria, and it’s unlikely that timing was a factor here. It’s also worth noting that TERFs tend to be more prominent in first-world countries, where the “feminism” part of the acronym is more palatable. In Nigeria, even garden variety feminism is considered suspect, let alone radical feminism. “Feminist” is less of a neutral descriptor than an insult in most parts of the country, as explained in an article for The New York Times, and many women still struggle to access their most fundamental rights. While she claims in the essay that she actively supports trans rights, the issue may seem alien or extraneous to Adichie. Her cultural background hardly excuses transphobia, but it’s important to consider that not everyone will be fluent in the occasionally dense and ever-changing vocabulary of trans issues in online spaces.

Adichie writes,

“[Emezi] knows me enough to know that I fully support the rights of trans people and all marginalized people. That I have always been fiercely supportive of difference, in general . . . Of course she could very well have had concerns with the interview. That is fair enough. But I had a personal relationship with her. She could have emailed or called or texted me. Instead she went on social media to put on a public performance.”

Claiming to support trans people and actually doing so are two different things, and she continuously misgenders Emezi, who has identified as non-binary for years. But there is still value in her larger point; what purpose did Emezi’s tweet serve? If the goal is to start a productive dialogue with someone and hopefully influence their views, is calling someone out on Twitter the most effective way to go about it? It’s unreasonable to ask trans people to educate every single transphobe they encounter, but in this case, the two had a pre-existing relationship, and as Adichie points out, Emezi could have used that as an opening.

At one point in the essay, she describes Emezi’s tweet as a “a public insult,” which succinctly gets at the problem with public shaming. We interpret such accusations as an attack, an insult; we experience a sense of powerlessness, especially if we aren’t media savvy, which may corner the accused into doubling down on their problematic views, shutting down a conversation before it can even begin. The performative brand of online wokeness Adichie dislikes requires a certain kind of knowledge, a list of phrases to be trotted out without any meaningful discussion of what those phrases mean. While most of this is well-intentioned, it can create echo chambers and ideological rigidity. Twitter, which is generally very American-centric, relies on a knowledge of this vocabulary that often excludes well-meaning older people, ESL folk, and those who aren’t from the West. At its worst, it encourages a culture of hostility to questions made in good faith.

Adichie notes,

“There are 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 . . . People for whom friendship, and its expectations of loyalty and compassion and support, no longer matter. People who claim to love literature – the messy stories of our humanity – but are also monomaniacally obsessed with whatever is the prevailing ideological orthodoxy. People who demand that you denounce your friends for flimsy reasons in order to remain a member of the chosen puritan class.”

Some of this may seem extreme, and it’s worth critiquing the conflict with Emezi at the root of this essay, but we should answer her call for nuance, and grapple with both the good and the bad in her piece. Deplatforming her, as Emezi has called for, only aggravates an already massive generational divide and saps humanity from online spaces.

Online Discourse and the Demand for Civility

drawing of sword duel with top-hatted spectators

It often seems like the internet suffers from a civility problem: log onto your favorite social media platform and no doubt you’ll come across a lot of people angrily arguing with one another and failing to make any real progress on any points of disagreement, especially when it comes to political issues. A common complaint is that the “other side” is failing to engage in discussion in the right kind of way: perhaps they are not giving opposing views the credit they think they deserve, or are being overly dismissive, or are simply shutting down discussion before it can get started. We might think that if everyone were just to be a bit more civil, perhaps we could make some progress towards reconciliation in a divided world.

But what, exactly, is this requirement to be civil? And should be civil when it comes to our online interactions?

At first glance the answer to our first question might be obvious: we should certainly be civil when talking with others online, and especially when we disagree with them. Perhaps you have something like the following in mind: it is unproductive in a disagreement to name-call, or use excessive profanities, or to generally be rude or contemptuous of someone else. Acting in this way doesn’t seem to get us anywhere, and so seems to be something to be generally avoided.

However, when people in online debates accuse the others of failing to be civil, they are often not simply referring to matters of mere etiquette. One of the more common complaints with regards to the lack of civility is that the other side will refuse to engage with someone on a topic about which they disagree, or else if they do discuss it, not discuss it on their terms. A quick stroll through Twitter will bring up numerous examples of claims that one’s opponents are not engaging in “civil discourse”:

“I can essentially find something we agree on through civil discourse with anyone willing to engage in it. Society has become so sheltered that too many brats think their opinions matter more than others.”

https://twitter.com/illumiXnati/status/1124656164443000834

“If you are in America here, none of you understand this. Pick up a copy [of the constitution] and read it, study it, and then maybe we can engage in civil discourse. Until then you need to sit down and remain silent.”

https://twitter.com/CAB0341/status/1123957247548248064

Notably, many of those who have been banned from one or more social media platforms have claimed that their banning is a result of the relevant companies refusing to engage in the kind of civil discourse of which they take themselves to be champions. Consider, for example, former Alex Jones writer and conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson who, upon his banning from Facebook, tweeted the following:

“The left has learned that they can silence dissent by labelling anyone they disagree with an ‘extremist’. I am not an ‘extremist’. I disavow all violence. I encourage peaceful, civil discourse. Anyone who has met me or is familiar with my work knows this”

https://twitter.com/PrisonPlanet/status/1124641179771994114

Or consider the following from journalist Jesse Signal:

“90% of the time ‘I will not debate someone who is arguing against my right to exist’ is simply a false derailing tactic, but if someone DOES deny your right to exist, and is in a position of power and willing to debate you, how crazy would it be to NOT debate them??”

https://twitter.com/jessesingal/status/1117077434032119808

Signal’s tweet was in response to backlash in response to his writings on trans issues, in which many took him to be portraying the trans population in America as consisting largely of people who seek to transition because of mental illness or trauma, many of whom ultimately end up regretting their decision. Signal, then, takes the refusal of trans persons to debate with him about the nature of their very being to be a “derailing” tactic, while Watson claimed that his views, regardless of their content, ought to be allowed to be expressed because he is doing so in a manner that he takes to be civil.

In the above tweets (and many others) we can see a couple of different claims about civil online discourse: the first is that so long as one’s views are expressed in a civil manner then they deserve to be heard, while the second is that an opponent who refuses to engage in such civil discussion is doing something wrong. What should be make of these claims?

In response to the Signal tweet and the resulting controversy, Josephine Livingstone argues that “[d]ebate is fruitful when the terms of the conversation are agreed upon by both parties…In fact, it is the “debate me, coward” crowd that has made it impossible to have arguments in good faith, because they demand, unwittingly or not, to set the terms.” The worry, then, is that when one demands debate from one’s opponent, one is really demanding debate on the grounds that they themselves accept. When one’s grounds and those of one’s opponent are fundamentally at odds, however – consider again the charge that Signal wants to debate people whose very right to existence he is denying – it seems impossible to make any real progress.

As Livingstone notes, there is a persistent culture of those who call for debate and, when this call is inevitably ignored, cry that one’s opponents somehow fail to meet some standard of civil discourse. The thought is that refusing to engage with an opponent in civil discourse, then, is a sign of cowardice, or that one is secretly worried that one’s views are false or will not hold up to scrutiny. But of course this is hardly what has to be the case: dismissing or putting an end to a discussion that fails to be productive is not a tacit admittance of defeat or insecurity in one’s views. Instead, if there does not seem like there will be any progress made because the discussion is not productive, refusing to engage or ending it might be the best course of action.

The assumption that there can be some kind of neutral ground for debate, then, will already make demands on one’s opponent when their values are fundamentally different from one’s own. Again, if you are arguing that I should not have the right to exist it is difficult to see how we could reach any kind of midway point on which to have a discussion, or why I should be required to do this in the first place. Far from failing to meet a standard of civility, then, refusing to engage in what one takes to be civil discourse does not seem like any kind of failing when doing so would prove unproductive.