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16 June 2021updated 31 Aug 2021 6:04am

“Choking on sanctimony”: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the cult of righteousness

The Nigerian author’s blistering polemic reveals some uncomfortable truths about young progressives on social media.

By Freddie Hayward

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie went viral today with a heartfelt polemic addressing the righteousness of the younger generation. The renowned feminist and author of Half of a Yellow Sun (winner of the 2007 Women’s Prize for Fiction) was responding on her blog to public criticism from two people she had helped through her writing workshop, accusing them (without naming them) of insincerity and a lack of compassion. 

Adichie’s account of these personal disputes is worth reading. But it was the short, final section of her essay that captured the conversation online. In it, Adichie criticised young progressives raised on social media for being more interested in public moralising than in treating people with respect. She distilled a sensibility and a cohort that are hard to describe into a blistering series of characterisations: 

“An astonishing level of self-absorption; an unrealistic expectation of puritanism from others; an overinflated sense of ability, or of talent where there is any at all; an inability to apologise, 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.” 

That there are people who debate publicly online in bad faith in order to bolster their own moral credentials is not a new idea. But while this disingenuous moralising is not difficult to spot, it can be hard to put in exact terms. Adichie’s fury at her own experiences has resulted in a terse depiction of those who wrap their “mediocre malice in the false gauziness of ideological purity”. The young generation of progressives she describes are so focused on their public persona that, for them, “friendship, and its expectations of loyalty and compassion and support, no longer matter”. 

While these Twitter progressives are “choking on sanctimony” in public, Adichie argues that they have lost an appreciation for private values – such as respect towards a friend, honesty, and integrity. Although she does not blame social media, it is inevitable that some of those who have grown up in the digital age, living their lives in public view, will be more concerned with being seen to be good, rather than actually being so. Social media has blurred the public and private parts of their lives, and placed a disproportionate emphasis on their online personas.

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Adichie also confronts the way this cadre twist language in order to avoid scrutiny or accountability. She criticises those who “wield the words ‘violence’ and ‘weaponise’ like tarnished pitchforks” – an evocative image for a cultural phenomenon that can shut down debate. An accusation couched in the language of violence is much harder for critics to engage with than straightforward disagreement.  

Adichie’s indictment of this seemingly confident but ultimately insecure mindset is reminiscent of cultural critic Mark Fisher, who characterised  parts of the left as being driven by “a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic-pedant’s desire to be the first to be seen to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd”. This approach to debate is not an inclusive attempt to convert people to one’s side, nor does it spark discussions that could reach a better, more-informed conclusion.

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How could it, when there is always a public audience that needs addressing? 

[see also: Why the UK government’s “war on woke” is failing]