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30 November 2022

What Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gets wrong about free speech

The author says she prefers to read non-fiction because she senses so many novelists holding back due to “social censure”. But it feels like she too is holding back.

By Tomiwa Owolade

One issue with debates about free speech is a lack of clarity. Those who claim our freedom of speech is under attack often fail to specify which views are being suppressed, or provide specific examples to illustrate them. A lack of clarity can be a good thing if you are a novelist: the art of fiction trades on skillfully deploying ambiguity. It is not so good if you are delivering the Reith Lecture. This is meant to advance a thesis, not establish atmosphere or tension. 

The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie falls into this trap in the first of this year’s BBC Reith Lectures. She is wonderfully engaging, but withholds the scope of her argument.

The Reith Lectures are a little different this year. While in previous years one guest delivered a series of talks on a theme, in 2022 four guests are giving one lecture each, on one of four subjects: the Four Freedoms as outlined by the former American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The first of those freedoms is freedom of speech, the topic of the lecture given by Adichie at BBC Broadcasting House, which aired on BBC Radio 4 today (30 November). 

Adichie is an acclaimed writer and speaker. Her books are bestsellers. Her novel Half of a Yellow Sun won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2007. Her 2009 Ted Talk “The danger of a single story” is one of the most watched Ted Talks of all time. Another of her Ted Talks was sampled in Beyoncé’s 2013 song “Flawless”. Her 2013 novel Americanah won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. 

Her eloquent lecture explores the concept of “social censure”. She defines this as “vicious retaliation, not from the government, but from other citizens”. We now live in a culture of moral stridency, Adichie says, where people who commit “secular blasphemy” are sanctioned by “virtual vigilante action whose aim is not just to silence the person who has spoken but to create a vengeful atmosphere that deters others from speaking.”

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This has led to young people now practicing an “exquisite kind” of self-censorship, “even if they believe something to be true or important, they do not say so because they should not say so”. She believes this atmosphere is especially bad for literature. The next generation, she suggests, will think, “How did they manage to stop being human? How were they so lacking in contradiction and complexity? How did they banish all their shadows?” She is critical of sensitivity readers in publishing: “We cannot tell stories that are only light when life itself is both light and darkness. Literature is about how we are great and flawed.” 

Adichie says she now prefers to read non-fiction books to fiction because she senses so many young novelists holding back as a result of social censure. But one senses that she, too, is holding back in this lecture. She tells us about an American student that once angrily asked Adichie at a book reading why she said something offensive in an interview. Adichie says “what I had said was the truth”. But she doesn’t tell us what this truth was in her lecture. 

Adichie may be referring to something she said in a 2017 Channel 4 interview when Cathy Newman asked her whether trans women are women. She responded by saying “trans women are trans women”. She has also publicly defended JK Rowling’s views on transgender rights as “perfectly reasonable”. In 2021, she released an online essay entitled “It Is Obscene” in which she condemned two Nigerian novelists who attended her writing workshops in Nigeria for their hostility to her views on transgender rights. 

I know most of this information about her experiences of social censure because I use social media and the internet. But Adichie says we should all spend less time online. She rarely uses Twitter, employs other people to operate her Instagram account, and recommends in the Q&A section of the lecture that anonymous accounts should be prohibited on Twitter.  

Adichie’s lecture is flawed. It’s not a case of whether I agree with her point of view on free speech or not; I agree with most of what she says and I think she has expressed it beautifully. But a Reith Lecture should offer concrete examples, not a list of elegant but contextless statements about the importance of free speech and the dangers of social censure. 

In the first question asked by an audience member, the author and columnist Afua Hirsch thanked Adichie for reclaiming the cause of freedom of speech from the right and putting it where it truly belongs: the left. Sadly, I suspect Adichie practiced a degree of self-censorship in this lecture for one simple reason: she doesn’t want to be categorised as right-wing. 

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