Author attacks ‘obscene’ online hypocrisy

Literary giant: Adichie is best known for her novels Americanah and Half of a Yellow Sun. © Getty

Has virtue become a performance? Yesterday, a furious debate continued after celebrated novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie launched a powerful attack on sanctimonious social media users.

“The assumption of good faith is dead. What matters is not goodness but the appearance of goodness.”

With these words, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie sparked an earthquake. In a three-part essay, the Nigerian author took aim at an online culture of toxicity and fear that she believes is stifling debate. Anyone who expresses a controversial opinion, Adichie argued, is immediately condemned and silenced.

“We have a generation of young people on social media so terrified of having the wrong opinions that they have robbed themselves of the opportunity to think and to learn and to grow.”

“We are no longer human beings. We are now angels jostling to out-angel one another,” Adichie continued. “God help us. It is obscene.”

Adichie is a powerhouse of modern literature. Since the early 2000s, her novels about post-independence Nigeria and the American immigrant experience have captivated the world, earning her the Women’s Prize for Fiction and a place on numerous bestseller lists. Her books have been recommended by everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Barack Obama.

And it is not just Adiche’s fiction that captures imaginations. One of her speeches, entitled We should all be feminists, was even featured in a Beyonce song.

Now, her latest essay has shaken the world once more. Within hours of its publication on Tuesday, so many people tried to read the essay that Adichie’s website temporarily crashed.

The response was immediate. For historian Niall Ferguson, it was “a remarkable commentary of the perils of teaching the current generation of students”.

“Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is right,” declared British Nigerian journalist Funmi Olutoye. “The way we use social media is killing the art of conversation.”

Of course, Adichie is not the first person to speak out against inauthentic displays of morality.

In 2013, the English academic Mark Fisher warned of a left-wing social media culture “driven by a priest’s desire to excommunicate and condemn, an academic pedant’s desire to be the first to spot a mistake, and a hipster’s desire to be one of the in-crowd”.

And just last month, Malala Yousafzai shared her fears that activism today is less about taking positive steps to change the world and more about sharing opinions on Twitter.

In fact, the difference between false and true virtue is one of the oldest debates in the world. In Christian tradition, Jesus condemned religious leaders as hypocrites for portraying a faithful image to others while secretly betraying their religious oaths.

Today, according to Adichie, the hypocrites are the people who pretend to be virtuous online but fail to be kind in their offline lives.

For her, the issue is personal. The essay is aimed at the whole world, but its contents are about two authors – former friends who attacked her online because they disagreed with her ideas about gender. Indeed, some believe it says more about Adichie’s hurt feelings than it does about the culture of young people.

Has virtue become a performance?

Online outrage

Definitely, say some. In the digital era, our entire lives have become a performance. And just as some people retouch their photographs to portray the perfect image, others sanitise and edit their thoughts to portray the “correct” set of opinions. Adichie is right – social media users are quick to condemn others for perceived moral failings, but rarely do they actually show true kindness.

Not at all, say others. This is an unfair and uncalled for attack on Generation Z. Young social media users today are some of the most morally articulate and ethical people in the world. Virtue is not a performance if it is from the heart. The real hypocrites are the politicians who pretend to care about inequality and the CEOs who pretend to care about the environment.

You Decide

  1. Should there be any limits on free speech?
  2. Is a culture of fear preventing open debate on social media?

Activities

  1. Adichie drew on her experience of life in Nigeria and America to write her novels. In groups, write and act out a short play based on your own life experiences.
  2. In pairs, write a letter to a newspaper defending a person or group whose ideas you do not agree with.

Some People Say...

“The art of conversation is the art of hearing as well as of being heard.”

William Hazlitt (1778 – 1830), English literary critic and philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that freedom of speech is one of the most important principles underpinning any democratic society. In the US, “freedom of expression” is a right guaranteed for all American citizens in the first amendment of the nation’s constitution. But the notion itself was pioneered by the ancient Greeks. The word “parrhesia”, meaning to speak candidly, first appeared in Greek literature at the end of the 5th Century BCE.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds how people should respond when others voice opinions they strongly disagree with or find offensive. Today, some say the move to boycott celebrities or organisations who do or say something controversial has gone too far. In 2019, Barack Obama gave a speech cautioning young people that being as “judgemental as possible” is not the best way to force change. “If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far,” Obama declared.

Word Watch

Novels
Adichie drew on the experiences of her family during the aftermath of the 1967 to 1970 Nigerian Civil War.
Niall Ferguson
The Scottish historian, author and documentary presenter was once named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world.
Mark Fisher
Fisher was a blogger, philosopher and teacher at Goldsmiths, University of London. He was known for his writings on radical politics.
Pedant
A person who is excessively concerned with minor rules or details.
Malala Yousafzai
A 23-year-old Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Religious leaders
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells the scribes and the Pharisees: “For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.”
Hurt feelings
In her three part essay, Adichie published emails sent by her former friends and described a dispute about the inclusion of her name in an author biography.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.