Chimamanda, the quest for Freedom, and the limits of Freedom
By Femi Olugbile
The Reith Lectures are a series of lectures organised annually by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Each year, an important, topical issue is chosen for discussion.
The 2022 edition is focussed on ‘The Four Freedoms’, a title derived from a speech given by President Franklin D Roosevelt of the USA in 1941, just before America joined the Second World War. Roosevelt referred to ‘Four Freedoms’ which he held to be fundamental pillars of democratic society – Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.
A rich faculty has been assembled to do justice to the topic of Freedom. For the headline topic of Freedom of Speech, the chosen lecturer is the Nigerian writer and essayist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Chimamanda is almost as well known for her activism, especially her strong stance on Feminism, as she is for her fiction. Born in Enugu, she grew up in the academic ambience of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka where her father was a professor and her mother the University’s first female Registrar. The family lived in a house previously occupied by Chinua Achebe, the celebrated Nigerian writer. She is the author of such celebrated works as Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, Americanah, and the non-fiction volume titled ‘We Should All Be Feminists’. Her 2009 TED Talk titled ‘The Danger of a Single Story’, which focused on the under-representation of non-Caucasian cultures and their stories in the mainstream of discussion received 27 million views, becoming one of the most viewed TED Talks of all time.
A few days ago, Chimamanda delivered her Reith Lecture, to great acclaim, but also, not unexpectedly, stirring the hornet’s nest in some quarters.
Anita Anand, the host, set the ball rolling by describing two angles from which Freedom of Speech has been under assault in the modern day. On one hand is ‘Cancel Culture’ in liberal, Western society. On the other hand, in many countries, a person may lose their life because of their political opinion. She gave the familiar example of Salman Rushdie, who was recently stabbed in the neck and left with life-changing injuries as a delayed fallout of the fatwa pronounced on him by Ayatollah Khomeini for writing his famous book – ‘The Satanic Verses’. Was Chimamanda afraid for her life, in the light of her outspokenness?
Chimamanda, as she went into her lecture, recalled that growing up in Nigeria in the 1980s, she liked to eavesdrop on her parents and their friends when they were having conversation and quaffing brandy in the sitting room. Their voices would be hushed when they discussed political matters. They, like everyone else, were in awe of the military government that was in power. It limited their freedom of speech.
The grown up Chimamanda believed such whispering conversations did not belong in a democracy. Freedom of expression was the bedrock of the Open Society.
But many people in Western Society today, she averred, could not openly express their views, not because they feared some military government, but because of an insidious ‘social censure’ from other citizens. More and more, anyone with views contrary to the popularly accepted ones was being driven from the public space. They could not give lectures. They would be barracked and heckled. Campaigns would be mounted against them and their employers, forcing them from work. Their home addresses would be revealed on social media, placing their families at risk. Welcome to ‘Cancel Culture’.
Chimamanda herself, whose ‘progressive’ views on Feminism and LGBTQ (gay) rights were too ‘advanced’ for most of the governments and peoples of her home continent, found herself lately in the cross hairs of the ‘progressives’, who had previously taken her as one of their champions. The girl from Awka who was proud to defy conservative Nigerian men who felt threatened by her unabashed advocacy for women’s rights and independence, found herself balking at a question many in her ideological constituency in Europe and America regarded as settled. Was a Transexual (‘Trans’) woman a woman? Was a biological man who ‘identified’ as a woman, dressed as such, and perhaps even had sex-change surgery, truly a woman, with all the rights and entitlements pertaining to that gender? Was she a woman, or a trans-woman?
Clearly Chimamanda, the Nigerian, could not find it in herself to ‘go the whole hog’ on the transgender issue, and felt the the need to draw a line between the woman that God (or ‘Nature’ – Chimamanda had once proclaimed herself an ‘agnostic’, but has lately returned to the Catholic faith into which she was born) had created and the ‘woman’ that man had created.
It was because of this drawing of the line concerning gender identity that many LGBTQ+ activists were angry with Chimamanda and were ready to ‘cancel’ her.
The Nigerian was not the only one in their ‘black book’. J.K. Rowling, the writer of the Harry Porter series, was being ostracised because she was perceived not to be fully in support of ‘gay’ people.
Nowadays, Chimamanda revealed, even publishers were afraid to publish books expressing controversial views on religion, or race, or gender. Publishing houses were appointing ‘Sensitivity Editors’ to scrutinise manuscripts. Salman Rushdie might not have found a publisher for ‘Satanic Verses’ if he tried to publish it today.
She saw the threat of orthodoxy today as what John Stuart Mills called ‘the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling’. Anyone who expressed worry about gay parenting rights or the rights of the trans community to use female public toilets was effectively dead as a social person. Their business would be targeted, their home picketed. If they lectured in a University, the University would be pressured to let them go.
What Chimamanda did not say in her Reith lecture was that those ordinary citizens who were unable to express their fears and views openly because of this ‘public censure’ were being driven into the arms of unsavoury right-wing ‘nationalists’ such as Donald Trump and his equivalents in Europe, out of a desperate urge to preserve the world they knew, as well as their definitions what made a family, and a need to defend the future of human society.
In the quest for Roosevelt’s Freedoms, society may at last be coming face to face with the realisation that Freedoms have boundaries, and a failure to discuss those boundaries and try to agree on them up front may lead, not to more freedom, but to new forms of oppression.