Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the Epidemic of Self-Censorship
Notes on Self-Censorship, Shaming Others, Freedom of Speech, and Settled Ideological Tribes
"We now live in broad settled ideological tribes."
Excerpt from her 2022 Reith Lecture
We now live in broad settled ideological tribes. We no longer need to have real discussions because our positions are already assumed, based on our tribal affiliation. Our tribes demand from us a devotion to orthodoxy and they abide not reason, but faith. Many young people are growing up in this cauldron afraid to ask questions for fear of asking the wrong questions. And so, they practise 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.
One cannot help but wonder in this epidemic of self-censorship, what are we losing and what have we lost? We are all familiar with stories of people who have said or written something and then, faced a terrible online backlash. There is a difference between valid criticism, which should be part of free expression, and this kind of backlash, ugly personal insults, putting addresses of homes and children’s schools online, trying to make people lose their jobs.
To anyone who thinks, “Well, some people who have said terrible things, deserve it,” no. Nobody deserves it. It is unconscionable barbarism. It is a 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.
There is something honest about an authoritarianism that recognises itself to be what it is. Such a system is easier to challenge because the battle lines are clear. But this new social censure demands consensus while being wilfully blind to its own tyranny. I think it portends the death of curiosity, the death of learning and the death of creativity.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie The 2022 Reith Lecture on Freedom of Speech
"Best-selling Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gives the first of four 2022 Reith Lectures, discussing freedom of speech. She argues that it feels like freedom of speech is under attack. Cancel culture, arguments about “wokeness" and the assault on Salman Rushdie have produced a febrile atmosphere. Meanwhile autocrats and populists have undermined the very notion of an accepted fact-based truth which lives above politics. So how do we calibrate freedom in this context? If we have the freedom to offend, where do we draw the line? This lecture and question-and-answer session is recorded in London in front of an audience and presented by Anita Anand.
The year's series was inspired by President Franklin D Roosevelt's four freedoms speech of 1941 and asks what this terrain means now? It features four different lecturers. In addition to Chimamanda, they are:
Freedom of Worship by Rowan Williams Freedom from Want by Darren McGarvey Freedom from Fear by Fiona Hill Producer: Jim Frank
Sound Engineers: Rod Farquhar and Neil Churchill Production Coordinator: Brenda Brown Editor: Hugh Levinson
One of the central concepts in Whitehead's philosophy is that of 'subjective forms.' These are emotions such as disgust, surprise, resentment, and compassion, which constitute the subjective aspect of our individual and collective experiences of the world. Another important idea is that these emotions can be contagious, flowing between people through their interactions, thus shaping the mood of a group. Consider, for instance, an angry mob where the 'subjective form' of rage is shared. These shared emotions, or shared subjective forms, are integral to the intersubjectivity of our world.
In her 2022 Reith Lecture, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie highlights that cancel culture leads to unconscionable barbarism. It becomes a virtual vigilante action with the aim not only to silence the person who has spoken but also to create a vengeful atmosphere that deters others from speaking.
For those of us influenced by Whitehead's philosophy, the idea of a vengeful atmosphere resonates. This vengefulness can be both conscious and, more deeply, unconscious: a collective sharing of vengeance. The shared vengeance can deter others from speaking and threaten their lives.
In Whitehead's philosophy, this is not the ideal. Nor is it for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The ideal is the sharing of affection, not vengeance. Or, at the very least, the sharing of an understanding that the world can be more just and sustainable than it is.
The living presence of the Spirit of creative transformation works to transform vengeance into something more positive, but it requires the cooperation of the vengeful, who are open to the transformation. This cooperation requires moral courage: that is, the courage to break out of the dehumanizing dimensions of cancel culture., speak freely without self-censorship, and listen to others with whom you might disagree.
This breaking out includes the risk of being ostracized by ones "settled ideological tribe."
- Jay McDaniel
Cancel culture has many meanings. Often it refers to circumstances where public figures are boycotted or "canceled" for perceived offensive or controversial actions, statements, or beliefs. The cancellation takes the form of social media outrage, public shaming, boycotting, or calls for the person to lose their job or platform. Those doing the cancelling think of themselves as enlightened or awakened. They are, to use a now pejorative phrase, woke.
I have cancelled others many times in my life. I don't do it through social media or public shaming; I do it privately, in my heart. There are certain public figures (I won't name them) whom I cancel many times a day, especially when I see them on television. Thus I am not inclined to critique wokeness as if I am exempt from it.
My like-minded friends do it, too. We are woke together, and we enjoy criticizing others who are, in our minds, less awakened than we are. We don't always shame them. but we do demean them in conversation. We say that they have "bad theology" and "bad politics." We tell ourselves that we are demeaning their ideas or, as we sometimes think, their ignorance or stupidity. We pretend that we're not rejecting them, just their ideas and practices. Still, there is an element of uncharity in what we say and do. We are creating our little "us" versus "them." We are creating our own little cancel culture.
I suggest, then, that we use phrase "cancel culture" more generally refer to any culture in which people cancel or censor ideas and questions that run counter to the established orthodoxy of their tribe, be it conservative or liberal, religious or secular. Liberals can be woke, to be sure, but so can conservatives. I know some Republicans who are as woke as Democrats, and some self-styled Progressives who are as woke as both.
The problems runs deeper than cancelling others. We can also cancel ourselves: that is, cancel our own independence of thought and openness to the truths we seek in order to be acceptable to what thecalls our settled ideological tribes.
Her comment above that there is something honest about authoritarianism is striking. She is right: at least authoritarians restrict freedom of speech and thought in honest ways. For those of us living in allegedly freer settings, we accept the demands of social censure but do not realize the tyranny under which we live, partly self-imposed.
The community of open and relational (process) theologians can be quite woke. This is especially true of those who are emerging out of evangelical or authoritarian settings that were themselves woke. Post-evangelicals can be as woke as were the woke Sunday school teachers who wouldn't let them ask questions. Woke begets Woke.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie offers wise counsel. She notes that such censorship, including self-censorship is the death of creativity and curiosity. We cancel others at the expense of cancelling ourselves, too.
To this process theologians will add that the very lure of God within each of us is a lure toward creativity and curiosity, such that censorship of this sort is turning away from the very Spirit who gives life and meaning to us all. The lure of God is toward epistemological humility, creativity and curiosity, and toward a recognition that truth, whatever it is, is always ahead of us, and more than we ever fully contain.
I do not mean to suggest that all perspectives are equal and that none are more enlightened than others. As a Christian, I try to give myself to a non-violent and generous way of living I associate with Jesus. Along with Gandhi and King and many others, I think love is truth, truth is love, and that when we awaken to the truth of love, we are more awake than those who give themselves to greed, hatred, and vengeance. I think those of us who trust in love are more awakened that those who don't.
But I don't think this truth gives us license to cancel or dehumanize others: to turn them into enemies not worth our concern. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie points out, it takes a great deal moral courage to seek to the truth, to be honest about our questions, to avoid self-censure, to speak freely if we can - and, at the same time, to avoid cancelling others.
We live in what she calls a vengeful atmosphere of public shaming, fear of asking honest questions, and self-censorship. Can we break out of our settled ideological tribes for love's sake?