As soon as it became clear, early on Wednesday morning, that Donald Trump would be America’s next president, I logged off Twitter, turned off my TV, downloaded half a dozen books from Project Gutenberg, and resolved to pay as little attention to politics as is compatible with life. Each of us handles grief differently. Some drown their sorrows in drink. I curl into the foetal position and read Jonathan Swift.
So I missed Adichie’s turn on Newsnight and the social media furore it provoked. I later learned what she had said before calmly demolishing R. Emmett Tyrrell: “If you are a white man, you don’t get to define what racism is.” This disturbing statement was received rapturously by many on the left. The Huffington Post and Mashable reported that she had “shut down a white dude.” Cosmopolitan’s Laura Beck felt her response was “perfect.” And New York Magazine’s Jenni Miller accused Tyrrell of trying to gaslight Adichie. None of these writers, and few of Adichie’s supporters on social media, appeared to understand how meaningless these small victories are in the grand scheme of things. Hillary Clinton beat Trump in all three debates. Countless white men were “schooled” on Facebook. Trump’s surrogates were verbally outmatched and outgunned on TV shows and Twitter. In the end, none of that mattered.
Humiliating closet racists or ignorant old men is an effective political tactic if theirs are minority views. But if they have an army of voters behind them, mockery and condescension are counterproductive. Adichie didn’t so much shut down one elderly conservative as shut herself off from an important audience. She made it less likely that members of a politically powerful demographic will listen to anything else she says.
Who gets to define racism? No one person. And similarly, no one should be excluded from the process. Perhaps Adichie meant to say that Tyrrell’s privileged status as a white man doesn’t grant him the right to unilaterally redefine such terms. Perhaps. But her words were interpreted as an affirmation of the liberal consensus, the pernicious idea that victims of oppression ought to have the final say when it comes to labelling oppressive acts. According to this playbook, only women decide what sexism is and only persons of colour decide what counts as racism. The problem with this is obvious. Each group is prone to systematic errors. The ostensibly oppressed, to false positives (overdiagnosis) and the privileged, to false negatives (underdiagnosis). Also, labels are meant to provoke action from those in power, from institutions dominated by white men. If those who control such institutions don’t agree with your definition, they are unlikely to act.
Political debate, online activism and “speaking truth to power” should ultimately be judged by results, by elections won or lost, laws passed, lives changed. Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic understand this. It’s about time liberals learned the lesson as well.