Specificity is the key for understanding broader truths. It’s only when we really drill down on a subject that we uncover metaphors that apply to other situations. To a lazy thinker, a rock is just a rock. To a geologist, a rock is a gateway to understanding the world, a subject dense with hidden secrets that affect everything else on earth.
In her book We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie digs into the idea of feminism and she uncovers some realizations that simply should not be as surprising as they are:
I was once talking about gender and a man said to me, “Why does it have to be you as a woman? Why not you as a human being?” This type of question is a way of silencing a person’s specific experiences. Of course I am a human being, but there are particular things that happen to me in this world because I am a woman. This same man, by the way, would often talk about his experience as a black man. (To which I should probably have responded, “Why not your experiences as a man or as a human being? Why a black man?”)
This is a specific argument for feminism, and why feminism is specifically important. But paradoxically, Adichie also provided the perfect argument against those idiots who responded to a recent social justice movement with the question, “why Black Lives Matter? Why not All Lives Matter?” Because we are talking about black lives right now. Because Adichie is talking about feminism right now. She correctly identifies these questions as attempts to silence a question, or a protest, or a voice.
I needed comfort, and so I did what I always do when I need comfort: I walked to a bookshelf.
Thankfully, Adichie’s voice will not be silenced. Feminists, which started as a TED Talk and which was made famous by its appearance in the Beyoncé song “Flawless,” is a finely honed argument from a brilliant mind that has been told to shut up one too many times. It is not angry, but it is insistent. So many of Adichie’s arguments spring from anecdotes, from the casual way men have diminished her experience or her perspective, or ground her point to dullness through qualifications and rhetorical tricks. Early in the book, Adichie says her feminism suffered so much interrogation that at one point she had to identify herself as a “Happy African Feminist Who Does Not Hate Men And Who Likes To Wear Lip Gloss And High Heels For Herself And Not For Men.” (Note the two instances of “men” in her qualified definition of feminism and you see where the trouble is.)
So when finally given the chance to unapologetically advocate for her beliefs, Adichie has a lot of brilliant things to say. If you’ve read any of Adichie’s novels — especially Americanah, which is the closest thing to a Great American Novel to be published in your lifetime — you know she has a bone-deep understanding of feminism, a sharp eye for the billion tiny ways social interactions shape identity, and a hunger for justice. Feminists is what happens when she lays her findings plain.
One of Adichie’s cleverest framing mechanisms is to subtly shift the discussion to the problem with the way we raise boys; men, she tells us, “have very fragile egos” and we train women to cater to those egos. Men are threatened by any sign of power from a woman, and women are taught from an early age to worry what happens when men are threatened.
Adichie subtly argues that institutional sexism might be getting in the way of other political discussions:
What if both boys and girls were raised not to link masculinity and money? What if [on a date] their attitude was not “the boy has to pay,” but rather “whoever has more should pay?”
By expanding on the smaller image of a pair of teenagers out on a date, you reach some surprising realizations. Because the human race expends so much energy and thought on stripping half the human race of its power by controlling their access to money, we lack the time and energy to have broader conversations about money and inequality. Specifically, we’re so busy oppressing ourselves that we don’t stop and realize this oppression might be a way those in power maintain control over all of us.
In February, I left my job. It was a job that at one time I loved dearly. For years, I thought it would be the best job I’d ever had. But gradually the job changed, and I wasn't happy or satisfied anymore. I didn't believe my voice mattered. Things started to go wrong, and so I left.
On the day I left my job, I went home and I was, to put it lightly, bummed. What would happen to me? Was that the best job I ever had? Is it all downhill from here? For the first time in well over a decade, I was home alone on a Monday afternoon with nothing to do and no clear task. I needed comfort, and so I did what I always do when I need comfort: I walked to a bookshelf.
Feminists was the book I picked up off the shelf, and I read it that afternoon. I’ve read it four times since then. I’ll read it dozens of times more. Adichie’s words inspired me and comforted me and showed me that the way forward wasn't as hopeless as it seemed. Some might find that strange; why would a straight white guy look to a feminist speech for inspiration? The answer is simple: because the idea of achieving equity for fully half of the world’s population is an empowering idea, and it should be empowering for any human.
Some men have no doubt read Feminists, or watched the video of the speech, and recoiled with anger. I’m sure there are countless video responses and point-by-point fiskings of the speech full of babble about men’s rights and other made-up nonsense. I’m not going to confirm my suspicion by giving those responses any of my attention. The truth is, I feel sorry for them. If you can’t find inspiration in one of our best thinkers calling for everyone on earth to be treated equally, you are On the Wrong Team. You’re failing. And one day, you’ll realize you’ve lost.
Of course I’m a feminist. I’m a human being, aren’t I?
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant