The Atlantic

The Intolerant Left

A conversation with the writers Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Jeffrey Goldberg about self-righteousness among progressives, the appeal of Donald Trump, and the entitlement that comes with being white in America
Source: Melanie Leigh Wilbur / AtlanticLIVE

The writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has firsthand experience with the swift and intense outrage that can flow toward an individual in the age of democratized publishing. Say something potentially objectionable these days, and you will hear about it from every direction. Adichie’s characterization of cisgender women and transgender women as being fundamentally different ignited a firestorm of controversy last spring—and though she later clarified what she meant, she never really backed down.

“I think people are frightened of saying what they think, and I think that’s a bad thing for society,” she told The Atlantic’s national correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates and editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg in Paris recently. “The problems in the left interest me more because I just think that there’s an increase in—‘intolerance’ is maybe putting it simply—but there’s a feeling that you’re supposed to conform.”

The left, Adichie says, is no longer actually liberal. “There’s language you’re supposed to use,” she said. “There’s an orthodoxy you’re supposed to conform to, and if you don’t, you become a bad, evil person, and it doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the past or what you stand for.”

Adichie thinks deeply about identity in her work. As an author who has divided her time between the U.S. and Nigeria for most of her career, she often weaves a transatlantic perspective into her writing, most notably in 2013’s Americanah. In her conversation with Goldberg and Coates, Adichie described the complexities of race that are brought into sharper relief whenever she comes to the States: When she’s in Nigeria, she’s not “black” in the way she is in America, where the color of her skin immediately changes how she is seen and treated. “There’s a particular kind of asshole-ry that white people reserve for black people,” she says. “You can tell. You can always tell. It’s a very subtle thing.”

Still, she says, “there is, for me, as a black woman, as an African woman, a sense of possibility in America that I don’t feel when I’m in Europe.” Perhaps that’s why Adichie says she’s surprised at what she perceives as deference among Americans to the power that Donald Trump wields as president. Coates, for his part, isn’t shocked: “For black folks born and raised in America, the deference to power is very, very familiar.” It’s part of why he feels more American when he’s in Paris than he does in the United States, he says.

An edited transcript of their conversation, which was recorded in Paris for the first episode of The Atlantic’s new podcast, The Atlantic Interview, is below.


Let’s start with something that just happened at the airport. You said you kind of

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