Roxane Gay became a feminist figurehead – but her essays are for people frightened of thinking

Roxane Gay
'Bad Feminist': author Roxane Gay - Reginald Cunningham/Corsair

At least you can say there is no false advertising here. Roxane Gay’s new collection of essays is titled Opinions, after all, not Thoughts or Ideas. She gives us exactly what she promises, a series of opinions on various subjects, arranged haphazardly and adding up to nothing much at all.

Gay came to prominence with her 2014 essay collection Bad Feminist, which posited that a person could become a feminist simply by declaring themselves to be so. They were not obligated in any way to change their behaviour, or their pop culture habits; they were not required to do any reading or conversing or thinking about the implications of their ideological shift. This was the era of the “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” t-shirt, and Gay was their spokesperson.

It’s certainly not Gay’s fault that feminism became so devoid of meaning that our hard-won slogans were easily stripped from their context and used by bad actors to fight against abortion rights, protest vaccine and mask mandates during the pandemic, and harass trans women. Someone can hear “my body my choice” and decide that it means whatever is politically convenient for them. But Gay, in her anti-intellectual stance, became a kind of mother figure for those who would prefer to avoid thinking through cognitive dissonance, smoothing back their hair to coo, “you’re already perfect, just the way you are.”

Since then, she has expanded her focus to include commentary on all kinds of social issues. The selection provided here is not comprehensive, and yet it manages to encompass acts of terrorism, geopolitical squabbles, the uprising against police violence, and whether certain television shows are good or bad. There is seemingly no issue too big or small – Gay feels confident to offer her commentary on it all.

Some of these issues do need someone to articulate and metabolise on our behalf. In the public debate that followed the 2015 terrorist attack on Parisian satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which left twelve people dead, there was a clash between two sets of liberal beliefs. One is that one should always protect the most vulnerable person in any situation, and the best way to determine levels of vulnerability is to abide by identity markers like race, religion, or immigration status. The other belief is that we must always defend the foundations of liberal democracy, like freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

It’s reasonable for people to be confused. Who is the most vulnerable here? The people who were murdered, or the people who are discriminated against and demeaned by racial and religious stereotypes? If we make absolutist statements about free speech, are we simply protecting a culture of hate and humiliation? If we condemn the satiric cartoons of Charlie Hebdo as offensive, are we tolerating a fundamentalist streak of intolerance?

Gay begins her response, originally published in The Guardian, by asking for the possibility of nuance. She says that she is uncomfortable with the slogan of solidarity taken up by various citizens and governmental leaders, “I am Charlie”, and the “rhetorical urge” to identify with victims of violence, although she doesn’t explain why. She states that she believes in free speech, but she is uncomfortable with how the writers of Charlie Hebdo used their right to free speech. She’s uncomfortable taking a public stand, because “we cannot sway extremists with rational thought.” The only thing she argues for, then, is not to think about the incident, because there is so much else to think about – terrorism, racism, “girls being kidnapped in Nigeria”.

It’s not an argument for acknowledging complexity, it’s an argument for not thinking. It’s an argument for focusing on our own comfort first and foremost. Should we watch the violent videos of police shootings that are circulated online? Are “safe spaces” on college campuses a sign that our society is becoming focused more on care and community, or are they merely the demand of pampered little rich kids? Our guru Gay bows her head and solemnly announces, “so many things to consider”. Then you realize she’s not praying, she’s sleeping.

Here we find how opinion becomes a stopgap against thought, hidden behind “It’s good, actually.” Or bad. Or sexist. Or wrong. Gay’s go-to opinion is “whatever gets you through the night.” She lists, compulsively, all the terrible things going on in the world, and shrugs at any attempt to make sense of it. It is of course a mistake to look to people who write for the opinion pages of newspapers for philosophical insight. Gay is no Simone de Beauvoir and Opinions is no Ethics of Ambiguity. But reading hundreds of pages of this tepid writing, which makes no intellectual, ideological, or psychological demand of its reader, it’s easy to see why newspapers like the New York Times have so dramatically expanded their opinion pages in the last years. Readers just want someone to agree with.

Most opinion writers are there to articulate an ideological position, to draw from the well of conservatism or Christianity or socialism and pour it into the vessel of the contemporary conundrum. Gay is instead the representative of the anti-ideologue, for those who believe strongly in nothing much. Justice? Sure. Fairness? Absolutely. Equality? Why not. But she has no clear path on how to realize any of these goals. Working against ideology might look like a principled, sophisticated stance, one that values nuance and the grey area of uncertainty, but instead it reveals a lack of rigor. If anything, one could say comfort is her primary ideology, as she uses the word and its variations dozens of times throughout. To Gay, being uncomfortable is bad; comfort is a virtue. She doesn’t reference older thinkers, she does not show how she came to her conclusions, any internal act of arbitration remains mysterious to us. Readers see her waffling and confuse it for courage.

The final section of Opinions is a selection from her New York Times advice columns. (Advice columns are as newly popular as opinion, and they too are there to soothe uncertainty.) In it, someone asks her what to do about her apathy, her inability to show up for protests or become more politically involved. In response, Gay lists all the things there are to care about, like kids being shot and the election of President Trump and the bombing of Syria. “There is a lot going on in the world.” But caring that these bad things are happening is enough. “Extend your empathy” is her instruction, which is as vague and thoughtless as an advertisement for a new moisturiser. It’s all so very soothing. Proof, indeed, that anti-fascist philosopher Simone Weil was right when she warned us, “There is nothing more comfortable than not thinking.”

Opinions: A Decade of Arguments, Criticism and Minding Other People’s Business is published by Corsair at £25. To order your copy for £19.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books

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