Yet it is packed, purity – of mind, body, planet – does not exist. “There is no primordial state to which we could wish to return, no Eden which we have desecrated, no pretoxic body which we could discover through enough chia seeds and kombucha”, writes the Canadian philosopher Alexis Shotwell in her 2016 treatise. against purity. Purism, in all its forms, “is a decollectivizing, demobilizing and paradoxical politics of desperation” – in contradiction to leftist commitments, which aim to change the world for the better.
Accepting that we are already compromised and always have been can be difficult, but Shotwell argues that it can set us free as we organize for the future. Keeping your mind pure and refusing to mingle with others is a “self– a just policy,” writes Shotwell. Being unable to move forward in your own life for fear of cancellation is bad enough; letting it get in the way of self-improvement or collective action is even worse.
Or, to put it another way: self-proclaimed “guardians of political purity” who believe “they have greater integrity or more sophisticated analyses” only make the job harder, writes black feminist Loretta Ross. While it is possible to take care of more than one thing at a time, everyone bandwidth is limited. Non-stop refine the message— and, in particular, correcting the discourse of most cis, white people with big platforms — can come at the expense of activism and direct action that improves everyone’s life.
In this, the Internet will continue to play an important role. It is an excellent tool for media coverage and fundraising, but until now, social platforms have above all contributed to a politicization of everyday life so complete that, paradoxically, nothing political really happens. Questioning our worldview, informing ourselves with a fuller understanding of how we got to this point in human history, and recalibrating our values accordingly is important work, but there are limits (because many our thoughts are not under our control), and it only has value insofar as it generates changes in the real world.
In psychiatry, many people with OCD are said to be “ego-dystonic,” or live with the feeling that their intrusive thoughts — and the time they spend on them — go against their values. The same seems to be happening collectively: humans clearly appreciate the planet and each other, even as we see the continued damage we have caused, individually and collectively. While we desperately want to fix it, we don’t necessarily think we can; the problems are significant and the current purity standard is simply too high. Instead of living by our principles no matter what, we cancel ourselves out, cleaning up the timeline of our past misdeeds and wrapping ourselves in antimicrobial tissues so tightly that we cannot create new ones.
But, as people in therapy for OCD will tell you, “what you resist persists.” The chaos of modern life does not go away. The values we cultivate, even when we don’t live up to them, matter. Doing something is almost always more meaningful than saying something, and the online culture of purity prevents people from doing much. Although we will never reach a state of purity, by accepting our “complicity and compromise”, as Shotwell puts it, and by accepting the uncertainty, we might just find the “starting point for action”.
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