The Folly of 'Purity Politics'

A new book argues for the value of owning up to your imperfections.

Raphael Schneider / Getty

There’s no way for a person living in the world to truly do no harm.

Take the environment. Even if you only eat vegetables that you grow in your own garden and only travel to places you can bike or walk to, if you still use electricity, or throw away garbage, you’re still somewhat contributing to the forces behind climate change.

And yet, people are still enticed by paths that promise purity. This is the diet that will keep your body “clean” and “toxin-free.” (Whatever is meant by “toxins.”) These are the clothes to wear without contributing to bad labor practices. This is the political philosophy that is 100 percent morally correct.

In her book Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times, Alexis Shotwell argues that “personal purity is simultaneously inadequate, impossible, and politically dangerous for shared projects of living on earth.” Focusing on maintaining your own innocence or goodness is counterproductive, she says, to actually fixing the world’s problems.

Instead, “if we want a world with less suffering and more flourishing, it would be useful to perceive complexity and complicity as the constitutive situation of our lives, rather than as things we should avoid,” she writes. We can’t help that we’ve inherited these problems—a warming Earth, institutional racism, increasingly antibiotic-resistant bacteria—nor can we help sometimes perpetuating them. Better to stop pretending at purity, own up to our imperfections, and try to create a morality that works with them.

I spoke with Shotwell, who is a professor of sociology, anthropology, and philosophy at Carleton University, about why people strive for purity, why it’s doomed to fail, and how this leads to a kind of “purity politics.” A lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.

Julie Beck: The book talks about a lot of different things, but the common thread is basically that purity is an illusion that can never be achieved. And yet there’s a lot of ways that people act as though there’s some natural state of purity that we could be living in if we just tried hard enough. So I guess my question to start is, what’s up with that?

Alexis Shotwell: Every ethical system that we have starts from the view that we’re all in the world with other beings, we’re embedded in the broader world. We’re connected, we’re implicated, and that’s why we need to think about ethics. People who are trying to wrestle with that, both professional ethicists and everyday people, turn very quickly to focusing on what we personally, individually can do to either manage our responsibility or to protect ourselves from how hard it is to be in this world. We say, “Oh we’re so connected, and it’s so complicated,” and then the first thing we do is try to manage our own personal situation in relation to that. It’s a scope-limiting impulse that tries to deal with the stuff that we actually can deal with. We think, “I can at least work on my own lifestyle,” or “I can at least work on my own responsibility.”

Beck: Broadly then, why is that a bad approach?

Shotwell: Thinking about our own individual responsibility is a bad approach for two reasons. The first one is just a true thing about the world—that it’s not possible for us to achieve personal purity. For example, you might want to say, “I am profoundly concerned about racial injustice, and so the way I’m going to manage that is to try to never say or do anything that contributes to racial injustice, I’m even going to take up positive duties of figuring out how I can contribute to racial justice in my world,” and those are all really good things to do. But as soon as we think, “Oh, my personal behavior is going to eliminate racial injustice,” we can say, “Oh no, I’m still benefitting. I’m a white person, I’m still benefitting from racial oppression. I can’t not. Just walking down the street, white supremacists will look at me and not harm me, because they read me as white. So there’s not a way that I can individually be absolved from the social relations of racism.” It’s just impossible.

The second thing is that it’s not politically useful. It doesn’t do us any good to aim for individual purity. When we start doing that, we become solipsistic, we become narcissistic, we become very focused on our own personal little thingy and that means that we don’t aim to make systemic, bigger changes. Aiming for that kind of individual absolution—as soon as we mess up, and as soon as someone points out that we’re actually still connected and implicated, we might be tempted to give up at that point.

Beck: I feel like the obvious example here is eating. There seems to be some people who think that you can keep yourself in a pure state of health by eating vegetarian, or vegan, or you can live like our purer ancient ancestors by eating paleo. So, why would you say that’s the wrong way to think about these kind of diets and how does that illuminate this purity psychology?

Shotwell: I started thinking about eating and purity because I eat vegan. I’ve had some of the most annoying conversations I can remember with fellow vegans. All of the approaches to eating are these very elaborate fictions that try to pretend that we are on the right side of something. People say, “it’s the correct thing to do for my body” to eat this particular way—to eat paleo, to eat no sugar, to eat no grains, to eat vegan. All of those logics go back to stories about what’s the “right” way for a human body to eat. I have this critical archeologist friend who’s like, “Yeah all of these narratives about how long ago people didn’t eat any grains, they’re just scientifically wrong. I've seen wheat in bellies this many years ago.”

As soon as you start really looking, you see you can’t be cut off from the incredible suffering that’s produced simply from the fact that we [have bodies]. All of my vegan friends who think that they’re not actually participating in cycles of death and suffering, they’re just wrong. If you say, “There isn’t a way for me to eat and not be connected to death and suffering,” then you have to ask this much more interesting question: Why am I going to eat in the way that I am? And what does that mean? How am I going to think about the workers who produce the food, the people who move the food around? We just can’t be self-righteous about it. We’re looped into this much more complicated system where every choice we make is imperfect and we can’t feel like we’re not connected.

Beck: There are of course multiple reasons why people might take up these different diets. One is what you’re saying, that they want to not participate in factory farming, or to not participate in killing animals. But then there’s also, just, they want to be healthy. And one thing I thought was really interesting in the book is this idea of healthism—that you need to take care of your own health, that you’re responsible for taking care of yourself. Obviously what you eat and whether you work out does have an effect, but does that flip on its head, and turn into: if you are sick, it’s your fault?

Shotwell: Robert Crawford, who coined the term healthism, wrote this article in the ’80s. There were all kinds of things happening coming out of the ’60s and the massive social justice movements that really made people feel like we can make this world a place for everyone to live and flourish. Then there was a turn toward thinking you are personally responsible for your sickness. Whether you get cancer, whether you get diabetes, this is your fault, and if you’re not living well, you’re actually morally culpable for your own sickness. I think of that as a purity politics of despair. When you think about everything that could go wrong and you then say, “The bounds of my skin are the relevant unit of analysis,” then everyone’s also responsible for their own problems. This means you don’t have to feel bad about other people getting sick and dying because they’re living downstream from a factory. They should’ve done something about that, they should've eaten more antioxidants.

Beck: There’s some research on morality that shows people in different cultures will emphasize different values like liberty, fairness, authority, and so on. And purity is one of those. That research generally finds that people in Eastern countries tend to value purity more highly than people in Western countries. But I think that refers more to bodily purity, to contamination and such. Do you think that individualism, which we notoriously love in the West, is just another kind of moral purity?

Shotwell: I think it fundamentally comes back to the idea that the individual is a self-governing unit who can make decisions about what comes in and what goes out. Of course, boundaries are really important. But boundaries are there because we’re porous, we’re available to the world. So what a boundary means, actually, is connection, being next to something or being with something that’s potentially part of you or it’s already part of you. In the West, there’s this purity ideal that imagines that’s not true. It imagines that we have these walls that nothing could or should cross.

I’ve done a lot of work in the past on the difference between guilt and shame. In North America there’s an aim to think of guilt as the relevant moral emotion. That’s very much about individual responsibility for action. You didn’t personally own slaves, and therefore you’re not responsible for racial wrongdoing. In other cultures that are more socially oriented, there’s more availability for saying “I may not have personally done that, but I'm still responsible to make it right.”

Beck: How does that individualism, combined with the desire for moral purity, translate into what you’re calling purity politics? How do you see that playing out right now?

Shotwell: On the left, a lot of the time what happens is that people try to have only the right words, the right views, the right lines. They develop a kind of party line that they try to hold to, and then spend quite a lot of time disciplining other people’s behavior and speech. It’s not that we want to say harmful things or have bad views. But this turns into purity politics when that self-monitoring or disciplining other people’s speech or behavior is all we end up doing.

So we need to figure out: What does a politics of imperfection look like? What happens if messing up is not the worst thing that could happen? We say, “I’m going to work on this thing and I’m definitely going to make a mistake. I’m already part of a really messed up situation, so I’m not going to be able to personally bend the arc of the universe toward justice. But I might be able to work with other people so that all together we can do that.”

I feel like we need this right now. We’re looking at the rise of really intensely racist, xenophobic, anti-disability, anti-poor expression. A lot of people are responding to that by saying, “That’s not the world that I want.” They’re trying to come into politics. And from some people on the left I've seen this real move to say, “Where were you last year? Where were you when this horrible thing was happening? I didn’t see you then.” And I understand this. It’s very frustrating to work on something for a long time and then all of a sudden see people be like, “Oh, wait, I didn’t realize how bad things were, I want to help.” But that’s fundamentally purity politics to say, “If you have not always been on the side of flourishing for everyone, then I don’t want to work with you.” I’m interested in a politics based on acknowledging imperfection and feeling like we can work together anyway.

Beck: One part of the book I thought was really interesting was the section about how people want to separate themselves from unsavory parts of history. As you mentioned earlier, you might see white people saying “Well, I never owned slaves, my family never owned slaves,” things like that. Or you might see it with environmental stuff. I actually see this all the time, where people will say, “Oh the previous generation ruined the earth for us.” So that’s like saying “I’m not a part of this.” And you’re saying we need to accept that we’re complicit in these histories, even if we weren’t alive for them. How might that look?

Shotwell: Everything we have is a product of history, and some of us are benefitting from it, some of us are still being harmed by it. Most of us didn’t choose it. We inherit history. We’re historical beings and the world is a product of history, so everything that’s happened in the world has this material manifestation now—in the distribution of who owns houses, in the distribution of which places are sickening for beings to live in. We receive all of that. And yes, one impulse is to say, “I am not responsible for that. I didn’t do that.” In the book, I’m mostly interested in: What does it mean for us to understand that we’re a product of ongoing colonialism and genocidal plans for indigenous people of this continent? How do we not be guilty about that but instead recognize that we can take responsibility for that history? Taking responsibility for history doesn’t mean going back to change what happened. It means acknowledging this history, how do we move forward?

Beck: How do we reconcile that idea with “Make America Great Again” nostalgia? Because that whole ethos is about returning to the past, even if it is sort of evoking a prosperous past that wasn’t really the true story. But it’s still a nostalgic thing, right?

Shotwell: That call—let’s return to the past, let’s return to this mythical time where everything was wonderful—it was only wonderful for some people. And in fact, most of the time on this continent since colonization has been really awful for many people. The kind of responsibility for the future that I’m interested in is one that’s grounded on different histories that also are present. Those are histories of workers’ struggles for everyone to be able to have a dignified wage and a workday. There’s really profound experiments in public education. So there are all these amazing histories, also. A lot of people that I know are finding a lot of comfort and strategic value in reading histories of social movements in the United States, many of which were operating in periods of profound repression.

We can always look at whose better time are we invoking when we say something like “make America great again.” You always have to ask, “Who are we going to make great?”

Beck: If we don’t approach our morality from the position of how can I, as an individual, do the right thing and diminish the harms that I am doing, then how should we approach it?

Shotwell: I think that most of the things that are wrong in the world need collective coalitional responses. But we’re individual people who still need to make decisions. So what does it mean to not aim for personal purity?

I think it means two things. One is an attitude of self-forgiveness. That means recognizing that we’ve messed up in the past, we’ve made mistakes, and that we can still be of benefit. We can move forward. We can be helpful. One prong of personal purity imagines that people are fundamentally bad and they’re never going to be able to clean that up. It’s kind of like an original sin version of morality. Giving up personal purity allows us to confront the possibility of being shamed and not have that destroy us. If you’re doing antiracism work, especially if you’re a white person, you’re going to mess up and someone’s going to say that you’re racist. What happens if that doesn’t mean that you then never do any antiracism work again? Instead you say, “I did a racist thing, I messed that up, let me figure out how I can repair.” Which doesn't mean getting the kind and generous person of color, probably a person of color, who told you you did a racist thing, to work it through with you.

The second thing that giving up personal purity gives us is it liberates us from feeling like we have to do everything ourselves. Giving up personal purity allows us to recognize that there are a whole lot of things we are not going to be able to solve. Like we can’t personally solve the problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. There are people who are overprescribing antibiotics, there are feedlots where animals are being fed antibiotics because they also increase meat production. We can’t personally solve that. We can worry about it, we can hope. There are, though, probably things that we personally can work on. Some people think about this as cleaning the floor where we’re standing. I’m thinking about this as distributed ethics. The ethical obligation becomes not “How am I going to solve all these huge and enormous things,” but instead “What can I work on? What’s within my reach? What am I connected to?”

Kant thought we have an ethical obligation to develop our capacities and our skills. And that might actually mean I need to take care of myself in order to still be able to do the work. So I think giving up individual purity frees us from that feeling that any mistake is a catastrophe, and it opens us to the possibility of being better able to identify the things we can actually change.