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.