The Purity Psychology of Progressive Christianity: "Do One Wrong Thing and You're Tainted"

Two years ago, I wrote a post describing the "purity psychology" at work within progressive Christianity.

Recently, while speaking in OKC, the topic of purity psychology among progressives came up. The post also bounced around Twitter again last week.

All that to say, the analysis remains timely and  relevant. My description of the purity psychology among progressives from 2015:

As I describe in Unclean, it's pretty much impossible for anyone to avoid purity psychology as purity seems to be an innate way we all, conservatives and progressives alike, reason about morality.

To be clear, the "purity culture" at work among progressive, liberal or radical Christians is very, very different from the "purity culture" at work with conservative and fundamentalist Christianity. The moral grammars at work among progressives and conservatives are very different. For example, where conservative Christians focus on things like sexual purity, for progressive Christians purity is focused upon complicity in injustice and oppression.

Again, as a progressive Christian, fighting against injustice and oppression is how I think about right or wrong. Justice is how I define moral "purity." Being "pure" or "righteous" in the eyes of God--in light of God's preferential option for the poor--means not being complicit in injustice.

In short, while a purity psychology is always at work whenever anyone thinks about being a good person--however they define it--I'm not saying that every expression of purity is morally equivalent. As a progressive Christian I don't think that at all. In fact, I think the exact opposite. As a progressive Christian I think conservative Christians should shift their purity categories away from sex to focus on oppression. I think the world would be a better place if we got our purity categories lined up with the right sorts of things.

So my observations about progressive Christian "purity" isn't to draw a moral equivalence between conservative and progressive purity. My observations are psychological in nature, descriptions of how purity psychology, of whatever sort, operates in a similar sort of way. Ways we should pay attention to.

For example, as I describe in Unclean, purity psychology is governed by a variety of contamination attributions. And one of those attributions is dose insensitivity.

Dose insensitivity is the contamination appraisal that even a small amount of the contaminating substance will have a catastrophic effect. For example, if I tell you that there is a very, very small amount of fecal matter in your pasta that knowledge ruins the dish for you. It doesn't take a full sized turd to ruin the dish. A very, very small amount will do the trick. Contamination is dose insensitive, a small dose will contaminate just as effectively as a large.

So let me illustrate how attributions of dose insensitivity work among progressive Christians. Here's a question that gets at the issue: How much complicity in injustice and oppression is acceptable?

Well, the answer, obviously, is none at all. Complicity is dose insensitive. Any bit of it is bad and needs to be eradicated.

This impulse to expunge every last trace of complicity sits at the heart of the radicalizing impulse within progressive Christianity, and progressive politics generally. This impulse is the psychological and moral imperative that moves you from liberal to progressive to radical. And let me again be clear, I'm not judging that trajectory at all. It's the trajectory of my life in both politics and religion.

But that trajectory, because of purity attributions such as dose insensitivity, is always going to be tempted in various ways. And one of those temptations is the temptation to point out or call out the complicity of others. Because any complicity at all is bad and worthy of being pointed out or called out it has to be expunged, even the smallest bits of it, even among well-intended friends and allies. And if you appear to be letting any complicity pass--for example, asking people to tone down the call outs--you're reconciling yourself to complicity. You're not centering the right things, not being a good ally. You're giving aid to oppressors.

Again, I'm not criticizing call outs. Call outs can be prophetic speech. What I'm saying is that call out culture is tempted in various ways by the purity psychology at work among progressives and that it's important from time to time to resist those temptations. For the sake of justice. For the sake of getting shit done.

For example, it's important to both admit and attend to the purity temptations at work among progressives because purity psychology often causes progressives to cannibalize and damage themselves in various ways. The effort to call out and expunge every bit of complicity among friends and allies sits behind the Twitter firestorms that leave so many disillusioned and disheartened.

Let me give two recent illustrations of what I'm describing.

On the progressive left you can't get two more different voices regarding Twitter activism than Freddie deBoer and Suey Park. And yet, in two recent articles both deBoer and Park make similar diagnoses about the purity dynamic at work among progressives, a dynamic that leads to a cannibalization which hurts the larger cause. Causes both of them--and many of us--are fighting for.

As a part of his conversation with Jay Caspian Kang--A Debate on Online Political Discourse--deBoer made the following observation about the damage social media firestorms cause when progressives rage with hashtags in calling out each other and potential allies:
It’s not unreasonable for people witnessing such things to conclude that the left will never stop harming itself sufficiently to do the work of changing the world. Here, too, I speak from experience. None of this is new or unique to the online space; left-wing movements are always in the process of blowing themselves up. I am discouraged by seeing so many of the typical ugly interpersonal dynamics of the left play out on Twitter over and over again. Many decent people who want to help are afraid to weigh in publicly on issues of controversy for fear of being ground up in a Twitter storm. Maybe that’s ridiculous; maybe they should just get over it; maybe they should get tougher. Maybe so. But they probably won’t, and I think we should all be able to take a long, hard look at how to better integrate potential friends into our movement, without being accused of not being an ally. Because the left needs friends.
Why does this cannibalization happen among progressives? One of the problems, as I'm diagnosing it, is that allies, being allies, are often complicit in various ways. Which makes allies, per the logic of dose insensitivity, problematic in all sorts of ways. Yes they are allies, but are they good allies? Can't they be better allies?

Progressives perennially struggle with allies, how to work with sympathetic but complicit people. Consider just how much commentary is devoted to "the ally problem" in online progressive spaces. Notice the number of Tweets and words progressives devote to the issues they have with allies. Just this morning I read a 2,500+ word post at a radical website that was 100% about allies and their numerous faults. A post not about injustice or concrete policy proposals--you know, a post about actually getting something done in the world--but a post about the shortcomings of allies.

No doubt allies are flawed, but if allies are your central, defining problem, well, you can see why progressive causes have difficultly reaching the critical social mass needed to get stuff done in the world.

The left does need friends but the left, because of its purity psychology, is also very hard on its friends, fracturing a potential coalition from ever reaching the tipping point needed to change things. Friends and allies will be complicit in various ways, but if progressive Christianity is going to have any significant impact upon the world it's going to have to figure out how to work with complicit friends. And yet, as deBoer describes, that work is frequently being undermined by a purity impulse that keeps tempting us to "call out" and cannibalize ourselves.

And while I've been focusing upon allies, what is important to attend to is how this isn't just a problem with allies. Even people who aren't complicit in various ways, and there are very few of these, still have to demonstrate a purity in their moral performance on social media. Any flaw, inconsistency or failure in this moral performance, even a small one per the purity logic of dose insensitivity, can result in the same social media backlash that poorly performing allies regularly face.

For example, Suey Park is both an activist and a woman of color. She's not a blundering ally. And yet, Suey faced a huge social media backlash because her moral performance with #CancelColbert was judged to be a mistake by many progressives. And what is interesting is how in Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig's recent profile of Suey Park in the New Republic--Why Won't Twitter Forgive Suey Park?--Suey describes how her mistake was processed as a purity failure by progressives.

In the article Suey succinctly describes the dose insensitivity purity dynamic at work among progressives:
Park’s understanding of her Twitter presence carries a distinctly Christian note. “It’s a lot like purity politics in the church,” Park observed, referring to the tendency of Twitter groups to attack perceived wrongdoers. It is, she pointed out, a strategy that works for activists until it turns on them. “You do one wrong thing,” Park said, “and you’re tainted. You’re out forever.”

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