The Atlantic

The Folly of 'Purity Politics'

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

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