= concept relevant to Identity Politics and beyond
“Lately we’ve been witnessing more and more small worlds fall apart under the weight of their vast moral centre of gravity. In the past year, the middle-class, middle-aged, overwhelmingly female knitters of Instagram have descended into internecine conflict over racism allegations. Young adult fiction has exploded into an ethical gazumping war over who is allowed to write about what colour of character. In Canada, the music business has become so consumed by ethical etiquette that a juror who submitted the band Viet Cong for the nation’s top music prize was compelled to write a lengthy apology over how culturally insensitive his action was. I’ve become fascinated by the link between what we see in examples like these, and a dynamic we’ve seen play out through history.
In 1967, Mao’s Red Guards took to the streets determined to root out the ‘four olds’ of traditional Chinese culture, killing hundreds of thousands in the process. By 1968, they had fallen apart as factions fought each other to represent the truest version of Maoism. In 1794, Robespierre found himself on the same tumbrel he had prescribed for so many other problematic persons. In both cases, a bidding war for morality turned into a proxy war for power.
In my new BBC Radio 4 documentary I wanted to join the psychological dots between history’s pinnacle nightmares and what happens at the end of your road. I decided to call both the phenomenon and the documentary, “The Purity Spiral”. A purity spiral occurs when a community becomes fixated on implementing a single value that has no upper limit, and no single agreed interpretation. The result is a moral feeding frenzy.
But while a purity spiral often concerns morality, it is not about morality. It’s about purity — a very different concept. Morality doesn’t need to exist with reference to anything other than itself. Purity, on the other hand, is an inherently relative value — the game is always one of purer-than-thou.
It’s not just another word for ‘woke culture’, or even ‘cancel culture’, or ‘virtue signalling’. Even though intersectional social justice is a pretty great breeding ground for purity spirals, it is one among many. Nor is it confined to the Left: neo-Nazi groups offer some of the clearest examples of purity spirals: the ongoing parsing of ethnic purity into ever-more Aryan sub-groups. Perhaps the most classic one of all hails from Massachusetts.
It is a social dynamic that plays out across that community — a process of moral outbidding, unchecked, which corrodes the group from within, rewarding those who put themselves at the extremes, and punishing nuance and divergence relentlessly.
A purity spiral propagates itself through the tipping points of preference falsification: through self-censorship, and through loyalty tests that weed out its detractors long before they can band together. In that sense, once one takes hold, its momentum can be very difficult to halt.
Our documentary analysed just two latter-day purity spirals — Instagram knitting culture and young adult novels. Both seemed perfectly-sized to be taken over — they were spaces big enough to have their own star system, yet small enough for the writ of a dominant group to hold.
In each, a vast tapestry of what were effectively small businesses competed for attention online by fluidly mixing personal and professional brand. On social media, opinion, diary and sales often existed within the same posts. Each individual small business was uniquely vulnerable to being un-personed, ‘cancelled’. But, simultaneously, each could benefit enormously from taking on the status of thought leader — from becoming a node that directed moral traffic.”