Leftist Purity Culture

No TRUE leftist would ever…

When I was a teenager I spent an entire summer writing a character, a follower of a God of vengeance, who swore revenge on an entire race of elves. Elves who are largely evil. I wrote the last two years of his life and in the process of doing so came to the personal conclusion that vengeance is always holding onto suffering for yourself. It carries with it inevitable anger that hurts, it’s unsatisfying in its conclusion, it has an unspoken rule that no one can be forgiven, especially not yourself. It’s picking at a scab so that it continues to bleed over and over again.

In the left there’s a kind of purity culture. A kind of idea that “you must never make a mistake or hold a wrong view or you’re an ASSHOLE and a bad person who deserves to be ousted”. It’s a reflection of the US punishment ethic for perceived sin. Where the punishment is isolation from the surroundings that push against the sin and confinement into circumstances that encourage, support, and perpetuate the sin. I’m using the word sin here to mean, broadly, anything undesirable.

You see a parallel to this idea in US drug abuse treatment. A lot of programs have a rule that when you are enrolled in the program you are disallowed to use drugs and if you do, you are summarily removed from the program. For engaging in the behavior for which you are seeking help, you lose that same help. This behavior of ousting, in contemporary popular drug abuse treatment and in the left as praiseworthy. Praise for revealing and punishing the sins of others. There’s some extent to which there’s a necessity in being aware of addressing the harms people cause one another and it feels like the wholesale dismissal of individuals for harm does little to nothing to resolve that harm continuing to be done to others or the harm inflicted on the perpetrator for their own sin.

I’ve had people tell me that people don’t have a responsibility to people who cause harm. I feel like the question of responsibility isn’t the point I’m trying to address here. It feels like a question of compassion for the abuser. That I cannot simply condemn anyone, no matter how grievous their crime, to death or even isolation. For I myself know, I have been the criminal, the abuser and the perpetrator. Must I be put against the wall when the revolution comes? It often feels that way. No room for penance.

I get this impression all the time that to be a revolutionary, to be a real leftist, anarchist, communist, etc. you have to meet a kind of purity quotient. You must be this woke to attend this rally. I think of the various movements around the globe, contemporary and historical who would be and are outright enemies of queer people. Yet I find myself totally unable to discount or turn my back on the worker who finds my sexuality sinful yet yearns to receive the full value of their labor. I find myself unable to stay home when the barricades are rushed even as the person beside me would see me lynched and say nothing. How can I not have compassion for their pain and their ignorance?

There’s a kind of rhetoric I’ve seen that goes “kill all abusers”, “execute every pedophile” and there is a world of difference between restraint and separation between victim/perpetrator and straight up killing the perpetrator. I think of some of the kids I’ve worked with, some of which have killed or seriously injured others, many having been both abused and abusers. Yet understanding their behavior in the context of the trauma they’ve experienced, in the context of their mental illness and defilements, anything other than forgiveness feels cruel.

I have this thought that goes “Could I march with a TERF?” and I wonder if it’s even possible for a revolutionary movement to succeed that isn’t both willing and able to tolerate violent internal disagreement. I sometimes see a sentiment expressed in Anarchist spaces that goes along a line that “the revolution could only ever be done entirely by atheists/agnostics!” which seems to directly imply that anyone who is religious is a reactionary at best, some kind of anti-revolutionary at worst. My thought is always, what is your solution to this? Genocide most of the (religious) world population? It feels like to me, the only way for a collaborative ousting of the state and capitalism to succeed is at least temporary cooperation between groups that would otherwise hate one another. You can’t overthrow the US with your squad of ten cool queers (as cool as that would be).

I feel like [purity culture] comes from viewing leftism/revolution through a consumerist lens. like “everything must be exactly as I see fit and compromise is not allowed.” it’s a “customer is always right” mentality + focusing more on the aesthetic/outward appearance of something (respectability) than the labor that goes into it (organizing)

There’s some kind of variance in this I imagine. Situational unity only seems to function up to and around certain points. Yet I am unsure where that line is. Should there be unity between Anarchists and Marxist-Leninists (MLs)? Given that MLs have historically sabotaged and backstabbed Anarchist movements? There’s been far more direct sabotage of an Anarchist revolution by MLs than there ever has been by TERFs or racists.

The line [of where unity is and isn’t possible] ends where the enemy is defeated. As soon as capitalism is toppled, unity will cease to be possible, as authoritarians and anti-authoritarians don’t really play nice together.

Even arguing for this kind of situational unity which dissolves immediately following the objective, you can make a reasonable point that even the immediate goals of the Libertarian and Authoritarian Left are so disparate as to be totally incompatible. How does one both seize and maintain the state while in the same breath dismantle and destroy it? Yet I see unity often urged between the Libertarian and Authoritarian Left while any kind of unity with TERFs, racists, and related sinners is entirely deplorable and I want to know why.

One answer seems that the core values espoused by Anarchism are so entirely at odds with racism and TERFs as to make any unity basically impossible. Yet when I think of farmers forming unions to fight back against capitalism while at the same time maintaining patriarchal and homophobic beliefs, it doesn’t seem so strange. Further, I’ll raise the question: are most racist/tranpshobic/homophobic, etc beliefs actually rooted in a coherent and articulated philosophy and or values system or are they the result of a certain degree or aspect of moha (ignorance, delusion)? Or if these beliefs are not dependent upon moha, being dependent upon the other kilesas such as lobha (desire, greed) motivating someone to maintain unequal power structures (institutionalized racism) so as to maintain their own privilege and power.

If it is true that racist and phobic beliefs are necessarily dependent upon moha (thereby also being wrong beliefs) or lobha/dosa, then how does this change our response? I’ve heard calls that these people should be educated out of the moha (or others methods like analogic perspective taking {see p 26-28}, etc) and in making a declaration that we ought to do so it carries with it a necessary willingness to tolerate the pain and suffering from the individual who is racist, phobic and so on. Part of my last job involved tolerating mental and physical abuse to the end of helping the children.

You can argue that no one is responsible for tolerating that abuse, that suffering we create for others through moha. Yet I can’t see an alternative to accepting that literal or metaphorical knife that doesn’t come off to me as outright cruel, or at a minimum completely focused on self-preservation at the expense of the well being of others. I’ll acknowledge within this some kind of valuation of self-sacrifice and the well being of others as at least equal to one’s own well being.

There’s some historical context here in terms of unity. Earlier in the 1900s there was an attempt to assert an identity of “working class” that gradually expanded to encompass people who otherwise hold antagonistic beliefs (see IWW cartoon), this didn’t particularly succeed and instead we’ve come to a point where non-class related identities (I am queer, black, Christian, white etc etc) are the predominant way in which people construct their sense of self and these identities are used by the capitalist class to create and maintain dissent between these identities such that large scale class organizing is sabotaged

Worker Power – Brooklyn 1968

The realities of any kind of mass organizing these days is that people are united in a negative (what they are opposed to) than a positive (what they believe) sense.

In conclusion, I fear there is an unwillingness to endure the pain associated with changing harmful behaviors performed by others and an absolutist stance which demands some level of behavioral and ideological purity from participants. That we react based on the pain we experience caused by abusers in such a way as to prioritize self-preservation and maintenance of a constructed “in-group”. Which in turn leads to the preservation and potential proliferation of harmful behavior through isolation from positive influences. While creating in-group shaming regarding addressing or sharing ideological or behavioral differences, both harmful and non-harmful.

Quotes unattributed to preserve the anonymity of non-public people