I’m against purity; let that be made clear from the beginning. It’s a hydra-headed monster with many forms, most of them destructive and divisive. In some forms it has caused the violent deaths of tens of millions of people, in others it has caused long-lasting psychological damage. It could be the single greatest cause of evil in the world. It can also be breathtakingly beautiful.
Anyone who has seen snow fall in a junkyard will know how beautiful purity can be. As pure as the driven snow. The glittering whiteness transforms disorder—car engines, drums, garbage bags—into clean, clear shapes wherein each shape finds its essential simplicity and elegance. What was messy, complicated, unpleasing, becomes beautiful, even powerful.
Or the pure beauty of a small child’s face. Skin glowing, unmarked by sun and wind, cheek and jaw lines untouched by gravity. And a child’s pure-hearted responses to the world, smiles and tears unpolluted by any cunning. When I gaze at a baby’s face, the exquisiteness of such purity painfully reminds me of all the innocence and potential for perfection that is lost—without wasting many moments questioning either innocence or perfection.
And then there is the purity of the natural world untouched by human hands, or human needs and desires. Indeed, pure and natural have become an indivisible pair, almost synonymous. Together they promise health and healing and wellbeing. High snow-capped mountains (more snow), crystal-clear streams, deserts (for 40 days and 40 nights), deep oak forests, the vastness of the bush—the longing for a pure place, a place free of contamination, draws us, draws me, out into the wilderness with the promise of being renewed if not remade.
In each of these, and in every form of purity, there is the almost irresistible attraction of that which is entirely itself; unalloyed, unpolluted, uncontaminated, unmixed, without contradiction. Purity symbolises a particular idea of unity and perfection that depends on the exclusion of all that is not at one with the whole. No smudges or spots or freckles, no traces of alien elements. And therein lies the problem.
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The most obvious horror born of the desire for purity is the belief in racial purity, the notion that the mixing of ‘races’ is weakening to human beings. It’s underpinned by the belief in the superiority of one race over all the others, and supported by that enduring symbol of purity, the colour white. Thus the idea of purity gives rise to a belief in white superiority and in the weakening effect of miscegenation. The hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of Africans worked to death in the Belgian Congo, in colonial violence all over the continent, in the slave trade to the United States and Britain, and by AIDS and hunger in the present day, all attest to the powerful purity of white. Not to mention the 6 million murdered in the mid twentieth century by the Nazis as they enforced the idea of Aryan purity, nor the oppression of apartheid in South Africa, nor the injustice of native reserves in Australia set up in the 1890s. Each has used the force of purity to do their violent work.
And then there is the notion of sexual purity, again supported by white, the virginal white of the wedding gown. It is a belief in the mostly female, unpenetrated body as whole and perfect, and the sexual body as tainted. It is based on the idea that sex is impure, although it does not apply to men in the same way, possibly because the male remains whole, unpenetrated. It doesn’t give rise to the same wholesale slaughter as racial purity, but a long, slow subjugation. Over several thousand years, the notion of sexual purity has been key in the control of women. A sexually free woman is outside male control. And for those who step outside this control, the insults are all based on sexual impurity—slut, whore, tart, tramp, floozy.
Even the notion of two entirely distinct genders is a product of purity; the idea that a person must be one or the other, entirely male or female, unmixed. Certainly there are biological markers of being either male or female, and most of the time that binary definition is adequate, but it excludes and bewilders those who, by biology or identification, are not purely one or the other. Again, it doesn’t lead to mass destruction, but an inner conflict and a dismantling of self as individuals try to distort themselves into a pure vision of being male or female.
Beyond all of these in destructive capacity is ideological purity, the idea that only one way of thinking or believing is the right way, and that all other ways must be suppressed, ridiculed or forcibly eliminated. Ideological purity can be based on religion, on politics or on every kind of belief system.
In religion, the desire for purity of belief in narrowly defined elements of faith and practice is known as fundamentalism. In Christianity, Islam and Hinduism there have been strong movements a number of times to ‘return’ to the fundamentals, the beliefs and practices considered unpolluted by history. Bearded men, veiled women become practices of faith rather than fashions left over from the time of founding. Such movements are often reactions against corrupting power—the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic Church in the mid sixteenth century—but lead to new corruptions, the Protestant alignment with the British Empire. When the state is per-mitted to enforce the pure tenets of any religion, whether medieval Christianity or contemporary fundamentalist Islam, widespread repression and violence result.
When the ideology of purity is political, it’s easy for those in power to eliminate those who don’t agree with them in the interests of protecting the purity of society. Purity of ideological belief outlaws not just questions but shades of opinion—if you are not for us 100 per cent, then you are against us—and the result is the gulag, the guillotine, the killing fields. The twentieth century saw the fruit of purist ideology on both the left and right of politics, the millions dead in genocides and concentration camps and avoidable famines. If a political belief system demands purity, then there is no place for contradiction, for the inherently flawed nature of human personalities. Political purity equates with certainty, the idea of total rightness.
But an underlying, even unconscious, demand for purity is not confined to religion or politics. Contemporary analysis of many areas of thought, including feminism, gender and ethnicity, topics close to this author’s own heart, often implicitly require an allegiance to all tenets of the analysis. On social media, the large village square where these topics are discussed, responses not purely approving of a particular analysis or approach are often damned in personally derogatory ways. Even a dissection of the subtleties, an unpicking of some of the absolutes, a questioning of a particular strategy, is seen as a betrayal of the purity of an ideological position. Again, this has not resulted in the mass violence of other forms of purity, but it’s my uncertain belief that the purity of ideological certainty leads first to polarisation, then to repression and finally to violence.
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But of course I can’t be totally against purity; that would be to take a pure position. There are a number of areas where purity is not such a bad idea; municipal water supply for one. And it must be a good idea regarding health generally to aim for a purity of ingredients in medication, and the rigorous purity of an uncontaminated medical environment to stop the spread of disease. In most of the sciences purity is often necessary—pure specimens, pure metals, pure observations and records, unpolluted by mood or feeling. In science, the idea of pure serves the desire to uncover the nature of things, which is at least one kind of truth.
In protecting the environment too there needs to be some idea of purity, an image of unspoiled nature. While nature itself is not pure, in the sense that it is always multiple, always a blend of many elements, there is a sense of purity in its being true to its original state. To restore or protect a natural environment, we need the idea of a pure, unpolluted state to know what to work towards. No privet in the rainforest, no industrial waste in the creeks, no plastic bags in the sea.
Food, too, probably requires the idea of purity, to protect health and quality. We need to know the food we eat is entirely and only what it purports to be. The notation of 100 per cent, claiming that the honey, the beef, the milk, is purely what it says it is, without dilution, without additives, reveals the idea of pure as something that is utterly itself. And that is an idea that reassures and appeals way beyond milk or honey.
Philosophically, the idea of a pure-hearted being, a person utterly herself, without ulterior motive, is a powerful inspiration. This is the incorruptible one, the one who has unalloyed devotion to a cause, the one who offers unconditional love. The one who is probably an illusion.
I’ve come to see the impulse towards purity as an expression of the longing for the simplicity of good and evil. It’s founded on a binary way of thinking: God/devil, black/white, fascist/communist, feminist/misogynist, religious/atheist, progressive/reactionary, which makes it easy to see what side you are on and easy to see the opposition. It works well for computers, 0 or 1, but what if things are a lot more mixed, a lot more impure in life. What if the Yin/Yang symbol had the clearest understanding all along; a little dark amid the greatest light, a little light amid the greatest dark?
It seems to me the need for absolutes, for a polarised way of thinking, is the product of a dualistic rather than a holistic way of thinking. I realise my dreamy old hippy slip is showing, but I’m wondering if it’s possible to let go, bit by bit, of the need to sort every-thing, every position, every ideology, into opposites? Perhaps it’s okay for opinions and beliefs not to be fixed, to be not necessarily one thing or the other. Could our exchanges—from peace conferences to social media discussions—be subtle, patterned, complicated, fluid, shifting like brownish water in a creek?
Could beauty be recognised in impurity—in ‘whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)’ as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it? It doesn’t mean giving up the drama of landscapes of pure and powerful simplicity, or the loveliness of a face that obeys the purity of the golden mean; they too can fit in a world that accepts both purity and impurity.
Nor does it mean excluding people who are sure and fierce in their views. They are pure in their devotion to a cause, no smudge of questioning, no thought that the opposition may have even the shadow of a point. There is certainly a beauty in such clear-sighted passion; it leads and it gets things done. And there are circumstances where a clear unequivocal opposition is the most moral and the most effective response. Racism, violence against the powerless, disregard for the environment; these are not issues to dither about.
But I want to stand up in all my fickle and freckled nature and say, let there be a place too for those of us who are uncertain. We may appear weak, but what if it’s only that we are cursed or gifted with being able to see there’s often another perspective? Or that it might be useful to listen anyway? In our arguments we will, like that supporter of the uncertainty principle, Montaigne, wander, digress, slip sideways, unpick, shuffle along to make room, be doubtful, appear contradictory. It means we can never be firebrands or lead movements, but we won’t start wars either, we won’t be at the guillotine, or in the firing squad, or shouting outside the courthouse. We are not pure enough for that; we can never be sure we are right and all the others are wrong. •
Patti Miller is the author of eight books, including the award winning The Mind of a Thief. Her ninth, The Joy of High Places, will be published in August.