The journalist Gavin Haynes has a great phrase for a familiar and disturbing phenomenon: the purity spiral.
“A purity spiral occurs,” he writes, “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.”
Students of history will know all about this species of perverted gustatory overindulgence. The French Revolution is one locus classicus.
In that macabre carnival, the more extreme Montagnards consumed the (somewhat) moderate Girondists before turning to consume themselves. No citoyen, not even Robespierre himself, could be sufficiently virtuous to satisfy the inexorable demands of revolutionary zeal.
Mao’s cultural revolution provides another classic example. In the late 1960s, the Red Guards took to the street to identify and destroy anyone and anything involved with traditional Chinese culture. The result was an orgy of destruction and murder on an industrial scale.
Haynes points out that the phenomenon is not confined to the left. The Nazi obsession with race involved a purity spiral as thoroughgoing and murderous as any in history.
The point is that the logic of the process transcends ideology. In every case, as Haynes notes, what we see is “a bidding war for morality turned into a proxy war for power.”
Thus it invariably happens that the purity spiral is also a search for enemies, a concerted effort to divide the world between the tiny coterie of the blessed and the madding crowd of the damned. The game, Haynes notes, “is always one of purer-than-thou.”
Freud put his finger on one aspect of the purity spiral in his discussion of “the narcissism of small differences.” Tocqueville sifted through the same psychological sands when he noted that the more equal people become, the more sensitive they are to whatever small differences remain.
Writing in the magazine New York, the commentator Andrew Sullivan notes the prominent role that language—that is, the effort to police language—plays in the economy of coercion. “Revolutionaries,” he writes, “also create new forms of language to dismantle the existing order.”
“The use of the term ‘white supremacy’ to mean not the KKK or the antebellum South but American society as a whole in the 21st century has become routine on the left, as if it were now beyond dispute. The word ‘women,’ J.K. Rowling had the temerity to point out, is now being replaced by ‘people who menstruate.’ The word ‘oppression’ now includes not only being herded into Uighur reeducation camps but also feeling awkward as a sophomore in an Ivy League school. The word ‘racist,’ which was widely understood quite recently to be prejudicial treatment of an individual based on the color of their skin, now requires no intent to be racist in the former sense, just acquiescence in something called ‘structural racism’ which can mean any difference in outcomes among racial groupings. Being color-blind is therefore now being racist.
“And there is no escaping this. The woke shift their language all the time, so that words that were one day fine are now utterly reprehensible. You can’t keep up—which is the point. … The result is an exercise of cultural power through linguistic distortion.”
Exactly. And where does it end? At this point, no one knows. Haynes focuses on two niche activities, the world of knitting and young adult fiction. Are there any more unlikely candidates for corruption by wokeness?
But that is just the point. Everything is susceptible to the demands of the purity spiral. You can never be revolutionary enough, Comrade, or sufficiently Green, or fervid enough in your “anti-racism.” How dare you pretend that knitting is exempt from the demands of racial hectoring! How dare you think that you can write about the experience of a black teen if you are white!
The examples that Haynes describes are plenty surreal. And a look at the day’s news is full of examples of the purity spiral at work. First, it was statues of Confederate soldiers. Then, it was the statues of imperfect abolitionists. Then, it was Lincoln himself.
The historian Nigel Biggar, writing about the clamor over a statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford, predicted this process of repudiation inflation. “If Rhodes must fall,” he said, “so must Churchill, whose views on empire and race were similar. And so probably must Abraham Lincoln. While Lincoln liberated African-American slaves, he doubted they could be integrated into white society and favoured their separate development—their apartheid—in an African colony.
“If we insist on our heroes being pure, then we aren’t going to have any. Last year the shine on Mahatma Gandhi’s halo came off, when we learned of his view that Indians were culturally superior to black Africans. Should this blot out all his remarkable achievements? I think not.”
Purity spirals end only when confronted and exposed. Efforts at conciliation, like the habit of appeasement, serves to increase their ferocity and their velocity. Haynes notes that purity spirals involve a process of “moral outbidding … which corrodes the group from within, rewarding those who put themselves at the extremes, and punishing nuance and divergence relentlessly.” The key to disrupting them is to find strategies to short-circuit that metabolism, disrupting the pipeline of rewards.
Just recently, word came that Keith Christiansen, perhaps the single most distinguished curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was beset by the mob. His tort? Commenting on his Instagram account on a drawing by the French archaeologist Alexandre Lenoir. Lenoir devoted himself to saving French monuments from the all-consuming maw of the French Revolution.
“How many great works of art have been lost to the desire to rid ourselves of a past of which we don’t approve,” Christiansen wrote. “And how grateful we are to people like Lenoir who realized that their value—both artistic and historical—extended beyond a defining moment of social and political upheaval and change.”
Uh oh. “Beyond a defining moment of social and political upheaval and change”? Clearly, Christiansen was just asking for it, for it is axiomatic in the world of the purity spiral that there is no beyond or outside “the defining moment of social and political upheaval.” The spiral is total.
According to a story in The New York Times, although Christiansen “appeared [only “appeared”?] to be arguing for the preservation of monuments, he also struck some as insensitive and tone deaf.”
Oh dear. “The post,” reports the NY Times, “was criticized in a tweet by the advocacy group of arts workers, Art + Museum Transparency”:
“Dear @metmuseum, one of your most powerful curators suggested that it’s a shame we’re trying to ‘rid ourselves of a past of which we don’t approve’ by removing monuments — and, worse, making a dog whistle of an equation of #BLM activists with ‘revolutionary zealots. This is not OK.”
The spiral quickly sped up. “This is disgusting,” said one comment, “not acceptable.” Et very much cetera.
In my view, Christiansen had two viable choices. One, he could simply have ignored the criticism. Two, he could have responded with a two-word Anglo-Saxon imperative whose second word is “you.” He did neither.
Rather, he took down the post and closed his Instagram account. In other words, abject capitulation. The Met’s director, Max Hollein, hopped onto the self-abasement cavalcade, pulling on his metaphorical forelock and whining that “there is no doubt that the Met and its development is also connected with a logic of what is defined as white supremacy.”
Give me a break. The Met is a magnificent repository of masterpieces from around the globe. It has no need to apologize for its existence.
Long ago, Aristotle pointed out that courage is the most important virtue because without courage we are unable to practice any of the other virtues. Courage has been in notably short supply in Western countries in recent months as people have allowed petty bureaucrats to turn them into sheep who obediently quiver in place and refuse to be seen out-of-doors without a mask.
Hooligans and anarchists, seizing on the spurious excuse of the death of a black man in police custody, have rampaged across the country destroying property, attacking the police, and terrorizing ordinary citizens.
A statue of Teddy Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln has nothing to do with the death of the unfortunate George Floyd, neither, for that matter, do statues of Robert E. Lee or Andrew Jackson.
An innocuous comment by an eminent art historian about a figure from the past whose actions helped to preserve the material deposit of civilization is not “disgusting,” it is salubrious and illuminating. To pretend otherwise is to play into the hands of the zealots and enable them to ride the purity spiral another turn or two higher.
Roger Kimball is the editor and publisher of The New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books. His most recent book is “The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.