The problem with ideological purity

Thursday, 20 February 2014

If you've ever been part of one of those conversations where someone's having a bit of a moan about their church, you know you can always count on someone to chime in saying "There's no such thing as the perfect church!". Clichéd as that phrase has become, it's true, and it's a constant reminder that when we go looking for perfection in this life, we're not going to find it. There's no such thing as the perfect church, the perfect marriage, the perfect job. And there's certainly no such thing as the perfect person. Most people know this, and recently it's become a bit of a "thing" to be open about all our flaws, admitting to our brokenness and just how "messed up" we are as a way of showing vulnerability and assuring others that no-one ever has it all figured out (so much so, in fact, that it's already been identified as a problematic Christian trend by people with too much time on their hands).

You know how it goes. "Hi, I'm Hannah, a sinner like everyone else. I'm a champion procrastinator. I struggle with depression. When I'm tired I crave junk food. My relationship with church is none too good at the moment. I didn't start blogging to glorify God; I did it because I knew it could help get me a more interesting job. Sometimes when my toddler is being a pain in the backside I get angry with him. My 'lightbulb moment', when I realised I was a feminist (aged 19), didn't involve any intersectional analysis. None at all! But every day I'm learning; as time goes by I'm evolving as a person. SEE - I'M JUST LIKE YOU."

It seems, however, that it's pretty hard to be vulnerable and admit mistakes when it comes to activism. It's another progressive cliché, the idea that you 'just need to be constantly learning and growing and ready to admit you messed up', an idea that's become more about performance of learning and a pretence of listening when it often seems like not very much of either ever really happens. You can be vulnerable and imperfect - as long as you stress just how much it's shown you the error of your ways. For many in the social justice world, what's prized more than anything is ideological purity - described by some as 'purity leftism'. A so-called commitment to 'learning and growing' that actually struggles to deal with differences of opinion from within the same activist sphere, that struggles to support any cause or campaign because it will never be perfect and supported only by those who display completely "correct" ways of thinking and being. It's 'me, me, me' activism.

This obsession with ideological purity leads to two things. Firstly, there's silencing - a fear of being denounced, leading to people shutting up, stepping back, and quietly going about their business so as not to be noticed or accused of wrongdoing when they're just trying to muddle along and make a difference in the world. Secondly, it stops activism from involving any action whatsoever. Why run or join a campaign when people who don't see eye to eye with you on everything might get involved? Why go to an event if one of the speakers once tweeted something you didn't like? Why express support for someone who's going through a bad time when 20 years ago, they wrote something that you don't agree with (learning and growing, apparently, is only for the chosen few)? Why do anything except sneer at those in public office and mainstream media and positions of authority who are to all intents and purposes on your side because they're all 'part of the system'? Principles about things become more important than actually doing them.

When I think about the feminist and egalitarian women that I admire the most, some of whom I'm friends with, some of whom I've never met and probably never will, they have one thing in common. They know that attempting total ideological purity is ridiculous, and that waiting around for perfect situations is pointless. They know that what works is women living as best they can in this world, being the change they want to see and getting their hands dirty in the process, messing up and having to apologise, having uncomfortable realisations and having to love all and serve all as they do so. 

They're in the media and in politics and the church, working tirelessly to mentor younger women and get more women a space on the platform and a seat at the table, even when the table isn't perfect, because they believe in effecting change from within. They're from different backgrounds with varying amounts of privilege. They're helping survivors, fighting injustice, writing, calling meetings and putting their heads above parapets, all the time using words of encouragement and building up and celebrating success - and doing what they have to do to provide for themselves and their families. They'll offer critique when it's constructive and point out the problematic when they've got a solution. And they know that vulnerability, honesty, and love will always achieve more than attempting ideological purity at the expense of anything resembling real change.

If we want to 'be' any sort of change, we need to be willing to get stuck in - whatever that means for us personally. Creating change is hard, and I'm thankful for everyone who gives so much of themselves to make it happen. We need to be willing to do more than criticise and snipe from on high, congratulating ourselves for not doing anything because that would mean compromising impossibly high standards and associating with people who don't share all of our opinions. If we don't, we risk becoming like religious fundamentalists - concerned only with our self-righteousness and superiority compared to others who are part of the very same belief system, our brothers and sisters.

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