The left's pandemic purity culture

Masks have become much more than a useful public health tool

A trophy.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

The phrase "purity culture" usually conjures sexual mores and the political right. After all, it's conservatives who care about purity and sanctity. It's primarily evangelicals who participate in the purity culture approach to teaching sexual ethics, a collection of practices (e.g. purity rings, purity balls, assigning girls responsibility for preventing boys' temptation) and rhetoric (e.g. that sexual promiscuity irreparably pollutes you as a person) that became popular in some American churches over the last 30 to 40 years.

But what if there's a left-wing version of purity culture, too? It's not as programmed as the purity culture of the right — more impulses and communal trends than formalized practices. And it's certainly not about sex. Left purity culture is concerned with taking care and fostering justice, a concern raised incessantly over the past year by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before we come to the pandemic, though, let me spend a moment more on the thing itself: What is purity culture without sex? That is, suppose we think of purity culture as an ethical pedagogy — a way of teaching people right views and behaviors — that can be applied to any set of ideas, not only Christian beliefs about sex. What does it look like then?

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

In that larger sense, I'd say purity culture is about rules enforced by community judgment and surveillance (the blunter term is "snitching"). It's also about public signifiers of virtue, maybe even physical emblems, like those purity rings. And it has real difficulty with forgiveness, atonement, and redemption.

Sexual purity culture likens girls who lose their virginity outside of marriage to chewed gum or crushed flowers (Jane the Virgin depicted this metaphor accurately), ruined objects that can never be made integrous and desirable again. Purity culture as a broader concept won't use those exact analogies, but it will include the same strong delineation between the pure and the impure, and it will have the same tendency to see violation of the treasured value as a perhaps indelible stain. This can justify ostracism or even punitive cruelty and suppress in-group dissent, all while feeling eminently right and appropriate to its practitioners, because it is organized around something (say, sexual morality or justice and care for the vulnerable) of real worth.

I'm not the first to suggest there's a left purity culture, that the "failure mode of left-wing [politics] is puritan." In fact, I'm borrowing the phrase from Alan Jacobs, a Baylor University humanities professor who has discussed the concept in connection to "wokeness," an encapsulatory term he finds unsatisfactory. "Just as the messages of Christian purity culture are that you must be eternally vigilant in maintaining your purity; you must sign up to pledges of purity; you must denounce those who are impure; if you lose your purity you can never get it back, your defilement marks you forever; so — well, the parallels make themselves," Jacobs wrote in a recent blog post.

Jacobs linked to a piece by Richard Beck, a psychology professor at Abilene Christian University, who in 2015 posited a purity culture among his fellow progressives. In left purity culture, Beck said, "moral purity will fixate on complicity in injustice. To be increasingly 'pure' ... is to become less and less complicit in injustice. Thus," he continued, "there is an impulse toward a more and more radical lifestyle where, eventually, you find yourself feeling that 'everything is problematic.' You can't do anything without contaminating yourself." (Beck was writing specifically about progressive Christians, but his analysis works regardless of religious context.) The goal is very different from that of right purity culture, Beck noted, but it's "the exact same psychological dynamic at work."

So now we come to the pandemic and, soon, its conclusion. There's "a small but loud and absolutely real subset of people," proposes a viral tweet from writer Lauren L. Walker, "who don't want the pandemic to end because they like being the best at following The Rules."

See more

This strikes me as overstated — I suspect the desire Walker describes will, for the vast majority, dissolve rapidly once true normalcy is on offer. But there's something true in her quip. Even if only temporary, it's a pandemic-time impulse of left purity culture.

The public health measures we've taken to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 are, after all, rules. They're rules significantly enforced by community judgment and surveillance, and in masks we even have a candidate for a physical, public signifier of virtue. I've been a vocal mask proponent, but, as sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has argued in a larger discussion of polarization, they've also become something more than a useful public health tool.

"[I]t's pretty clear that [masks have] become a talisman of sorts, essentially signaling belonging in a tribe," Tufekci wrote earlier this month. "Now I get lectured for not talking about masks, even if the article is about vaccination, and people openly declare that they will continue to double-mask for a year even after being fully vaccinated — and for saying that on social media, they receive many likes and retweets."

But you don't need to wear two masks for a year after vaccination, months past the point when vaccines will be accessible to all who want them. That's not care and justice; it's performance of purity per left purity culture.

Likewise, using a masked photo as a profile picture on social media accomplishes nothing for public health. Maybe, early on, before mask mandates or knowledge of the usefulness of masks were widespread, maybe then such a photo set a good example. At this point, it reads as performance. Or think of the stories — you've likely heard some, but here's one — of people yelling at strangers for going without a mask during outdoor exercise in which the transmission risk is extremely low. That too is a purity culture performance. It's that "more and more radical lifestyle" Beck characterized where you can't do anything less "without contaminating yourself."

In the pandemic, of course, literal contamination is in view. But then, a purity culture is often on guard against entirely real risks and wrongs. Among the aims of conservative purity culture was protecting children from STDs, teenage pregnancy, heartbreak, and sexual assault. Just as it's possible to promote a traditional Christian sexual ethic without the trappings of purity culture, so it's possible to be responsible about public health in this pandemic without left purity culture moves like post-vaccination double masking through the spring of 2022.

Purity cultures, Beck observes, are exhausting and an assailant of joy. But joy is coming! This will end, and soon. We can and should look forward to that without pandemic purity culture getting in the way.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.