Pandemic, Purity, and Power

How The New Puritanism is Dividing Americans

Yesterday’s announcement that the CDC is easing COVID restrictions comes after pandemic controversies have left Americans deeply wounded and divided. Despite the hope for a return to normalcy, thousands of citizens now find themselves on the wrong side of a new leftwing purity culture.

The Pandemic Purity Culture

Friends have confided that vaccinated relatives are refusing to host family members who haven’t had the shot. Others have reported being victim to up-close bullying for not wearing a mask. Lawyers are documenting that parents are losing custody of their children for not wearing masks. Even the foreign media is observing how Americans have become riled up over the issue of masking and distancing.

What is going on here? According to some commentators, Americans are increasingly in the grip of a strange though not unfamiliar phenomena: a left-wing purity culture. They point out that the best practices for slowing the transmission of COVID-19 have now morphed into ritualized methods for signaling virtue, with ever-changing taboos that fortify ingroup-outgroup boundaries.

Writing in The Week, Bonnie Kristian defines purity culture as “rules enforced by community judgment and surveillance… public signifiers of virtue, maybe even physical emblems.” Kristian continues:

“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.” [You can read Tufekci’s article cited by Kristian here.]

This outbreak of purity culture resembles the one described by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish, where physical contagion becomes conflated with moral contagion. Those who do not participate in cleanliness rituals are not just potential transmitters of COVID-19, but guilty of transmitting moral pollution, potentially spreading non-compliance to others.

Again, like past outbreaks of purity culture, this one has its own passports and pledges to reinforce tribal boundaries. Vaccine passports are today’s equivalent of the purity pledges of the 1990’s chastity movement: not only do they reinforce group behavior, but they also signal tribal membership.

How Ingroups Turn Toxic

Purity culture psychology requires a boundary between in-group and out-group: as more people rush to occupy the center of the in-group, rules must become tighter, and people will instinctively seek out more extreme ways to prove that they are the purist of the pure. In this context, rules play a crucial role in a sophisticated drama of ritualized shame and guilt. But eventually it ceases to be enough merely to keep to the rules, for failure to call out and condemn the rule-breakers can make you “complicit.” We see this dynamic most clearly in the new purity culture surrounding anti-racism. The anti-racist movement seeks not merely to remove racists from professional life, but to remove those who, while not being explicitly racist themselves, may still be complicit in systemic racism - for example, through insufficient activism, defensiveness (did you know defensiveness is a symptom of unconscious white supremacy?) or through non-participation in whiteness-shaming rituals.

The new purity culture surrounding pandemic hygiene operates with a similar dynamic. Do you know someone who might be trying to make a subtle statement with an unmasked Facebook profile picture? Maybe you should unfriend him. Are your neighbors complicit with COVID-deniers because they go to a church where some people are unmasked? Maybe you should stop inviting them over for neighborhood barbeques. Does your co-worker have an agenda because she doesn’t mask up between bites when eating and likely doesn’t even wear a mask when having sex? If so, maybe you should prove your non complicity by engaging in acts that formally separate yourself from her.

From Public Health to Personal Compliance

Within this new purity culture, the concern has shifted from containment of the pandemic to ideological conformity, from herd immunity to herd compliance. Accordingly, we find some people do not want COVID to end for fear of losing their status as the best rule-followers. From masking to double masking to post-vaccination masking to fake digital masking, these measures have outgrown their original public health context to become the latest totems in a culture war. They serve a function for keeping everyone on edge, always unclear about the porous demarcations between ingroup and outgroup.

The New Normal

When I heard that the CDC announced that we can return to semi-normal, I breathed a sigh of relief, hoping that the left-wing pandemic purity culture might finally be laid to rest. But then I found out that the new guidelines only allow those who have been vaccinated to return to normal. Meanwhile, newspaper articles and opinion pieces are suggesting that sane people should not socialize with the unvaccinated, that the "vaccine hesitant" should be shunned.

Welcome to the new normal: a two-tiered society where public life is carefully divided between the pure and impure.

is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith 2020) and has a Master's in history from King’s College, London. He is currently working on a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is editorial assistant with the Fellowship of St. James and is a frequent contributor to Salvo Magazine and Touchstone Magazine. He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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