Purity and Individualism
In my first or second year of graduate school, I was newly immersed in feminist theory and generally excited about seeing the world again through a feminist lens. I had recently read Luce Irigaray’s “Women on the Market,” which analyzes the ways that customs around marriage and weddings contribute to viewing women as commodities. A graduate student friend who was finishing the program got engaged around the same time I was reading this piece and her partner gave her a diamond ring, which she wore. This friend was (and remains) something of a feminist hero to my young graduate student self so I asked her how she held together her feminist commitments and wearing a diamond ring. She told me, I still have to live my life, I still have to live in this world.
In mid-December, my #31daysofblogging inspiration Jill Stauffer published a post making a similar point, “Purity and Contradiction.” She describes a moment in class when a student said you only need one pair of shoes and the whole class looked to see how famously shoe-loving Jill would respond. Her response was to tell the student that there was no such thing as ethical purity. She went on:
What this means is that all of us are implicated in making the world worse than it is even when we are engaged in practices of trying to improve it. You might despair at that, and you might cling to a discourse of purity in an impossible attempt to combat reality. But our entrenched lack of ability to attain an ethically pure state is what has been handed to us; it is our inheritance. And it is important that we know this, so we can make the best decisions we can, and also because not knowing it is part of the problem — you might cause more misery when you deny your implication in misery. Finally, we have to figure out how to live with this in a meaningful way. That is my view.
Then she goes on:
I’d still argue that we need to make space in our lives for joy. I get a lot of joy out of shoes. Could I live without them? Clearly I could. But I am one of those people for whom self-presentation has always been a very important part of the story of who I am. I know not everyone shares that — especially at a place like Haverford College where there isn’t much emphasis on how people dress — but no one is ever going to successfully persuade me that self-presentation does not matter, and the joy I get out of picking a good pair of shoes to wear at any given moment — well, it might be superficial but it is part of what gets me through the parts of life that aren’t joyous. That’s different from seeking an ethical justification, but I’ll argue that it matters.
In racial justice circles, people talk about how part of the culture of whiteness is an investment in perfection. White people’s concern that they might make a mistake in trying to right racial wrongs can lead them to do nothing at all. They are more concerned with appearing to do things perfectly and avoiding criticism than in doing something that might improve the world but lead to criticism or a feeling of inadequacy.
I want to suggest that this anxiety about being contradictory in our ethical lives despite, as Stauffer notes, the impossibility of ethical purity is part of how we individualize and sanitize the ethical problems we face in our world. The only innocence is inaction, as Hegel says. By doing nothing at all, we cannot be found contradictory and so at least we are not being hypocrites. All the more reason to stop thinking hypocrisy is the worst offense. This way of thinking about ethical life in terms of whether one is internally consistent detracts from recognizing how various structures force complicity. This way of thinking about ethical life supposes that individuals can so powerfully resist the structures to change them and operate outside of them, that those caught within them could have had the freedom not to be oppressed by them. Of course, the point is not to deny that anything can be done but to shift the concern for thinking about justice from individual actions to the structures and institutions that perpetuate injustice and inequality.
When Stauffer says that ethical impurity “is our inheritance,” she points to how the situations in which we live are not fully transparent to us and we are not free agents in relationship to them. Her analysis calls for thinking about ethical life in terms of a whole set of relations, recognizing how our demand for ethical isolation and purity from those structures might cause more misery. Her turn to the importance of joy highlights another side of this investment we have in perfection and another way we individualize the ethical project, as if being in constant state of mourning our inadequacy for the task of improving the world achieves anything.