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  • Jan Flynn

Toxic Purity

Recently my husband shared with me an article by Mike McQuade in the New York Times, the gist of which was that the cleaner we make our environment, the less our immune systems operate the way they’re designed to. You’ve probably read or heard some of this elsewhere: the more hysterical we become about germs, the more that we scrub ourselves, our homes, and our food with antibacterial cleansers, the less our natural defenses have a chance to, well, defend us. The end result? Lacking purpose, our immune systems act like marauding ronin and turn on us. Hence the spike in autoimmune diseases and allergies in the past several decades.

McQuade’s article didn’t move me to start picking my nose (and eating the harvest thereof) as he half-jokingly suggests. But it did set my mind a-wandering. And pretty soon my mind was tiptoeing through a minefield.

The quest for purity has a way of veering from well-intentioned to toxic, it seems to me, and not just in the realm of physical hygiene. For women in particular, the notion of purity is especially burdensome, freighted as it is with patriarchic views that see us, at best, as vessels to be protected from contamination. At worst we are innately contaminating, capable of luring men from the path of righteousness simply by nature of our physiology.

A quick peek at every fundamentalist movement of whatever brand reveals that its women are suspended in an idealized past, swathed in medieval veils or burkhas or prairie dresses, no matter the year or climate. And as the ideology becomes more focused and fervid, so does its oppression of women. But a girl doesn’t have to grow up in an extremist cult to soak in the message that if she fails to comport herself with utmost care, she’s in trouble. Because we can’t expect men to control themselves.

Don’t get me started, Tad . . .

Like the guest you don’t want at your dinner party, my mind lurched from the topics of sex and religion to politics. All kinds of toxic purity in this realm, right? Conservatives can’t be conservative enough for their loudest, farthest-right wing, and the same is true of progressives. Except conservatives seem to be able to get in line behind whoever is running their show, even if their leader is marching them toward a cliff. Not great, but at least they move in the same general direction. Progressives, on the other hand, behave like passengers on a sinking ship who won’t get into the lifeboat because they’re concerned that the color it’s painted sends the wrong message. Meanwhile, the band has stopped playing and the ship is taking on water.

And then my mind moved on to literature, where it can get itself into even more trouble. I appreciate the intention of #ownvoices — meant to support literature focusing on characters who are marginalized by society, written by authors who are marginalized for the same reasons — but when it becomes a virtue flag it’s also weaponized, a search-and-destroy device that can turn on its own. Having, say, transgender authors telling the stories of transgender characters is authentic and illuminating. But how far do we go with the purity principle? Can the transgender author also have non-trans characters in their book? Do all the characters have to be the same age and ethnicity and live in the same kind of setting? Am I, a straight English-speaking white woman of a certain age, restricted to characters who fit those parameters?

If you think I’m exaggerating, consider the case of Kosoko Jackson as reported in Slate on March 4. The publishing industry hypes itself as seeking and promoting diversity (although, as the article points out, the industry remains very, very white). Jackson is a novelist who identifies as black and queer. He has also worked as a “sensitivity reader” for major publishers, focusing on their YA (young adult) manuscripts and parsing them for “problematic content.” His cred, in terms of #ownvoices, would seem to be crystal-pure. Yet when his debut novel A Place for Wolves was about to be launched, it came in for such harsh criticism on Goodreads and elsewhere online — vitriol aimed not at his writing, but at his alleged “problematic representations” and “historical insensitivities” — that he had his publisher withdraw the book from publication.

And this isn’t a one-off example. From the Slate article: “In January, another first-time author, Amélie Wen Zhao, asked her publisher to pull her to-be-released fantasy novel, Blood Heir, because of early reader critiques about racial insensitivity.” With brutal irony, Kosoko Jackson was one of the online voices who had leveled criticism at her infractions.

I haven’t read either of these books, but from what I can tell, neither of them included outright bigotry or hate speech. They simply failed to adhere to an ever-narrowing standard of notional cultural purity. And considering what a monumental task it is to write a book at all, let alone one that survives the harrowing journey to publication, it saddens me that these books were strangled in their cradles.

But that’s what the puritanical impulse does. It attacks itself; it eats its own young. At its root it is nothing more than fear, in one of its most destructive guises.

At least I won’t get put in the pillories or burned at the stake for saying so. Not quite yet.

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