January 30, 2020

Lately we’ve been witnessing more and more small worlds fall apart under the weight of their vast moral centre of gravity. In the past year, the middle-class, middle-aged, overwhelmingly female knitters of Instagram have descended into internecine conflict over racism allegations. Young adult fiction has exploded into an ethical gazumping war over who is allowed to write about what colour of character. In Canada, the music business has become so consumed by ethical etiquette that a juror who submitted the band Viet Cong for the nation’s top music prize was compelled to write a lengthy apology over how culturally insensitive his action was.

I’ve become fascinated by the link between what we see in examples like these, and a dynamic we’ve seen play out through history.

In 1967, Mao’s Red Guards took to the streets determined to root out the ‘four olds’ of traditional Chinese culture, killing hundreds of thousands in the process. By 1968, they had fallen apart as factions fought each other to represent the truest version of Maoism. In 1794, Robespierre found himself on the same tumbrel he had prescribed for so many other problematic persons. In both cases, a bidding war for morality turned into a proxy war for power.

In my new BBC Radio 4 documentary I wanted to join the psychological dots between history’s pinnacle nightmares and what happens at the end of your road. I decided to call both the phenomenon and the documentary, “The Purity Spiral”. A purity spiral occurs when a community becomes fixated on implementing a single value that has no upper limit, and no single agreed interpretation. The result is a moral feeding frenzy.

But while a purity spiral often concerns morality, it is not about morality. It’s about purity — a very different concept. Morality doesn’t need to exist with reference to anything other than itself. Purity, on the other hand, is an inherently relative value — the game is always one of purer-than-thou.

It’s not just another word for ‘woke culture’, or even ‘cancel culture’, or ‘virtue signalling’. Even though intersectional social justice is a pretty great breeding ground for purity spirals, it is one among many. Nor is it confined to the Left: neo-Nazi groups offer some of the clearest examples of purity spirals: the ongoing parsing of ethnic purity into ever-more Aryan sub-groups. Perhaps the most classic one of all hails from Salem, Massachusetts.

It is a social dynamic that plays out across that community — a process of moral outbidding, unchecked, which corrodes the group from within, rewarding those who put themselves at the extremes, and punishing nuance and divergence relentlessly.

A purity spiral propagates itself through the tipping points of preference falsification: through self-censorship, and through loyalty tests that weed out its detractors long before they can band together. In that sense, once one takes hold, its momentum can be very difficult to halt.

Our documentary analysed just two latter-day purity spirals — Instagram knitting culture and young adult novels. Both seemed perfectly-sized to be taken over — they were spaces big enough to have their own star system, yet small enough for the writ of a dominant group to hold.

In each, a vast tapestry of what were effectively small businesses competed for attention online by fluidly mixing personal and professional brand. On social media, opinion, diary and sales often existed within the same posts. Each individual small business was uniquely vulnerable to being un-personed, ‘cancelled’. But, simultaneously, each could benefit enormously from taking on the status of thought leader — from becoming a node that directed moral traffic.

To take the example of Instagram knitting: the unravelling began with a man called Nathan Taylor. Gay, living with HIV, nice as pie, Taylor started a hashtag aimed at promoting diversity in knitting, Diversknitty, to get people from different backgrounds to talk. And he did: the hashtag was a runaway hit, spawning over 17,000 posts.

But over the following months, the conversation took on a more strident tone. The list of things considered problematic grew. The definition of racism began to take on the terms mandated by intersectional social justice ideology. Knitters who wished to be on the right side of history began to post pictures of the books they were reading. Two came up over and over again. White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, or the Me and White SupremacyWorkbook, by Layla Saad.

The term ‘racism’ had taken on its broad, all encompassing, ‘systemic’ meaning: the idea that “we live in a racist society”, and that this inbuilt, inescapable institutional racism is policed by a thousand and one daily micro-aggressions.

White Fragility in particular implied that all dissent from its tenets was itself a sign of racism. Like Stalin’s show trials or witch-ducking, the loop had been closed. In game theory terms, objecting to something was now always a dominant strategy, and rejecting an allegation of racism was always a losing strategy. Inevitably, a ratchet effect took hold in which those with the most strident vision of what ‘diversity’ meant were effectively handed the keys to the castle. That is — until someone with a more strident vision turned up behind them…

By January 2019, this narrative of white supremacy and racial privilege had saturated the knitting world. What happened next was not something very important. In fact, it was the opposite. Something very trivial happened; a tiny spark, that landed on bone dry tinder.

In January, a popular knitter from Nashville, Karen Templer, wrote a blog about her upcoming first-ever trip to India, in which she suggested the experience would be like “being offered a seat on a flight to Mars”. Cue: outrage at her racial insensitivity. Hundreds of comments later, Templer issued a lengthy apology: turned out she loved Big Brother after all.

Seeing what had happened to Templer, in January last year a Seattle wool dyer called Maria Tusken decided she would take the smallest of stands. In passing, she announced on her vlog that she was taking a break from Instagram because of what she saw as ‘online bullying’ in the knitting world.

If she had any lingering doubt about whether or not the bullying was real, the tsunami of denunciation that ensued probably cleared that up.

Clearly, the spiral had entered its final phase: it was no longer enough to just stay out of it. Only positive affirmations of support — and only in the most-correct tone and timbre — could save you now.

Professor Timur Kuran is Professor of Economics and Political Science at Duke University, and the father of ‘preference falsification’. His theory relates to things like the fall of the Soviet Union, where almost no one saw the end coming, because they hadn’t realised that an entire population was falsifying their experience to each other. He sees a clear parallel.

“People who are trying to prevent members of society from speaking the truth will often punish minor criticisms,” he told me. “Simply to send the message to the rest of society that no dissent will be tolerated and no attempt to form an opposing group — even one that differs only slightly from the status quo — will be tolerated. If you allow minor differences, you allow people to coordinate around minor differences, and that can encourage even greater opposition. If people get that sense, then the whole process can unravel.”

Finally, just as the guillotine had eventually come for Robespierre, Nathan Taylor, who had founded the #Diversknitty movement, found himself at its sharp end.

When Taylor tried to inject positivity back into Diversknitty, his moral authority burnt up inside minutes. A poem he’d written asking knitters to cool it (“With genuine SOLEM-KNITTY/I beg you, stop the enmity”) was in turn interpreted as a blatant act of white supremacy. When the mob finally came for him, he had a nervous breakdown. Yet even here, he was accused of malingering, his suicidal hospitalisation described online as a ‘white centring’ event.

Once it has gathered momentum, the dynamics of a purity spiral are those of a leaderless cult. You hold a viewpoint that privileges an abstraction of the world over the messy reality. You have a sense of mission which sets you apart from the world, and you derive social status from being holier than the next acolyte.

So when someone comes calling from “realityland” with a list of questions, the mere fact of having their viewpoint interrogated represents an existential threat to the sacred viewpoint. They circle the wagons.

In making the programme, I approached more than 20 of the leading social justice knitters for comment. I assumed these strident anti-racists would be delighted to proclaim their gospel on the Beeb. Not one did.

Where does a purity spiral end? Results may vary. “I get lots of emails these days from people in all kinds of walks of life where this is happening,” said James Lindsay, one of the three grievance studies hoaxers, and a long-time foe of intersectional social justice ideology. “I get reached out to from Dungeons & Dragons societies, rock climbing, from religions.”

Lindsay pointed to the atheist movement of the mid-2000s, from which he’d come: a community that once had the wind in its sails, but had imploded into infighting by 2011, as half of its members jagged off in an social justice direction. Soon enough, the likes of the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins were being problematised as stale, male and pale. The rules on who could speak became more byzantine, and, eventually, half the audience stopped bothering. These days, there are effectively two communities bearing the New Atheism tag, each much weaker and less coherent.

For knitting, the situation had gone from bad to very bad, but there was no evidence it had bottomed out. As the summer dragged on, the Nordic wool bible Laine magazine was forced to apologise for having too many white faces on their pricey knitting retreat. The auto-cannibalisation doomsday clock had gone so far that now even the instigators were having their privilege severely checked. Ysolda Teague, a Scot who had been one of the leading social justice knitters, published a lengthy apology on Instagram which began with the immortal line:

“Earlier this week I conducted a live interview in which I failed to acknowledge the extent of the deeply painful, difficult labour BIPOC [Black and Indigenous Persons of Colour] have done in our community since January…”

But then, at the end of September, something twitched. Nathan Taylor published a vlog setting out his side of everything that had happened. The social justice knitters dismissed it in the usual. Many recommended that others not watch it — always a signal that something has struck a chord.

After sharing his story, Nathan received well over a thousand messages of support. He also saw a huge spike in pattern sales — so much so that in two weeks he recovered all that he’d lost in cancelled work.

Having been an unhappy tourist inside a couple of purity spirals for many months, my sense is that the phenomenon isn’t going anywhere. These are deep psychological truths about humanity, carved into the cliff-face of how we construct our societies. The cudgels of morality will always be a convenient lever for hidden competition — you can pretend to be socialising the private realm, when in effect you’re privatising the social realm for your own status gain.

The problem is that we tend to see the dynamic for what it is only in its aftermath. In the moment, the mesmerism of ideology fills the screen entirely. What’s scary is that an individual alone can almost never win: you can’t define reality in the singular; it takes a much larger critical mass, hundreds, recognising the purity spiral’s signs and saying so.

The simplest solution is to notice earlier, to notice better, and to call it out as something that has nothing to do with morality, and everything to do with purity — and to say why that’s different.

If you call its name, it flinches. After all, the best defence against witch-finders is a population that doesn’t believe in witches.

The Purity Spiral airs on Sunday at 1.30pm, BBC Radio 4