Knitting and the purity wars

Two must read related articles.

First from The Spectator:

At first glance, Nathan Taylor might seem the very definition of a ‘right on’ hipster. He goes by the name of ‘Sockmatician’ online and he’s famous in the knitting world for his complicated double-knit patterns. On his Instagram, in between videos of people speed-knitting and many, many photos of socks, Taylor had posts about what it was like to be an -positive man who came out in the 1980s. He dislikes Donald Trump and Brexit. He has even set up ‘inclusive hashtags’ such as #diversknitty, and his profile carefully sets out the pronouns people should use to address him.

So far, so woke. But recently Sockmatician has found himself accused of being a ‘white supremacist’, committing ‘violence against people from ethnic minorities’ and being ‘dangerous’. His crime wasn’t to suddenly join the alt-right, but something apparently far worse. He posted a poem on Instagram about ‘diversknitty’ in which he boasted it was a year since he had founded this hashtag, and asked that people use it kindly, rather than attacking one another.

What could be offensive about this? Taylor had apparently committed ‘violence against Bipoc’ — black and indigenous people of colour — by telling them how to conduct their arguments about inclusion. He was ‘tone policing’ people of colour and, as a white man, this was wrong.

On and on the comments raged — until Taylor turned them off, complaining that he had been misunderstood. The row naturally moved straight below the next post, which was ostensibly about a lace knit shawl, and into a spree of pictures and stories from other knitters about how much damage the Sockmatician had caused the Bipoc community. Then up popped a message from Taylor’s husband, who said he had gone into hospital. ‘Your messages of anger have been processed. Please now send love,’ it read.

No love was forthcoming. Instead, there was the sound of more knitting needles being drawn. Posters accused Taylor of ‘gaslighting’ them by using his mental health as an excuse for not being accountable. Some said they hoped he recovered quickly — so he could reflect on the damage he had caused.

So he got all this abuse because he dared to ask people to be kind to each other.

It seems insane, but there is a reason this happened. The second article at Unherd explains about purity wars:

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.

So beware the purity spiral.

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