A Critique of Purity

Andre Forget

In my post last month about power relations in Canada, I suggested that multiculturalism has obscured the fact that the majority of real financial and political power in this country is still largely held by the descendants of European colonizers. I suggested that until power is more equally shared – until, that is, we see the same cultural and ethnic diversity on Bay Street and Parliament Hill that we see in Kensington Market or Ellice Avenue – we will remain haunted by the problems of racism and ethnic discrimination. I do not think this is an easy or straightforward goal to accomplish, nor do I think that accomplishing it will mean an end to oppression, bigotry, or inequality. The human race has a truly astounding capacity for nastiness, and I suspect that if racism is ever put to rest we will find other, equally irrational reasons to mistreat each other. Just as cancer and AIDS have replaced smallpox and Spanish influenza, racially-motivated hatred will be replaced with some other kind; however, just as the knowledge that cancer and AIDS will in turn be replaced by other diseases does not stop us from searching for cures, awareness of humanity’s stubborn capacity for violence should not keep us from resisting the violence we see around us.

But what does this resistance look like? I’m not sure I know anymore. Having spent most of my adult life in the university, I’ve heard a lot of calls to resist; they are usually couched in the most general terms and tend to consist mostly of asking the government (or a corporation, or people) to be less shitty. There is real activism being done out there, and I’m sure that if I had spent more time in a more practical discipline such as Law or International Development I would feel a greater connection between activism and criticism. So let me be clear that I am speaking from a position in the world of cultural studies, where everyone is critiquing and resisting and challenging authority and no one is getting their hands dirty: criticism, like multiculturalism, is not only useless, but by giving us a false sense of having done something it is actively harmful.

I can understand why this is. “Cultural studies” as it exists in the modern Western university is an unholy marriage between Marxism and Post-modernism, and so while it seeks to change everything it is also all too critical of the kinds of force and coercion that have historically gone along with systemic change. We acolytes of the discipline are thus able to lob the Marxist hand grenades of praxis at anyone sounding too apolitical, while also reserving the right to dive behind the barricades of anti-capitalist non-violent resistance should anyone have the temerity to throw them back. In short, we can talk about revolution without having to talk about violence, and we can talk about politics without having to talk about compromise.  We can talk about dirt, but we get to stay clean.

But compromise and coercion are at the heart of any kind of effective politics. If we want to change things on the ground, this may require that we use capitalism when it is useful for us, that we take advantage of problematic structures when doing so means we can help those who need it, that we make compromises in order to achieve a small good rather than no good at all. And, yes, it means we sometimes force people to do things they don’t want to do.

In his most recent book, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America, the celebrated Cherokee novelist Thomas King shares an inspiring but also deeply amusing anecdote about how various tribes in the United States are using funds raised through on-reserve casinos to buy back their land. While it speaks to the depressingly backwards state settler-indigenous relations – tribes are forced to buy back what is already rightfully their own – this development also points a potential way forward. Rather than wait for Washington (or Ottawa) to start recognizing historical treaty rights that settler governments have been ignoring for centuries, these tribes are using the tools of colonialism against the colonizer without buying into the colonizer’s ideology.

There is much that those of us working towards a decolonized future can learn from such tactics. As King points out, using casino money to fund even the noblest of causes – and buying back tribal land is certainly one of the noblest – can hardly be considered morally unproblematic. Gambling money is dirty money. But given that it is one of the only reliable income sources the tribes control, perhaps this moral ambiguity needs to be embraced. To do so requires a different kind of moral courage – not the courage of purity, which manifests itself through the denunciation of problematic structures and the removal of oneself from them, but the courage it takes to engage those systems and structures, to work within them, to attempt to transform them. Purity is relatively easy in the liberal West, where everyone is denouncing something and denunciation seldom comes at any cost. It is much more difficult to risk compromising oneself in order to change the violent and oppressive systems in which we are all to some degree complicit, but with this risk comes the possibility that some of these systems may become less oppressive, that some of the violence may be stopped.

I don’t want to suggest that thoughtfully engaging with culture is pointless, nor do I want to downplay the dangers that come with active engagement. It is possible that, as has happened so frequently throughout history, this kind of engagement might serve to prop up an oppressive system. Compromise may lead to surrender. But criticism that is not willing to ground itself first and foremost in what is possible buys safety at the price of irrelevance.

And that is a high price indeed.

André Forget survived graduate school.  An under-unemployed writer, he now lives in Toronto.

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