Since writing about ideological purity and toxic communities, I figure that some people might enjoy a guide for spotting ideological puritans. Because they aren’t necessarily always the easiest people to spot, especially not in a mixed community. And, for me, it has been a slow, somewhat painful experience, to learn over time what the red flags are (at least what I’ve been able to determine so far).
It has been painful because dealing with ideological puritans, even if just on a personal level, rather than the communal can be a really traumatic experience. Between the loss of self-esteem or self-worth, the gaslighting, the general emotional manipulation, bullying and so forth, it’s easy to feel like, at the end of it all, that you lost yourself for a little while. And it is really easy to feel ashamed over what you did and what happened while you were under the sway of an ideological puritan.
And… I’m not trying to absolve anyone of the harm they caused becasue we must all make our own peace with that, but rather hoping that people understand that this is a type of victimization. Which, no, does not ‘excuse’ any harm you may have done, but… it should hopefully allow you to put these experiences into context and maybe get to a point where you can forgive yourself.
This is important to me, because shame is one of the major tools of ideological puritans. And the ongoing feelings of shame simply allow their damage to keep hurting you. But it also prevents you from taking any real assessment of the harm you may have caused and from taking any steps (if possible) to rectify or do something else productive to perhaps heal the harm. Shame and guilt are paralyzing emotions and often prevent us from doing anything productive or useful with our feelings.
1) Prestige, charisma, and conviction.
I think one of the things that constantly attract me to ideological puritans is their sense of conviction. It really is, perhaps, one of the ‘best’ things about them. They often have such a clear sense of purpose and morality that it is very appealing to those of us who are still…. trying to feel our way to understanding and wisdom.
In turn, their clear and compelling sense of conviction does then to lend them a certain kind of charisma. Because they appear to truly and deeply care about whatever ideology they are committed to. And this passion is exciting and enticing when you feel like you’ve lacked a voice and/or presence for a long time, within your own life. It feels powerful and wonderful to have someone speak up so vocally for you (or at least people like you).
The charisma and convinction usually mean that many ideological puritans occupy some position of prestige within their respective communities. Their voice and vigour often mean that many people understand them as authorities on whatever doctrine they espouse. This is perhaps easiest to understand in many different kinds of religious communities.
But something that I want to make super clear is that these people don’t always occupy obvious positions of power. Sometimes, but not always. Because they usually care more about prestige than overt institutional power. Thus, ideological puritans aren’t always going to be the ‘pastor’. But rather, they could be an involved church member to whom many people implicitly defer to or who holds a disproportionate amount of influence.
This last point is important because in a lot of leftist types of communities, they’ll often have some explicit denunciation of hierarchies. Or in other types of communities, they’ll attempt to claim that they aren’t a ‘community’ in the way that lends itself to this type of dynamic. Or the group will simply lack any formal organizational structure that would make identifying clear leaders very difficult.
The key though is prestige and influence. The ideological puritan may not hold any formal or explicit position of power, but you almost always immediately know who they are (even if you do not necessarily recognize them as a puritan). Their influence on the group dynamic is always always there. And often? They themselves will announce it in subtle ways…
When you first step into one of the situations where a puritan has influence over a group of people, they are usually the person who ‘welcomes’ you. Why? Because, ultimately, they and whomever else is in the select, elite group, are the ones who decide who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. So if you get ‘in’? That means they wanted it.
My experience with puritans generally starts with praise and flattery of some kind. They make you feel special and not like everyone else who is ‘out’. They do this to set up a dynamic where you crave or desire their validation for your sense of worth.
Obviously, this is something that targets vulnerable people because as a perennial outsider, it does feel great to be told that I’m special to be a part of this group (or within the puritan’s sphere of influence). For some of us, this might be the first time that we really get any meaningful external validation…
One thing I’ve noticed about a lot of puritans is that their overall ethics is usually within what is known as ‘deontological’ ethics. Deontological ethical systems are characterized by rules. That within these systems, ethical behaviour is determined by your adherence to these rules.
Now, I don’t want to say that all deontological ethical systems are ‘wrong’. Because they aren’t. The key for a good deontological system of ethics is that the rules must be clear and consistently applied. Look at the Old Testament. If we consider just the ten commandments (or even the other books like Leviticus), these rules are clear and explicitly communicated to the people who are supposed to follow them. The consistently application matters because it means that even the leaders or people in authority positions are subject to them. Essentially that no single person is immune or above the ethical system.
Ideological puritans do not do these things. They often have an unspoken set of rules that do not remain stable over time, in part because the point of these rules is that they (and the elite few) are always the only people who actually know what all the rules are. Which gets us into the consistent application problems. You can’t hold puritans to their own standards and rules if you don’t actually know what those rules are.
The other important aspect is the punishment for breaking rules. Another system of deontological ethics is the law. We have a set of rules we must follow. They are clearly stated and (ideally) consistently applied. They all also have fairly clear and defined consequences.
But this is not the case with puritans. Depending on the situation, you may end up getting punished for a rule you didn’t know existed and are never actually told what it is. Since you are generally ignorant of the rule and how you broke it, you also have no way of knowing if the punishment is actually reasonable. Often, you can only infer what possible punishment you could receive by seeing others arbitrarily punished for breaking an unspoken rule. And often, the punishment will be entirely disproportionate to the ‘infraction’.
For example… Kicking out and entirely ostracizing someone from the group for simply disagreeing with one of the puritans. Usually, this disagreement will be couched in terms of the offender being impure… but it is really about not falling in line.
Because ultimately? That’s what these rules are for. They aren’t actually a system of ethics but rather a structure that enables abuse, manipulation, and control.
4) Lol, boundaries.
While one might think that the puritan’s violation of individual boundaries might be one of the most obvious red flags, it is actually fairly subtle in how it operates. Because it isn’t quite that they violate your boundaries, but that they try to induce you to violate them yourself.
For example, for a lot of reasons to do with my own history with abuse, I’m really conflict avoidant. And I’m not the only one. One major thing that I’ve ended up doing in the cases where I’m under the influence of an ideological puritan, is consistently push myself to either enter their conflicts, or start my own. And it is usually the case that the person may not explicitely ask for help, but there’ll be an implicit understanding that one of your roles is to support them.
And I don’t mean this in the way that friends can have a reasonable expectation that you’ll stand up with and for them, but rather that puritans will often manufacture conflicts in order to force you to participate (and thus harm you in some way). They’ll also be very careful to stand by you whenever a conflict arises (because, unlike you, they aren’t usually conflict avoidant). But it sets up an implicit expectation that you will (and are morally obliged) to reciprocate.
Or they’ll push you into uncomfortable situations as a way for you to demonstrate or prove your ideological purity. One great example for this is the sex-positive queers/leftists. Who insist that being ‘sex positive’ necessarily means making yourself sexually available to anyone in the group, regardless of your past, preferences, or safety. Otherwise? You’ll be named and shamed as ‘sex negative.’
Coming from that last point: shame. Notions of purity are almost always linked to shaming in some important respect. And this (along with guilt) is always one of the primary tools of the ideological puritan.
Much in the way that puritans of old would use shame as a way to discourage people from having sex. Having sex is bad because our bodies are unclean and sinful. Just as above… not having sex means you’re sex negative and that’s something to be ashamed about. Just as not showing up at every conflict means you are cowardly and not truly committed to the Ideology.
And, yes, this is about control. Shame is necessary because it means that you come to doubt your own thoughts and feelings. Instead, you look more and more towards the puritan to guide your actions and thoughts. You end up relying on their validation so that you feel pure and good. You live in fear of being shamed and punished from breaking a rule.
I think my favourite thing that puritans shame you over is, obviously, the ways that you are impure. What is the problem? Well. Say we are talking about militant vegans. I remember an exchange between one vegan and an autistic person, where the autistic person challenged the vegan to make a grocery list within their budget and dietary needs and restrictions. The result? It was impossible. But the vegan still insisted that everyone could and should be vegan. The message? Ideological purity matters more than your life.
This is the message that sex workers get from radfems. The message that the poor get from either environmentalists or anti-capitalists. The message that disabled people get from anarchists or libertarians.
That oft trotted about phrase “there is no ethical consumption in capitalism” is about ideological purity. It isn’t about giving up but about the hard fucking reality that we live a world that structures all human life around the harm and exploitation of another. It is inescapable, other than through death. Which is, ultimately, what ideological puritans want.
But note the very basic hypocrisy of this. Ideological purity is incompatible with life. And, yet, the puritans are around to shame you. This is how you know, ultimately, that they aren’t actually about the cause in the way that they profess to be. If they were? They’d have been martyred long before you come into the scene.
Example: I like to rail against environmental puritans who push for individual choice activism, which largely amounts to telling poor people that we should die. Environmental puritans will go on and on about how human activity is destroying the planet. About how you need to stop eating instant noodles or consuming whatever else. And yet… they are still around to tell you this. If an environmental puritan were really as committed to their ideology as they proclaim, they wouldn’t be alive. Because their very existence is feeding into what they are against. And the only real solution, is that they (and other humans) go away.
I think, above all, I want it to be clear that ideologial purity is about performance and not actually about living up to the values of some ideology or another. As noted, there is always a basic hypocrisy between their words and their actions.
They make all of this stuff about you, as an individual. Rather than recognizing the complexities of the world we live in and the choices (or lack thereof) we must make in order to live.