Knitting Wars & Purity Spirals

It is hard to imagine how Instagram knitting can lead to someone having a nervous breakdown. But that’s exactly what happened to Nathan Taylor. Taylor was part of an online knitting community on Instagram. As a gay man living with HIV, he started a hashtag to promote diversity in knitting: Diversknitty. It went viral. Yet not long after, this call for diversity was dominated by discussions about white supremacy and racial privilege.

The hate Taylor received was so horrific that he had a nervous breakdown. Even his suicidal hospitalisation was described online as a ‘white centring event.’

Soon, things got ugly. Members who posted anything that even hinted of racial insensitivity faced a torrent of online abuse. Eventually, Nathan Taylor, the man who had started this off in the name of acceptance and tolerance, had had enough. He wrote a poem asking knitters to calm down. The poem was interpreted as an act of white supremacy, and the hate he received was so horrific that he had a nervous breakdown. Even his suicidal hospitalisation was described online as a ‘white centring event.’

How does a community reach this point? I heard this story last year on the radio. It was part of a report by journalist Gavin Haynes, who was documenting a phenomenon he described as ‘purity spirals.’ He writes,

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…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.

Purity Spirals & Covid-19

Two communities have become fixated … The first community values freedom. The second community values safety.

I think that Australia is currently in the grips of a purity spiral. In fact, two purity spirals. Two communities have become fixated on implementing and demanding ever-increasing purity over a single value. The first community values freedom. The second community values safety. And like all purity spirals, these two values, ‘safety’ and ‘freedom’, have no upper limit, and no single agreed interpretation. Cue moral feeding frenzy. Each side seems to have a complete lack of respect and utter contempt for those who disagree with them. It is dividing friendships and families. And I’m concerned that it will divide our churches as well.

This has been precipitated by the issue of vaccine passports in church. Have you found yourself so drawn to the value of ‘freedom’ or ‘safety’ that you are mocking or separating yourself from other Christians? Do you find yourself rejecting nuance or middle-ground solutions in favour of an all-or-nothing approach? Are you seeking to impress others and gain kudos within your community by pushing to implement evermore extreme versions of your value? If so, you may be falling into a purity spiral. And it can split your church.

Can we avoid this? Regardless of what decisions are made over the coming months, can we ensure that we will still love and care for one another as Christians? Can we stop our churches from dividing? I believe we can. I believe that as Christians, we have the resources to break this spiral, and the opportunity to witness the wonder of the gospel to an increasingly divided and hate-driven world.

Purified by Christ

A purity spiral is driven by a dynamic that Haynes describes as moral outbidding, ‘rewarding those who put themselves at the extremes, and punishing nuance and divergence relentlessly.’ Sound familiar? These good values of ‘safety’ and ‘freedom’ have become bats we use to whack each other with. We accuse one another of being blind sheep who fear man more than God, or heartless morons who don’t care about other people. And, perhaps without realising it, we try to gain power and influence for ourselves by appearing more concerned about the safety of others or the freedoms we are losing.

But Jesus sets us free from this process of moral outbidding. First, he reminds us that it is our inner world, more than our public posturing, that counts. It is ‘what comes out of a person that defiles them’ (Mark 7:20). This humbles us. If God were to inspect our hearts, he would find the same ‘fear of man’ or ‘heartlessness’ that we accuse others of. Before God, none of us can claim the moral high ground.

More than this, as those who trust in Jesus, we have now been purified by Christ. This means that we are a community that accepts one another—not on the basis of our commitment to safety or freedom—but on the basis that we have been accepted by Christ. Rather than pushing down, we pull up. Rather than casting out, we welcome in. Accept one another, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God (Rom 15:7). This is the first step out of a purity spiral.

Bound by Love

In a purity spiral, people become fixated on a single value that is upheld above all else. It is what binds them together. In the words of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt,

Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.

You can almost hear Tolkein: ‘One Value to rule them all. One Value to find them, One Value to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.’

As Christians, we too have a single value to uphold above all else. It is love.

As Christians, we too have a single value to uphold above all else. And we are a community bound by this value. It is love. Love is our crowning virtue. Love sums up the law and the prophets (Matt 22:40). Without love, I gain nothing (1 Cor 13:3). Except, unlike in purity spirals, this value is clearly defined for us. We know exactly what it means to love:

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. (1 John 3:16)

This is our ultimate value. Our highest virtue. This is what binds us together as Christians. Not Freedom. Nor Safety. We are bound by a profound commitment to die for one another. And when we replace our value of ‘Freedom’ or ‘Safety’ with this crowning value of Christ-like love, we break the purity spiral. Because the more fixated you are on Christ-like love, the more open and understanding you will be of others at church. The more extreme you are in implementing Christ-like love, the more you will work hard to honour and care for your brothers and sisters. The love of Christ not only binds us to this value, but to one another. Love accepts the weak (Rom 14:1). Love builds up (1 Cor 8:1). And as we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us (John 4:12).

Regardless of what decisions will be made by your church in the next coming weeks and months—we are to love one another as Christ has loved us. That is the value that we uphold. Whether you think your brother or sister in Christ is a ‘sheep’ doing whatever the government says, or an ‘anti-vaxxer’ who has lost their mind—die for them, just as Christ died for you.