Discover more from both and neither
the purity binary
and how it shows up in more places than we might expect
Hello hello! I watched a tiktok the other day that said, “September, do you have somewhere to be? Why are you in and out so fast?!?” and in the spirit of that video, welcome to September’s email, arriving in October.
I had a lot of fun writing this email. I find the pure/dirty binary to be such a sneaky one — showing up almost everywhere, hard to see at first until you realize it’s constantly smacking you in the face. However extended September finds you, I’m sending you little bits of ease amidst the turn of the seasons into fall.
structure + function of the purity binary
This month we’re taking a look at the many places the pure/dirty (sometimes also written as clean/dirty) binary shows up, and some of the things it illuminates about binary thinking.
The purity binary carries with it the same structure as other binaries, including that pure/dirty are not just two neutral or different things, but are distinct categories in a hierarchical relationship. Pure/clean is good, something to strive for; dirty is bad, something to avoid or punish or banish. To be pure is to be untouched, clean, unsullied — virgin; impure is dirty, touched, handled, used, spoiled. And under the logic of capitalism, things that are spoiled should be discarded or thrown away.
I think that the pure/dirty binary in particular makes one aspect of binary approaches easier to notice. Binary structure is unstable, in that the side that is “better” according to the logic of the binary — aka the side with more structural power — feels like it is under constant threat of “attack” by the other side. If we think about the logic of cleanliness or purity, to make sure that something is or stays pure requires a lot of vigilant surveillance of anything or anyone that might be dirty, since a small amount of “dirt” can make something that was once clean, dirty too.
Under the terms of the binary, we get into a dynamic where although dirty is “bad” or worse than pure, it is seen as having a lot of power to affect the other side of the binary. Because of this, anything that falls within the “dirty” side of the binary is constantly surveilled, controlled, and eliminated if possible. From the perspective of binary thinking, things like purity or goodness need a lot of protecting against dirt or evil or badness, whether on a social/cultural/political level, in relationships, or internally.
This dynamic happens with most binaries — the side that is less valued, that in actuality experiences more violence and policing and suppression, is framed by the side with power as violent, threatening, in need of control and punishment, just for existing at all.
This dynamic shows up in how we approach ourselves and the people around us almost all of the time — it’s under the surface, but the more you start to notice it, the more you can see it everywhere.
cultural origins and expressions of the purity binary
I want to share some notes about the origins and historical function of the pure/dirty binary. This is both a fairly long and also a truncated list, because like many binaries that are deeply ingrained in our culture, we can find the pure/dirty binary popping up almost everywhere — for many of us, it’s a foundational concept in our approaches to ourselves and each other. And because of this, I’ve included some people whose work I find really helpful in unraveling this binary, too.
A dominant foundation of the pure/dirty binary is, perhaps no surprise at all, Christianity. There are a lot of examples, but here’s a particularly clear one about old yeast spoiling the dough: You must remove the old yeast of sin so that you will be entirely pure. Then you will be like a new batch of dough without any yeast, as indeed I know you actually are.1 Stephanie Stalvey, whose work I’ve mentioned before, has a great comic about the impacts of purity culture in Christianity, and ways of undoing it.
The pure/dirty binary is deeply rooted in colonialism, and vice versa, and in particular, was foundational to the creation of race — including the whole concept of white people and whiteness, and other things like the one-drop rule (tw for you know, racism). If you want some deep dives and incisive teaching about colonialism and binaries I strongly encourage you to follow @recoveryfortherevolution on instagram — Carolyn has such deep wisdom around the colonial and capitalist contexts we’re all grappling with.
Some other roots/associations with this binary: the Enlightenment dichotomy between the “pure thought” of brain + mind versus the “untrustworthy, base” rest of the body — which, you might guess, neatly justified a whole lot of empire and colonial violence. The Body is Not an Apology is a great antidote to this — they’ve recently made an open source drive of their work.
Perhaps a really obvious relationship to the pure/dirty binary is between patriarchy and sex — the idea that some people’s sexual expression is, or makes them “dirty” while other people don't have to worry about it/are free from blame around sex or sexual expression. Sometimes the people who are dirty under the terms of the binary are cis women, sometimes they’re queer people, depending on the context. This is also interwoven in colonialism and the ways that indigenous expressions of sexuality were demonized by colonial & puritanical models of sexuality — Dr. Kim Tallbear has a great podcast and other writing about this.
You can also see this binary showing up in the panic about trans people / “real” men or women — that someone needs to protect the purity of gender from the incursions of trans people. Alok has some great writing and talks that get at some of the underlying panic around the gender binary and why it’s policed so vigilantly.
In some ways I’ve noticed a lot of conversations about the pure/dirty binary in in social justice/movement spaces over the past few years, as people reckon with approaches to political correctness, political alignment, cancellations and call outs. Joyful Militancy is a great resource on this topic, as is We Will Not Cancel Us by Adrienne Maree Brown.
And finally (for now) this binary sneaks into all kinds of things like wellness, food culture, dieting, health — the idea that fat/ness is bad or dirty, or that certain foods are dirty, and that we must eat “clean” or “healthy.” People who are thin and active are applauded for their hard work, are seen as purer and better than everyone else, who are encouraged to “lose some weight,” “add more time in the gym,” “avoid certain foods,” on and on. Virginia Sole-Smith writes brilliantly about this every week in Burnt Toast, and again, The Body is Not an Apology also is a great resource — especially since these ideas of purity and “clean” eating are so tied to whiteness and gender (which are themselves tied to colonialism).
how it shows up in our relationship to ourselves
As I mention above, this binary shows up in so many places and approaches to ourselves
I see the pure/dirty binary sneaking in quite a bit in my one-on-one and group work with people. Often, when we’re grappling with a decision or a big life change that we’re weighing, we can get caught in a loop where something is only worth doing unless it’s 100% correct or we’re 100% on board with it. It makes things like trying something new, or experimentation, or messing up/messing around feel like something to be punished for, experiences that don’t really count. And on the flip side, if we aren’t getting the results we want from trying or doing something, it must mean that we’re approaching it wrong, that some thought or mindset is sullying our attempts to be purely on board with whatever change we’re trying to bring about.
This binary encourages us to constantly be improving and perfecting ourselves, not resting or existing or being present with what is. We can find ourselves unable to celebrate or rest or loosen our grip on our self-improvement projects, for fear that we’ll lose all our personal progress, that our work up to this point will disappear.
And it encourages us to scrutinize and judge ourselves against a kind of absolute standard or ideal (and come up lacking). And if we’re lacking, then we’re back on the hamster wheel/treadmill of endless improvement and self-flagellation/judgment.
everything on the earth is “impure”; dirt is alive
It feels important to just pause here and say that the pure/dirty binary, the concept of an ideal, is not just a really harsh approach but is also not something that is actually present on the planet we’re living on. Everything is mixed together here. Entangled Life, a book on fungi by Merlin Sheldrake, has a great section on the ways that at the cellular level fungi are so interwoven with plants that it doesn’t make sense to classify the two as separate. Sophie Strand has some great posts about this on her instagram too.
Everything and everyone is made up from all kinds of sources and places. There are no perfect standards. It is impossible to separate ourselves from everyone and everything around us. Everyone and everything is changed through the experience of existence. And while it may be useful at times to limit things like dirt in the bread dough, at a deeper chemical level “dirt,” or the “foreign bodies” of yeast is exactly what is needed for bread to even exist in the first place.
Gayla Trail has a really great perspective on how “cleanliness culture” is killing us — that the obsession with ridding ourselves of grime and dirt means we use harsher and more intense chemicals, or strip away the process of decomposition that is so necessary for the dirt to be well.
And perhaps this is a good place to ask what the pure/dirty binary is trying to protect us from. For me, I think it’s that we don’t really have control over our experiences around death, illness, aging, disability, and loss and changes of all kinds. The pure/dirty binary promises that if you work hard enough and police yourself intensely enough, you won’t have to experience this sense of loss or lack of control — that it is possible to replace uncertainty with control, of ourselves and others. But I think even the most rigid among us know that the promises of the binary are hollow — that our panic about the unpredictable world is only shoved down or away by acquiescing or trying to live by its terms, and not resolved or magically erased by it.
An unexpected antidote to the pure/dirty binary has been allowing myself to “waste time,” to do things that I don’t feel totally clear about, to try something and have it not work out — all of these things are reminders to me that I don’t have to strive to be someone who is better than other people or beings around me, and that that’s really not a thing that’s possible at all.
There’s something also for me in remembering that the web of relationships that create and sustain us all is always present, always here, shifting and changing, and yet still holding all of us in the cycles of living and decomposing and evolving on this planet — that no matter what I’m doing or not doing, whether it’s good or bad or whether my motives are pure or totally mixed up, I’m still held, still part of the whole web of relationship that constitutes everything. I find that reminder of reality to be a very sturdy one to lean on when I get freaked out about things.
For me, being in and learning about the world, particularly through time in nature, helps me remember that purity really isn’t a thing on this planet. As I’m writing this, there’s a deer decomposing by the creek behind our house, being fed on by vultures and yellowjackets and ants and the rat who lives in the woodpile in the backyard. Nature’s reminders of non-purity can be intense in ways I’ve been taught are gross and dirty, but they’re also a powerful reminder of the ways we’re all connected, regardless of what kind of life we lived or what our step count was today.
Some next steps
This month, I encourage you to let yourself get curious about what the ideal of purity is doing for you. What are you getting out of measuring yourself against a harsh ideal standard? What is this process doing, how is it shaping you + the way you approach yourself and the people in your life?
And if the purity binary feels horrible to you or parts of you, what antidotes or reminders might you lean into? Might you let yourself revel in all of the multiplicity and visceral aliveness of dirt? Maybe put your hands in the actual dirt? Watch the decomposition of something in your fridge or on the kitchen counter or in the shady parts of the woods? If you learn something from the wisdom of dirt, this month I’d love to hear.
Sending much love from the creeks,
In case you wanna know exactly where that quote came from: 1 Corinthians 5:7, good news translation