Integrity in an age of purity

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We live with an increasing number of vast problems that often make our lives and actions seem futile. Included on this list of colossal problems are nuclear wars, racial injustice and various other impending environmental catastrophes related to global warming, such as overpopulation, carbon emissions, fresh water shortages and plagues of antibiotic resistant bacteria. I encountered a young man recently who decided to undergo a vasectomy. Although he is only 18 years old, he believes that self-sterilization is a moral imperative to ensure that he does not contribute to overpopulating the planet. His decision illuminates a disturbingly common distortion of thought. In his decision to undergo a vasectomy, this young man has purchased a brand of moral purity. With great personal sacrifice (greater, I fear, than he might realize later in his life), he has effectively removed himself from “the problem;” however, his personal purity will make no noticeable impact on the population of the planet. Of course he knows this, which is why his thinking is particularly alarming.

Removing oneself from the problem to maintain personal purity might be characterized as the liberal response to colossal problems. The conservative response might be characterized as denial. While liberals dismember themselves in order to prove that they are not part of the problem, conservatives dismember their consciousness to maintain a fiction of ignorance and plausible deniability. Thus, we witness conservatives denying the reality of global warming in spite of an overwhelming body of scientific evidence that makes clear a real and present danger to the planet, and we witness liberals who impose strict sanctions on behavior and action over an increasingly fantastic range of miniscule issues, ranging from the gas mileage of one’s car to the organic integrity of all food products.

Both conservative and liberal responses to these problems are understandable, but they are ultimately misguided. Both are motivated by a desire for purity rather than integrity.  Integrity has increasingly been conflated with purity, as we understand it to mean “moral uprightness” or “lacking corruption;” however, the Latin root, integer (meaning “intact”) provides the word integrity with a fullness of expression when we understand it to mean a state of being “whole or undivided.” In this later sense, integrity is derived from participation in an undivided community. While liberals seek to separate themselves from communities and institutions that are problematic, and conservatives seek to deny the problematic elements of their communities and institutions, integrity might compel us to claim membership in communities and institutions that we know and accept to be problematic.

We live in a messy, broken world full of complex and inconsistent human beings. If we have any hope of muddling toward a resolution for the array of dizzying problems that face us, our first step must be toward complexity and community rather than retreating to our respective silos of liberal and conservative purity. Our pursuit of purity is pushing us into deeper cycles of tribalism and polarization. Integrity might look like a Black Lives Matter member and a Trump supporter listening to each other’s stories and life experiences. Integrity might look like a climate change skeptic attending a conference on global warming with an open mind and heart, or an environmentalist engaging global warming skeptics without dismissing them as idiotic. Integrity might look like a gun control activist going skeet shooting with a gun owner to learn about their interests and concerns. In the face of the many overwhelming problems that face us, sacrifices will need to be made; however, we are far too quick to sacrifice our neighbor in the pursuit of purity rather than our own ego in pursuit of integrity. We need more of the latter.

Email Tyler Montgomery at [email protected]