Renouncing Purity: Lessons from the COVID-19 Era

Queenie Sukhadia


I take a deep breath as I try to still my mind and calm my racing heart. I lick my lips but my tongue, dry as straw, feels abrasive. Truant strands of hair are matted across my forehead. It is indeed a muggy May morning in New York City, but my air conditioner gurgles an uninterrupted stream of disapproval at the beads of sweat dotting my forehead. The image is still vivid, nothing like the wispy faraway hues that dreams returning to waking life are colored in.  In my dream, I had just picked up a package that had come in for me and was climbing up the narrow stairway to my apartment. My neighbor and her friend were taking the stairs down. As we crossed paths, we exchanged pleasantries. Our blouse-sleeves brushed as she edged past me. In that brief second, she was close enough for me to spot a curl of cilantro wedged between her front teeth when she smiled. And then I woke up. Before March 2020, this would have been a run-of-the-mill encounter, one that likely would only have been a transitory plot point in my dream arc. Now, it triggered a panic response.

When news reports first emerged of a novel coronavirus being detected in Wuhan, China, I paid the issue scant attention. As the infection rates climbed among the city’s inhabitants, to the point where a lockdown and the sealing off of Wuhan was mandated, my ears pricked up. I was curious. But this curiosity bore the slant of distance, of detachment, of a spectatorial sympathy. This public health crisis was still spatially confined to an elsewhere that I had no intersections with. When the virus rode the wave of globalized travel to touch ground in and spread like wildfire through Italy and Iran, it seeped into the small talk I made with friends and colleagues. We all agreed on how alarming the rapid spread of this virus was, exchanged some startling factoids we had come across in the news, and then moved on to other topics of conversation. We still collectively imagined the coronavirus to be a blip in the radar of the normal—something that would catalyze a surge of public health action in the handful of countries it was plaguing, but also something that would eventually fade away into the gray of regular life. Today, as the global count of COVID-19 cases surpasses twenty million, with outbreaks puncturing almost every country, I wonder whether my past self was naïve, clutching onto a misplaced optimism, or simply in denial.

Wuhan, China

Wuhan, China

Since early this year and into the present, as COVID-19 continues its death march across the globe, fear has become a routine affect. The most pedestrian of behaviors and interactions have become tainted by threat: shaking a colleague’s hand, hugging a friend, touching a non-disinfected surface and rubbing one’s eye, being within six feet of a passerby’s line of breath, the list is truly endless. However, the apprehension shrouding everyday activities is only one facet of this polysemous affect of fear. As COVID-19 begins to be discussed within the lexicon of a ‘crisis’ and ‘state of emergency’, other kinds of fears and anxieties have seen an uptick as well.

These fears and anxieties have largely sedimented around the policies and practices that governments around the world have instituted in response to both COVID-19 and its repercussions. For example, to grapple with the steep ascent of COVID-19 infections, India launched a smartphone application called Aarogya Setu. This app was marketed to the citizenry as a contact-tracing and syndrome-mapping tool that would enable the state to monitor the circulation of the virus. However, since human bodies function as vectors of the virus, in effect, then, this app would operate by collecting users’ identification information and tracking their real-time movements to chart social webs and determine when a user had come into contact with infected individuals. The release of this app made many anxious about how it could be deployed as a surveillance tool by the state—how user data, together with government databases, could significantly augment the ability of the state to identify and track individuals. This unease was again catalyzed when Mumbai, the Indian metropolis with the highest number of infections in the country, was segmented into containment zones—cordoning off areas with higher concentrations of individuals infected with the coronavirus. While these containment zones were ostensibly created to enforce quarantine by monitoring the movements of citizens into and out of these designated areas, the increased presence of police officers and CCTV cameras further fermented wariness about a possible intensification of state surveillance and police violence. Concerns about the COVID-19 ‘crisis’ being manipulated to put in place measures that had the potential of intensifying discrimination in its various, intersectional genres were not localized to a single country. They also found resonance in the United States, for instance, when the Trump administration signed a slew of Executive Orders and implemented a host of policies further limiting immigration into the US—targeting professionals on H1B work visas, international students and asylum seekers, among others—citing rationales that ran the gamut from the economic slump and rising unemployment to national security.

Mumbai, India

Mumbai, India

Historical precedent validates these fears. We have to look no further than the War on Terror that the Bush administration declared in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to grapple with how the trifecta of a perceived threat, a state of emergency and a need for securitization can be mobilized to introduce and manufacture consent to measures that produce uneven, discriminatory effects. The Bush administration framed the particular moment after the attack on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon as unprecedented—as a crisis—in order to make common-sense the enactment of Islamophobic and racist procedures including the profiling of Arab men in public spaces such as airports, as well as the creation of shadowy detention centers or ‘black sites’ all across the world (Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib being two prominent examples) where those immobilized in the crosshairs of suspicion as ‘threats’ could be deprived of all human rights and be tortured. Despite the fact that the War on Terror and the attempts to control the spread of COVID-19 are not fully analogous, the discursive figuring of the latter as an “invisible enemy” that warrants the pronouncement of a state of emergency bears sufficient resemblance to the former to provoke popular anxiety about the means that will be instituted by the state to tackle COVID-19 and how it might be leveraged as a pretext to inordinately expand state power, to the detriment of raced/gendered/immigrant/disabled populations, among others.

The progressive Left and the conservative Right have often operated antonymically —suggested even in the commonly used shorthands I draw on here. Wariness of the boundless expansion of state power and the potential of rights infringement through the strategic deployment of crisis has often been the prerogative of the Left, while the Right has historically been more consenting to securitization measures and less skeptical of the proclamation of states of emergency. In the COVID-19 climate, however, a crucial debate has taken shape, effectively skewing the position of the Left vis-à-vis the Right. The debate I invoke here is the one that has germinated around the state mandate, backed by scientific research, to wear masks in public spaces—one that has, interestingly enough, taken on a partisan coloring. A significant proportion of the conservative Right, through protests and resistance, has largely opposed this directive to wear masks, citing a host of reasons for this oppositional stance. Some have alluded to how this decree represents a rights infringement, while others have leaned into conspiracy theories to deny the pandemic itself and voice qualms about the motives underlying the state’s representation of COVID-19 as an emergency that calls for immediate mitigation—an anxiety, effectively, about what state leaders intend to accomplish through an apparently manufactured pandemic. The Left and Right can still be conceived of as relatively polarized on the question of whether people should be mandated to wear masks in public spaces; yet, this stark opposition becomes harder to sustain on the particular topic of skepticism toward what the state may intend to set into motion through the representation of COVID-19 as a ‘crisis’ demanding unprecedented action. Instead, a continuum or sliding scale starts to emerge: the Left, with its misgivings about state intentions balanced with the decision to engage in protective measures endorsed by the state, such as the wearing of masks, and further along the spectrum, the Right, with its skepticism of state policy concretized in the wholesale rejection of masks. When considered this way, the Right’s stance seems to be an intensification of the Left’s, positioning both these factions on the same horizontal axis. While the Left has misgivings about what the state may purchase consent for through the vehicle of ‘crisis’ representation, it does not comprehensively act on these reservations by rejecting everything the state mandates; the Right, here, seems to bring its actions in line with its hesitations. In other words, to put this in very stark terms, a seeming contradiction exists between the Left’s beliefs and actions, one that is markedly absent in the Right’s approach to the pandemic.

And yet, despite this ‘contradiction,’ a healthy skepticism toward state action coupled with an adherence to scientific counsel (and state mandates) by wearing a mask appears to be the responsible choice in a world plagued by a pandemic. While in theory, a disjuncture between the two may exist, most would agree that in practice, one need not pursue purity here–a purity that may cumulatively lead to a surge in infections and cost people their lives. The same principle can be exported to science itself. Most people educated in the history of science are aware of the rationalizing work it has historically done for eugenic theory and praxis, for example, and may therefore be cautious about the epistemological work science does in the world; however, this vigilance does not translate into an indiscriminate rejection of scientific research and practice. A cautious attitude toward how science organizes the world can be held without rejecting science in toto. If we are able to draw any conclusions from this, the key one must be that contradiction can be sustained without devolving into the pejorative, without connoting hypocrisy; gaps often exist between belief and action without rendering one’s politics null.

I now pivot to another key moment that occurred simultaneously with the pandemic: the angered reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement across the United States, following on the heels of the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police. In the face of cruel racializing injustice, the concerted protests that sprung up across the United States were awe-inspiring. Everyone was galvanized, everyone was livid, everyone wanted to do something to stamp out the systems that made this vicious act of manslaughter possible, routine even. These protests infused the air with a sense of possibility, a belief that people claiming different identity positions could and would come together to demand that things be different. The streets, however, were only one site of protest; another venue for collective outrage and calls for change was social media. Platforms such as Instagram and Twitter (and to a lesser extent, Facebook) were ablaze with quotes pulled from influential abolitionist texts by the likes of Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Michelle Alexander; pieces of advice on mitigating the effects of tear gas tore through people’s social media feeds; some channeled their efforts into putting into circulation snippets of BIPOC’s lived experiences of institutionalized racism, that although occurring in a relatively minor key compared to Floyd’s murder, were no less infuriating. The specific thread of social media chatter I wish to engage here, however, is the one that sought to spread word on how one can be an effective ally. The scraps of advice and words of caution being communicated were often rich and generative, instructive for those of us who sought to stand alongside BIPOC in this fight against racial violence without ejecting their voices to center ourselves instead. Alongside the pedagogically oriented, though, was another strand of allyship content being shared that was saturated with shame. It ‘called out’ those who claimed to be in support of the BLM movement but were not marching in the streets, those who posted a black square on a social media platform but then retreated into social media silence, those who endorsed the movement and condemned the rampant murders of black people but also challenged particular facets of the protests. This thread of social media activism appeared to use shame as a tool to shoehorn people into a particular kind of activism, one that was narrowly and singularly defined, one that could only imagine solidarity as existing in a single genre.

Minneapolis, USA

Minneapolis, USA

As hesitant as I am to accommodate the pandemic within rational frames of meaning by trying to draw conclusions from it, I also wonder whether we can extract something valuable from the debate around masking that can be generative for social justice movements. More precisely, I am thinking about how this particular debate highlighted a detachment from purity as something that is not only ever negative, and how this unfastening may enable us to consider allyship and activism in more expansive ways. Even as I put this suggestion on the table, I am aware of the slipperiness of what I am suggesting here, and how it can be misconstrued to enable sustained violence toward already vulnerable populations. As such, I pause here to preface what I am offering with two crucial caveats: first, that I am in no way drawing an equivalence here between anti-maskers and those who choose to be radical allies, who are able to fully align their actions with their politics—while the former are actively creating harm and suffering, the latter overextend themselves to mitigate it and build social protections; second, when I speak of allowing contradiction and renouncing purity, I am also not condoning those who seek to earn ‘woke points’ through performative activism and then go on to be racist/sexist/queer-phobic in their daily lives (in both overt and micro forms). Instead, I invite us to think about what can happen when we step away from shame as a way of disciplining people into a singular mold of activism, when we choose to disentangle from all-or-nothing thinking, when we encourage plurality in activism and allyship by allowing the loud to coexist with the quiet and opening up space for people to make mistakes as they develop their political consciousness. What I do intend to point to when I speak of renouncing purity is an active renunciation of gatekeeping, instead allowing allyship to flourish even in imperfect forms.

I advocate a renunciation of purity and an allowing of contradiction to exist in people’s allyship journeys for several reasons, stemming from the fact that shaming stifles dialogue, instead of encouraging it—it alienates those with imperfect social justice commitments, instead of inviting them to think alongside us about how we can build more just social structures together. I do not mean to suggest here that we make people comfortable, especially when that comfort is premised on depleting the wellbeing of the disenfranchised; rather, I urge us to tap into our mutual desires to promote equality and justice, and focalize them instead. When we alienate instead of inviting, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to understand the complex social realities that steer people toward their particular brands of activism. We eliminate intersectional analyses, we disallow an understanding of the multiple positions people occupy vis-à-vis power structures and how they delimit avenues and forms of allyship. The alienation and rejection of those who do not fully conform to specific models of allyship only create impotent, self-reaffirming echo chambers. Additionally, shaming is premised on the assumption that the allies doing the shaming have mastered social justice activism, that their methods are beyond reproach. Julietta Singh, a scholar working at the intersections of postcolonialism, feminism and queer theory, in her book Unthinking Mastery, notes that the idea of mastery, contrary to its widely touted positive connotations, is a violent colonial legacy, one that achieves dominance by objectifying others and forcing them into submission. She writes that simply reversing the dynamic such that the formerly oppressed can now become masters, does not undo the fundamental violence attached to mastery.  Instead, she advocates for a reaching toward the unmasterful, to embracing failure, to becoming vulnerable. It is in the realm of the unmasterful that we can develop horizontal relations with others that promote social justice. Similarly, when we assume we have mastered activism, we simply replace old hierarchies with new ones, instead of wholly dismantling this harmful vertical social scale. Assuming and expecting ‘perfect’ allyship, where ‘perfect’ is determined in advance, takes away the possibility of our own allyship models shifting and growing. I advocate a rejection of purity and shaming in favor of an embrace of plural definitions of activism because through the former, we are still ‘policing’—and I use this word intentionally—we are still leaving the damaging scaffolds intact, still deploying the violent functions of discipline, albeit in renovated forms.

Julietta Singh

Julietta Singh

Before closing out this piece, I would like to take a moment to nuance this further in two ways. Firstly, I want to directly point out that I offer these thoughts specifically to ally-activists, rather than those whose daily lives are already pockmarked with violences of varying intensities. Being open to dialogue and tolerating imperfection without writing it off as hypocrisy requires continued patience and effort. The disenfranchised and vulnerable should not have one more burden to carry while they fight for their basic survival. Secondly, I envision putting into practice an intentional stepping away from shaming in relation to regular individuals—our acquaintances, friends, family, and colleagues, strangers even—but not for public figures or institutions. For these latter two groups, shaming functions as an important way of demanding accountability and urging an assumption of responsibility. Shaming institutions ensures that they remain accountable for aligning their words with their actions, considering these actions materially shape the life opportunities of the disenfranchised. For public figures, on the other hand, shaming functions as an important reminder that their words and actions have wider reverberations and these expanding circles of impact demand increased vigilance.

Finally, I would like to acknowledge that while what I write here is something I think about often, I do not pretend to have all the answers. Even as I advocate for a tolerance of impurity in social movements, I also want to affirm the very justifiable exhaustion people (especially those belonging to minoritarian groups) experience when those claiming to be allies use imperfect activism to only pay lip service to a cause without engaging in any material action to institute change. I do not know how exactly to reconcile the two, but perhaps that is part of the project of cultivating sustained conversation. While I take issue with a pedagogical model where allies claiming mastery ‘school’ others into a predetermined perfect allyship, I wholly endorse a collaborative and non-hierarchal pedagogical model where people are able to gather, dialogue and learn together in service of equitable futures.

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