The title is taken from a lyric by Urthboy, and its an important question we should all ask ourselves at times.

In this age of social media there’s a real risk that our activism becomes a disembodied process in which we find ourselves more focussed on curating our politically correct self-image on social media (and attacking those who don’t measure up) than working in our communities to achieve real change. In activist circles we have a concept called our ‘theory of change’ and it challenges us to explain how a particular type of action promotes real change. For example getting arrested at a protest by itself doesn’t necessarily contribute to change, but it can if it is part of a deliberate strategic process designed to put pressure on power-holders.

Whilst social media can be useful to disseminate and discuss new ideas and promote social change, there are also real dangers and pitfalls where our ‘activism’ might be counter-productive. Without a coherent theory of change, it may amount to little more than personal grandstanding or worse, a dangerous and competitive purity spiral.

Here is a list of ten reasons why focussing most of our personal activist effort into correcting others on social media might be problematic.

  1. We are probably in an echo chamber and not really getting any message out the wider world. This is a side effect of the social media algorythms.
  2. Our echo chamber may be distorting our view of the diversity of genuine opinion that exists in the world and pushing us towards a non-inclusive fringe.
  3. This extremism is possibly fuelling an equal and opposite form of extremism in someone else’s echo chamber and when we go to head to head with opponents we tend to alienate the genuinely curious people in the middle.
  4. When we encounter someone from outside our echo chamber who says something we may find frustratingly naïve, we may feel the need to attack them, rather than respectfully walking them through it.
  5. We may be inadvertently sapping energy (individually and collectively) from real organisations, groups and campaigns that are working on important issues of environmental sustainability or social justice rather than actually helping do the heavy lifting for that cause.
  6. There is a huge mental health toll generated by pile-on culture that harms those who participate as much as it harms those who are the victims of it.
  7. We may become exactly the kind of self-parody that our opponents love to caricature and lampoon to drive people away from supporting our cause.
  8. We may actually contribute to funnelling people into opposing echo chambers because they are confronted by the aggression, unreasonableness and pile-on bullying behaviour being exhibited in our echo chamber.
  9. Psychological studies show that people rarely ever change their minds from being argued with, labelled, abused or socially excluded, it usually causes them to reinforce the opinion they started with.
  10. In the name of fostering love, inclusion, diversity, equality and respect, it might just be that externally people are seeing us and our fellow travellers as angry, hate-filled venomous bullies that use social media to pile on anyone who questions the ever shifting gold standard of ideological and linguistic purity in our echo chamber.

None of this list questions the validity of the causes, the genuineness of people’s motivations nor the fact that they may at the same time be contributing in effective and meaningful ways, but self-reflection is essential. It is an old saying that the road to hell can be paved with good intentions.

The greatest risk is that genuine social justice causes degenerate into damaging and destructive purity spirals.

“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.” (Haynes)

Haynes is the author of a BBC documentary that documents how an online community of knitters were ultimately torn apart by an unending cycle of moral one upmanship over who was more or less racist than the next person.

Purity spirals are like some highly destructive form of ideological cyclone that builds with a gathering intensity as those close to the eye compete to prove their ideological purity by attacking and calling out others in the community.

Purity spirals are a well-established phenomena in political movements and can occur in right wing or left wing politics. Historical examples of dangerous and deadly purity spirals include the French revolution’s orgy of beheading, and Pol Pot’s Kmher Rouge ‘communist’ regime that sought to expunge what it saw as ‘privileged educated people’ from the population, culminating in the infamous Cambodian killing fields.

In both cases the people involved in the murderous purity spiral, at least initially, believed they were engaged in a process of ‘punching up’ against a privileged group.

Other egregious historic examples would include Thomas Cromwell’s English puritans and of course the Spanish inquisition. Stalinism and Maoism also prosecuted their own versions of purity spirals. Religious fundamentalism is a purity spiral, that sometimes feeds into terrorism.

Tell-tale signs of purity spiral politics includes, denouncement and calling-out of those who depart from the true faith, book burning and censorship, and a general acceptance of the appropriateness of rage, group attack and social exclusion of dissenters. I will leave it to the reader to discern where in our own social movement environment we may be seeing these tendencies on display.

Now our modern social movements may not be at the point of beheading people or forced labour camps, so we should not become hyperbolic, but the social and cultural dynamics are the same and the end point is predictably destructive.

Opinions always occur in a spectrum, and individuals are often on a learning journey in relation to their own internalised prejudices and biases. Ideally they get encouraged to move along in that learning journey rather than attacked and excluded. Once a purity spiral begins, the work of winning hearts and minds (the real work of social movements) is suddenly replaced by aggression. Not only does this alienate anyone unfamiliar with the group or cause, it begins to hollow out the group from the inside out as yesterday’s virtuous denouncer of others, themselves becomes denounced by their even more pure successor.

So what is the alternative?

The risk of destructive purity spirals has certainly been exacerbated by social media, its algorythms and the echo chambers it produces. So the alternative is to be more embodied and less exclusively online with our activism. This means becoming part of real organisations that are pursuing social justice ends, whether they are trade unions, environmental groups, political parties, victim support groups, charities, or any number of groups campaigning for equality for traditionally disadvantaged groups in society. Or actually establishing new groups to pursue the social justice ends that we are passionate about.

Becoming embroiled in purity spirals is actually a serious mental health issue. We hear a lot about call-out culture, there is a place for calling out the embedded attitudes of power holders and politicians but when dealing with friends, neighbours and peers it may be more useful to practice call-in culture. Real change is often achieved through millions of interpersonal conversations where people are encouraged to learn and self reflect.

We have seen huge advances in social justice campaigns over decades in relation to racism, sexism and LGBTI rights as well as environmentalism. There is a great need to continue to build on these campaigns in an inclusive and positive way. Channelling our support in practical ways into the social movements and organisations on the front lines is the best way to make change. It will build communities, promote new friendships and often expose us to a broader range of people and views than we currently experience. Purity spirals ultimately instead tear networks and communities apart.

The world will never be perfect and some social problems may remain seemingly intractable for a very long time, but there is no reward at the end of a purity spiral, it is like an ideological pyramid scheme that only produces victims. So next time, before you call someone out, call yourself in an ask whether what you are doing is really promoting effective social change.





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