“Throughout history, and in almost all societies, concepts of pollution and purity have played a leading role in enforcing social and political divisions and have been exploited by numerous ruling classes to maintain their privileges,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens.
Humans are amazingly good at identifying the in-groups and out-groups to which they belong or do not belong. We are also capable of incredible acts of in-group kindness and generosity as well as out-group nastiness and unfairness. I think that JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books can be read as an example of our incredibly powerful in-group versus out-group nature, and within those stories we can also see how purity and pollution play a role in how we understand our in-groups relative to our out-groups.
In the books, an evil and powerful wizard, the son of a magical witch and non-magical (muggle) man, attempts to rule the world on the premise that magical individuals are inherently superior than non-magical individuals. Purebloods, those whose family line is entirely magical rather than half-bloods or mud-bloods, those whose family line includes muggles or is entirely muggle, are seen as superior and more valuable. Mud-bloods and half-bloods are viewed by the evil wizard and his supporters (and tacitly accepted by many characters) as somehow polluted, or at best diluted. That becomes the basis for out-group hostilities, biases, discrimination, and general nastiness.
Harry Potter may be a fiction, but the books reflect real world struggles that do take place between arbitrary groups and real world discrimination that occurs based on appearance, social class, talent and skill, religion, and other factors. The United States was founded as a country that discriminated against black people because of the color of their skin and their seemingly savage or backward tribal lifestyles in Africa (and also because white plantation owners stood to benefit from the free labor and exploitation of captured Africans). People born with mixed race parents were called mulatto, and were quite literally seen as less pure than people born to white parents. Ability, skill, and intelligence did not differ in a material way between black slaves and white slaveowners, but in-group and out-group dynamics founded a country based on an imagined hierarchy and real world discrimination between white and black people – a hierarchy and system of discrimination that was legally upheld and perpetuated long after slavery ended.
Other countries have had similar challenges. In India, a caste system was built almost entirely on ideas of purity. A certain segment of the population was referred to (and still is to some extent) as “untouchables” for fear of contamination. This group was (and still is) isolated and outcast within the larger society and the results of the discrimination shown to such people has later been use to justify the unequal treatment they receive.
In some ways fears of pollution and desires for purity are rooted in biology. Pigs can carry dangerous parasites that can infect humans. For early Jews – before sanitary cooking methods were developed, dietary restrictions possibly helped ensure there was less parasite and disease transmission. Isolating sick individuals, people with sores, or people who were hired or charged with handling dead bodies, possibly helped reduce disease transmission among early humans. However, from these reasonable precautions came the biases, fears, and unjust discrimination which became part of our in-group and out-group dynamics and ultimately contributed to the ideas of pure ruling classes and polluted lower classes. Something that was biologically prudent took on a narrative that was exploited and abused over time for political ends.
When we sense ourselves being fearful of ideas of pollution, whether it is genetic, racial, sanitary, or other forms of pollution, we should try to be aware of our thoughts and feelings. We should try to recognize if we are simply acting out in-group versus out-group biases and prejudices, or if we do have real health and sanitary concerns. If the latter is the case, we should find ways to uphold health and safety while minimizing and reducing bias and discrimination as much as possible.