On the radar: purity test
For all their scientifically dispassionate aspirations, tests can and do inspire unusually strong emotions. The very idea of math tests, drivers’ tests, or blood tests, for instance, can make us understandably anxious. Conversely, personality tests, taste tests, and all manner of online quizzes are not just fun; they’re often downright addictive. When testing something appears to be motivated not by an impartial search for knowledge but by a specific emotion or desire, it tends to make us skeptical if not alarmed. Certainly there is great reason to feel both these days, which begins to explain some of the newfound popularity of the term purity test.
Typically the purity in question is ideological purity—how committed a group or individual is to the principles they claim to stand for. In this sense, the idea has been around for some time. In December of 1980, the Washington Post reported that conservatives in the House of Representatives were actually giving a literal “ideological purity test” to job applicants on Capitol Hill. One year later, Canadian Finance Minister Allan MacEachen used it to attack a political opponent during a budget dispute.
From private to public usage
More recently, however, the term has gone from being mere political-insider slang to capturing a new and crucial dynamic between elected officials and the American electorate. As the latter has become increasingly polarized, members of both political parties have struggled to appease the increasingly ideological bases of their parties.
This shift first took place on the right, as the Republican establishment and Tea Party fringe repeatedly clashed following Obama’s 2008 victory. By 2010, the Tea Party platform was so embedded in Republican thinking that The Washington Post described several Republicans running in traditionally blue districts as unable to “pass an ideological purity test.” And by last year, the Guardian summed up the strange conundrum of the Republican primary with the prescient observation that “a candidate who can pass the right wing ideological purity test is unlikely to win a nationwide general election.”
But, even as the Republicans appeared hopelessly captured by their base, the Democrats were forced to confront the fact that many of their own supporters were disappointed with the direction the party was headed in. Hence the unexpected success of Bernie Sanders’ far-left bid for the nomination in the spring and summer of 2016. Three days before Sanders finally conceded to the establishment’s nominee, Hillary Clinton, the New York Times quoted Mark Warner, a Democratic senator from Virginia, as saying, “Purity tests are not a recipe for getting things done.”
Although it is in such contexts that purity test has steadily increased in usage, the moment that truly brought the term to wide attention is easily pinpointed by a quick glance at search frequency:
Graph: Google Trends
On the day before the US presidential election, right-wing pundit Ann Coulter tweeted, “If only people with at least 4 grandparents born in America were voting, Trump would win in a 50-state landslide.”
The Huffington Post dubbed Coulter’s proposal a “Nazi-like purity test” and several other liberal news outlets followed suit. Overnight, the purity tested by a purity test went from ideological to racial. The phrase went from a subtle allusion to the half-forgotten loyalty tests of federal employees at the start of the Cold War to an ideological grenade of historical shrapnel—everything from grandfather clauses to Nazi genocide was there to unpack in Coulter’s typically callous and inflammatory remark.
Taking in all this back and forth, Americans of a certain age (those in their twenties and thirties, that is) may long to return to a time when a test was something you were supposed to be studying for while you were instead procrastinating, playing games or taking quizzes on the Internet. Funnily enough one of the earliest and most enduringly popular online quizzes was in fact something called the Purity Test. It did not measure your ideological or racial purity but your “moral” purity, awarding you a percentage score based on your reported experiences with sex, drugs, and crime—the lower your score, the less “pure” you were.
According to Wikipedia, however, this online test was hardly the first of its kind. The earliest known example was actually not for entertainment but was a serious attempt at sociological research. It just didn’t turn out that way. In 1935, when two students at Barnard College, a women’s school, distributed a survey to their fellow students that they regrettably called a purity test, it wasn’t long before the boys at neighboring Columbia University printed the results in their humor magazine, The Jester.
That the same test can, at one and the same time, be the object of humorous derision and a well-intentioned scientific tool tells us something important about how the idea of tests and testing operate in contemporary society. On the one hand, we all know that tests are flawed. Especially when the results are dubious or unappealing, we remember that tests are biased; tests are arbitrary; they are a desperate means of imposing order on things that are ultimately too complex and too chaotic to ever be properly measured.
And yet we need tests, nevertheless–sound empirically-based metrics that we agree, as a society, distinguish things (and sometimes people) in a just and meaningful way. Being able to generalize effectively based on observed data is an inextricable part of how we develop rational understandings of the world around us, how we overcome the doubt and paranoia we have about the beliefs and intuitions that come to us untested. How, in a word, we come to trust things. Trust, as noted, is in very short supply of late, and not without good reason.