The legendary Soviet/Russian wrestler, Alexander Karelin
In the summer of 2023, my good friend Carlos Garrido published a book titled The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism, criticizing left-wing political movements in the Western world for the rigid and non-dialectical thinking that leads them to dismiss and attack people or things for a perceived lack of perfection. If a person is flawed, which all human beings are, it is the tendency of the Western left to dismiss that person completely while failing to understand that mistakes and imperfections are simply a part of life. The purity fetishist holds in their mind an ideal that all things must live up to, and when reality fails to meet their idealistic conception of what it should be they lash out against the imperfections of the actually existing world. Many on the political right in Western society refer to this phenomenon as “cancel culture” and it has become deeply maligned by most working-class Americans.
But the concept of the purity fetish is not confined to politics, and I’ve found that it can be applied in many different spheres of life. One day after Carlos had sent me a quote from the American Philosopher John Dewey, I began applying the purity fetish to my own experiences in competitive amateur wrestling. Dewey’s quote (from his book, Human Nature and Conduct) reads: “persistent preoccupation with the thought of an ideal realm breeds morbid discontent with surroundings... The needs of actual conditions are neglected, or dealt with in a half-hearted way, because in the light of the ideal they are so mean and sordid.” In essence he is saying that by expecting the real world to meet our idealistic vision of what it SHOULD be rather than engaging with it for what it IS, we become disappointed and angry with life when it fails to live up to the ideals that only exist in our minds. We spend our time wishing that life would be what we want it to be, rather than dealing with the inevitable problems of life as they exist in reality. The purity fetishist stews with anger over the fact that they can’t eat candy all day because it will rot their teeth and give them diabetes, while the materialist simply understands that the harmful effects of sugar are a reality of life and thus determines that candy should only be consumed in moderation. Maybe in an ideal world you would be able to eat sugar all day without any negative side effects, but we do not live in an ideal world, and wishing that we did is a futile endeavor.
In the sport of wrestling many athletes, especially younger ones, will beat themselves up and lose confidence if they fail to execute their techniques with perfection each and every time. The athletes hold an ideal of what the move should look like in their heads, and if they fail to execute it this way in reality, they can easily become discouraged. But in reality, when competing against another athlete who is giving 100% resistance very rarely are techniques executed to perfection. More often than not an athlete needs to expend a great deal of energy to set up, execute, and finish a scoring technique, at least when facing an opponent of a similar caliber.
It would be nice if you could execute one move perfectly and instantly pin the opponent to their back with no resistance, but that’s simply not how things work. If you watch wrestling at the highest level not every move executed by the athletes is a successful one. In fact the best athletes are skilled at chaining different techniques together so that when one fails they can flow immediately into the next one. The best in the world do not get discouraged and lose confidence when one of their techniques fails to work to perfection.
When I was younger I liked to drill (practice) moves with a partner who gave little to no resistance so that I could execute each technique perfectly, however I would find myself feeling discouraged when I was unable to execute the moves so easily when it came time to wrestle a live match. What I learned as I got older and matured is that you want a partner who will give you some resistance as you set up, execute, and finish the technique in order to simulate the feel of a live match. If your partner falls down with no resistance everytime you grab their leg, how are you going to learn to finish the move in a match against someone who is going all out? Sure, it would be nice to live in a perfect world where all of your moves instantly lead to points. But we don’t live in a perfect world, so why would we train as if we do?
Last year I had a major breakthrough while coaching my brother to a 4th place finish at the Division III NCAA Championships when I noticed that when I gave him resistance in practice he would get down on himself for failing to execute the move cleanly. I told him that nobody in the world including his future opponents execute their moves with perfection 100% of the time, and that against other good competitors sometimes you need to fight through bad positions in order to score. If somebody stuffs your shot you don’t just give up on it, you find a way to build up and chain it into another offensive attack. Giving my brother permission to be imperfect and encouraging him to keep wrestling even if his initial offense failed was a major lightbulb moment for him, as he was able to overcome the purity fetish and get a more realistic perception of what his live matches would feel like.
Because we can’t see our opponents training we often make them out to be greater than they actually are in our minds. We imagine they are drilling their moves with idealistic precision and if we fail to do so then we lose confidence in our ability to win. But of course in reality nobody's technique is perfect, and the ability to fight through bad positions is oftentimes more important than being able to hit moves with perfect technical precision.
To overcome the purity fetish is to understand that no person, place, or thing on this planet is perfect and that’s okay. It’s better to engage with the world as it is than to lament the fact that the world doesn’t exist as we wish it did in our minds. To achieve lofty goals in either sport or politics it is necessary to abandon the purity fetish and accept the world for what it is. Imperfection is a part of life and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Your author, competing to make the Olympic team.
Edward Liger Smith is a cofounder and director at the Midwestern Marx Institue, where he works as a geopolitics, history, and healthcare specialist. He is a wrestling coach at Loras College.