'The Stakes Have Never Been Clearer': An Interview With Laurie Penny

The reporter-activist discusses her latest book—and why class politics is identity politics.
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The reporter-activist discusses her latest book—and why class politics is identity politics.
Laurie Penny.

Laurie Penny.

I met Laurie Penny years ago, at a nightclub in London. I didn't realize then that I was meeting a feminist firebrand who would both help inform my politics and become a close friend. Besides having written multiple books about feminism and left-leaning politics, Penny is a contributing editor at the progressive British magazine the New Statesman. She's also been declared by the Daily Telegraph as "without doubt the loudest and most controversial female voice on the radical left."

Our paths rarely cross beyond the online world, and when they do, we mostly talk about our frustrations with the harassment we endure there. OK, we also talk about consent, and non-monogamy, and awesome socks that are both fashionable for a date and practical for a protest. But it's true that, as women with some following on social media, we have both been uncomfortably placed on platforms that people revel in attempting to shake out from under us. How Penny responds to both praise and criticism offers an invaluable model for being vocal about politics on the Internet, especially as a woman.

I've long admired Penny's willingness to be not only fierce and firm in her writing, but also vulnerable and raw, admitting when she's wrong while refusing to let herself be abused. You can see that delicate balance in her last book, Unspeakable Things, a collection of essays on a variety of topics, from queer politics to toxic masculinity. Penny is also a fearless reporter: She went to Athens with artist Molly Crabapple to cover the Euro crisis in 2012, and together they created Discordia, a digital work of prose and art, telling the tale of the street protests in Greece through feminist art and gonzo journalism. I was delighted to get the chance to interview Penny about her latest book, Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults, and ask her some of the questions that I tussle with on a daily basis.

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What makes Bitch Doctrine different from your other books? How has your writing changed? How have you changed?

Bitch Doctrine is my sixth book, and it's coming out at a time when the stakes of the intersectional struggle for justice have never been clearer. This is a book of political essays covering a very broad sweep of topics, bound together by a focus on gender and power. I've been writing about feminism and radical politics in public for 10 years now, and I'm no longer trying so hard to prove myself. When I was in my early 20s, people always wanted me to make the story "about me," so that whatever political narrative I was constructing also had to be, first and foremost, the story of what it's like to be a young, white, middle-class woman having feelings. I've no problem with personal writing—there are several very personal essays in this book,and Lord knows I've got a lot of feelings, but mainstream culture is always trying to make feminist politics collapse into the personal, rather than simply be grounded in it. This book is much more about the issues, and the voice is what ties it all together. It's an older voice, with far fewer fucks to give.

You get called in (and called out) a lot on social media for things you say in your essays. What's your advice on how to handle that kind of feedback?

For me the hardest thing to negotiate is the fact that, while I get a lot of honest and well-meaning callouts from fellow travelers, I also face a great deal of targeted harassment from alt-right and misogynistic trolls—sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic bullshit, just the most disgusting things you can imagine. When those things are happening at the same time, it can be pretty hard to decide what to ignore and what to take on board. It can be difficult to judge how open to be without putting your mental health at risk.

I've come in for some criticism from the left that I think has been fair and genuine, even when I haven't agreed with it. I've also occasionally come in for some flak that I really do think has been savage and silly—people have accused me of saying things I simply haven't said, of doing things I have not done, and sometimes the reaction has been staggeringly out of proportion. That's aggravating, but getting pissy about it only makes it worse—all you can do is state your case and accept that people are angry and upset for reasons that probably aren't to do with you; they're as much to do with structural violence, years of oppression, and the fact that some people just like to de-stress by yelling at people they don't know and will never meet.

Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults.

Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults.

There are people who say that call-out culture has gone too far. How do you respond to that?

I also want to hold up a hand for all of that being, you know, OK. It's not nice but it's livable with. There are a lot of people out there—disproportionately white, straight, middle-class writers of a certain generation or temperament—who think that being publicly shamed or called out is the worst thing that can happen to you. Well, it's happened to me countless times, and I'm still here, I'm still committed to Left activism, and, you know, I've even learned something from all of it. It's a damning indictment that some people are more worried about accusations of racism than they are about, you know, racism.

There's a way in which all of the call-outs, along with the flaming and trolling, have been good for me too. When you're faced, on the one hand, with all-out attacks on your being and person, and on the other with people you expected to have your back holding you to an impossibly high standard of public purity, you have to develop a measure of self-respect, a sense of certainty in your own worth and your own principles, even when you get things wrong and have to apologize. That's not a place I ever really expected to find myself as a neurotic teenager. But right now I have a much stronger sense of what I believe and what I stand for, and more confidence in my own instincts, my desire to do good. That makes it easier to recognize if and when I have fucked up and let down my own standards, by ignorance or carelessness or by something I've failed to do, and it makes it less of an identity threat to say sorry and attempt to make amends.

What is the most meaningful thing for you to write right now? Non-fiction? Fiction?

This year has been a real long, dark teatime of the soul for me creatively—as it has, I think, for a great many people who make art, do activism, and engage in any way with the world of politics. Back in November I was fully planning to dedicate time to writing a longer piece of fiction. I had a lovely daydream about spending most of my days moving made-up people around an invented world and occasionally chipping in with columns calling President Hillary Clinton out for inevitably not doing enough to support women of all backgrounds. That was a nice daydream. Instead, I shelved the fiction for six months and went back to political journalism. Now, though, I've a profound sense of the need to create things that are more long-lasting—not instant reactions, but books and collections, writing that can be accessible to readers for the duration of what looks to be a long fight. If I can use writing to hold up just one or two people through that fight, I've done my job.

It can feel scary to have a voice online in this day and age. How do you stay true to your voice and still get paid?

It's extremely difficult to stay authentic and solvent at the same time, especially if what you trade in is your own voice, your opinions. Right now I'm a bit further on in my career and I'm lucky enough to no longer have to pump out five columns a week—I can take my time and research properly. Having to produce regular, polished pieces for a print audience for so many years, however, was excellent discipline—really amazing training.

But there are parts of the way I work and write that don't fit well with the old-school disciplines of print. There have been times when I have clashed with editors because I had been called out or people had taken the time to educate me about a mistake I'd made, and I wanted to change or retract something I'd said, and wasn't allowed. In traditional print culture, that looks bad. You're meant to stick to your guns no matter what, unless someone sues you. Recently, I switched to Patreon, and am now fully crowdfunded: Anything I earn on top of my income from readers is a bonus and goes toward supporting my community and saving for emergencies. That means I'm far less beholden to any single editorial agenda.

On the whole, though, writers and artists are so often shamed for trying to make a living off our work. We have to remember that it is work, and that there's no shame in wanting it compensated—not while we all still have to live in capitalism. There are simple questions you need to ask yourself, every time: Am I betraying my art? Am I sabotaging my own voice? Am I making a living by exploiting other people's time or security? If the answer is no, you're good. Don't stress about it.

You're a journalist who's had some controversial opinions on the Internet. What are your feelings on free speech? Do you feel there should be limitations when it comes to things like hate speech? If so, what would that look like, and if not, what would you want to see instead?

This is a massive issue, and one that I deal with quite rigorously in the book. The first thing to understand here is that I'm not American, and so I have a different cultural understanding of what "free speech" means. In Europe the conversation is completely different, and I often find myself the only person on a panel or in a discussion saying that there are better ways to deal with online harassment than as a convenient excuse to put more surveillance tools in the hands of an already over-mighty state. It is absolutely vital that, when we build tools to combat injustice, we don't also build tools that we would not want to see our enemies get hold of.

On the other hand, I don't think all speech is equivalent. I don't believe there's a moral equivalence between anti-racist activists and fascists calling for internment camps. I don't believe that people who would happily destroy the right not just to free speech but also to basic human dignity and safety deserve prestigious platforms. "Free speech" is so often used simply as plausible deniability for prejudice and abuse. Like the white supremacist in Portland, Oregon, who murdered two men and then yelled about free speech in court. The hypocrisy is unbelievable. They talk a big game about free speech while attacking freedom of the press and harassing women and people of color into silence online. They've no interest in real freedom. They just want to be allowed to advance their own agenda without pesky activists getting in their way, and to paint the opposition as the "real" fascists. It's bollocks, arrant, dangerous bollocks and we need to get more comfortable with saying that.

Do you feel your identity as a feminist has shifted through the years? In what directions, and why?

I've identified as a feminist since I first started reading the theory—that's unusual, I know, and it was particularly unusual in the late '90s, when you couldn't just go on Tumblr and find other radical queer weirdos to chat to. I'm a huge geek and a huge reader, and when you grow up as a geek and a reader you encounter the big meaningful ideas in your life through books first, and then you get a bit older and you have to struggle with how those ideas work in the real world. I'm a true feminist geek in that respect. The biggest changes have been encountering anti-racist and black feminism, starting in my late teens, and developing my positions on sex work and trans* feminism, partly via theory but mainly because I know a great many people who do or have done sex work, and I am close to a great many trans* people. I did spend six months flirting with anti-sex-work feminism in my early 20s—I'm not proud of that, but those politics can be seductive. There's a rigid internal logic that makes sense as long as you completely deny anyone's actual experience. Which is why theory can't be the only basis of political action.

The biggest single change, though, was discovering socialist and anti-capitalist politics in my mid-teens, which I came to through reading feminism and realizing that there were broad economic questions at play that needed bigger answers than simply "close the gender pay gap." Intersectional feminism is the heart of my anti-capitalism, which is why I become so confused and livid when people try to separate class struggle from "identity politics." The two are and always have been synonymous, and anyone who claims otherwise ought to take a good hard look at their priorities. Just as you can't construct a useful feminism that only works for wealthy white women, you can't build a politics of class struggle that does not have feminist, anti-racist, and queer politics at its core. Well, you can, and people do, but they're silly and ineffective and their parties are boring.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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