Laurie Penny on feminism, freedom & how to avoid burning out

Laurie Penny on feminism, freedom & how to avoid burning out

Laurie Penny is a British journalist, activist, author and feminist. She began writing about feminism online at 19 and, a little over a decade later, has become a leading voice in discussions around gender, identity, injustice and the role of men in feminism.

She was the youngest person to be shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for political writing on her blog ‘Penny Red’. She has reported on radical politics, protest, digital culture and feminism from around the world, working with activists from the Occupy movement and the European youth uprisings. She has 130,000 followers on Twitter and in 2012 won the British Media Awards ‘Twitter Public Personality of the Year’ prize.

Because the 30 year old London based writer is a passionate and prolific woman she has sustained considerable backlash: she is frequently taunted as worthless, as ugly, and has death threatened regularly. And, yet she persists.

She told Pacific Standard magazine: “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.”

She is insightful, provocative and wholly uninterested in being conciliatory and agreeable for the sake of it. She is far more interested in fighting for freedom and says now, more than ever, it is vital we don’t capitulate and accept a diluted definition of freedom.

Until November last year she was planning to take some time away from political journalism and pursue fiction writing.

“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,” she told Pacific Standard.

The election of President Trump shattered that dream and have meant the stakes for justice have never been clearer.

Another prolific British feminist, Caitlin Moran, has said of Penny: “I can’t really think of another writer who so consistently and bravely keeps thinking and talking and learning and trying to make the world better.”

Penny is in Australia this week. She will be on ABC’s Q&A on Monday night and she will speak at the School of Life to share her own story on Tuesday. Women’s Agenda caught up with her ahead of the visit.

How do you maintain the fight for justice and keep persevering even in the face of extreme backlash?

“We all have to make judgement calls about how much of that fight we can take on. Writers and public speakers do a very specific kind of political work, and it can be isolating and stressful, it can be risky, but at the same time, there are other far more direct forms of activism being done by people who never get asked this question: how do you carry on?

The community organizers, the union stewards, the nurses and translators and lawyers and everyone knuckling down, now that the stakes have become so much clearer, to try and shift the destiny of the damn species. The best work I know how to do is to describe that fight, including on an intimate, emotional level. I’m interested in how people maintain their fight – but you’ve also got to remember that not everyone does. People burn out and exhaust themselves, crumple under the pressures of simple survival on top of sustained harassment, including by the state. For me, it’s about working out where best to spend the finite amount of energy I have. It’s about focus, and networks, and recognising that you can’t do it all yourself. And occasionally – although I struggle with this – taking breaks.”

Does the work you do take a toll?

“For me the hardest thing, to be quite honest, is working alone so much of the time. I routinely take on far too much, because I have eyes bigger than my belly when it comes to writing gigs. What has finally got me to pace myself is understanding that I can’t just push myself until I burn out and collapse, as I had a habit of doing – because what happens then is my brilliant friends have to swoop in and do the emotional work of putting me back together. I don’t want them to, but they’ll do it anyway, just like I do when one of them is in trouble.

Bouncing from burnout to burnout was more acceptable in my early twenties- but I’m thirty now, so it’s time to take more responsibility for my long-term health. I think mental health is a feminist issue. Mental health and wellbeing are profoundly political.”

You have had a number of high profile stoushes with various right-wing pin ups, and it often gets vicious and personal. How do you handle that?

“I’ve interviewed fascists and baby right-wing stooges a fair few times, including online, and I do find it hard to turn off either my anger or my empathy. It’s important to draw a hard line between understanding why people do despicable things, why people join those movements and become radicalized, and condoning the behaviour. That’s one of the failings of modern political discourse – too often we think understanding and condoning are the same.

My advantage in situations like this is all about the way I present personally and physically- it’s the particular privilege of being a tiny white lady with a squeaky voice and a ready giggle. I’m almost never regarded as a threat. I seem like I might be sympathetic. Of course, it also means I’m rarely taken seriously, but there can be upsides to that too, in my line of work.

Every writer and journalist ought to understand that their experience of the world is computed by their experience of race and gender- the impressions they come away with, the access they get, how people treat them, all of that is affected. Only straight-presenting white guys are surprised when I say this. They think theirs is an ‘objective’ viewpoint.”

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