How sexist, racist or bigoted are you
Laurie Penny: "It sure hurts to be called a sexist"
Her language is radical and her analyzes cover the entire spectrum of feminist activism issues such as violence, beauty norms, care work, abortion and sex work. She combines all of this in her texts with economic issues and racism. The British Laurie Penny is currently presenting her new book Bitch Doctrine in Europe, which brings together essays from the past few years, starting with a US election diary from 2016.
DEFAULT: We are currently in a special situation. On the one hand, right-wing populist and misogynist politicians win elections around the world. On the other hand, there is strong feminist activism that didn't exist ten years ago. Is this activism just a reaction?
Penny: No, I think it's the other way around. Feminism has become a major force in the past five years. The right came to power in the US because of an anti-feminist, racist and xenophobic backlash. This backlash also came about because of the growing influence of women and people of color in our culture. If you are always used to being privileged, a little bit of equality with less privileged groups feels like disadvantage to you. If you look at the websites of the Alt-Right movement, you come across a close connection between extreme misogyny and racism, this connection is extremely important to them and shows that it is simply about white male superiority goes. In general, privileged people find it difficult to understand that the world no longer belongs to them alone. The feeling that your entitlement is being attacked is the underlying narrative of the anti-feminist alt-right. And it's also the Brexit narrative.
DEFAULT: In what way?
Penny: This feeling that we may not be as important as we thought played a central role also played a key role in Brexit. It is fascinating that practically no one uses the word empire around Brexit. I spent a lot of time outside of the UK over the past year. When you talked about British history, you always talked about the Empire, it was a massive, terrible thing. In a week in Australia, I talked to people more about the British Empire than I had in the last three years in Britain. As a nation we still have a consciousness that we should be more powerful than we are, but we cannot quite say why. Here, too, it is about aspirations.
DEFAULT: You write in your book that you are gradually losing patience with the "man as a social phenomenon". What do you mean by that?
Penny: Patriarchy is a structural problem. But many believe that it is about many, many individual events that have nothing to do with each other. To live in this world as a woman means to experience that all cases of violence or sexism are separated from one another. But it has everything to do with each other. I recently tried to illustrate this on Twitter with a story: A woman goes to work, men throw lots of very small stones at her - just for fun. When she arrives at work, she is bleeding from the many small stones and she asks for help because she is injured and bleeding.
First of all, the men who pelted them with the small stones on the way to work are affected. But then they go on to say, "It's not my fault, I just threw a tiny, tiny little stone." But there were 200 stones in total. These are the circumstances of everyday sexism, that is the main problem. If we relate that to what's happening in the wake of Weinstein, it may not feel fair because some people are now being named who have only thrown a medium or small stone and others with large stones have not. But it's about criticizing a system where it's okay to do that.
DEFAULT: How have the reactions been to your Twitter story?
Penny: Sometimes they were very angry. But I think it's part of my job to talk directly to men about what they think about all of this - on Facebook, for example. Indeed, there is little room for men to talk about their feelings. I started interviewing men years ago. Over the years twenty answers to one question of mine have turned into thousands. Which is strange, after all, I'm a feminist journalist. My British accent plays a role in the USA, they love it. There the men shout "Oh, tell me again how terrible I am", "Oh, she says the patriarchy must be smashed, how lovely!". (laughs)
DEFAULT: The #MeToo campaign and the Weinstein case encouraged women to talk about small stones as well as big ones. What will the current debate do for the problem of sexual violence against women?
Penny: We cannot say that at this point in time. We are still at an early stage in the debate. We can now either decide that this is the moment when the dam breaks and there is enough pressure to finally change people's behavior. Or we put it all back in a box and decide it's too hard and that women's safety is just not worth the possible blow to men's cultural stability and prestige. What's likely to happen is roughly in the middle of these two scenarios.
DEFAULT: You write that as a white middle-class woman you cannot speak for all women. Even so, women without a public voice need prominent figures like you to draw attention to their interests. How do you do that without being chauvinistic?
Penny: It's not possible, I keep screwing up, I keep making mistakes every day.
DEFAULT: Such as?
Penny: Certainly it was something stupid that I wrote on Twitter - simply because there are a lot of things I don't understand. But I always try to talk to people who are not like me, who live different lives. I try to take their experiences into account when I write about a variety of things. But it's important to be open to doing it wrong. You have to live with the fact that not all mistakes are forgiven. But that's okay, because being a racist really sucks, which has happened to me many times. It's the same with men: it sure hurts a lot to be called a sexist. But one has to learn that this pain is not always as important as the experiences of oppressed people.
DEFAULT: Being a feminist activist is definitely not an easy job. Are you tired of the repetitions in the debates sometimes?
Penny: It's a little strange. I travel through European cities and am basically something of an actress. In every city I answer questions, mostly very similar ones, and I talk about feminism in those cities. But it is part of my job to keep the same topics fresh. Like a cabaret artist, I sing the same songs, maybe always a little different, but the basic key remains the same.
DEFAULT: There is no feminism in your political books that can do without a critique of capitalism. Why?
Penny: The idea of what work is has completely changed. One of the biggest challenges is automation. Trump's biggest campaign promise was to recreate lost jobs. But what jobs are they? Work for steel workers or factory work - all jobs that can just as easily be done by robots in the future. Trump did not promise new jobs for nurses or teachers, but promised the return of a masculine dignity. When we think about what work means, we also need to think about how work is related to identity. And we need to think about how our self-esteem can gain a different foundation than that of working for someone else's profit. This is a gender argument, and an anti-capitalist one too.
DEFAULT: Ever since your short stories "Make Babies" we know that you love science fiction. What is your future vision for feminism?
Penny: We should resist the impulse to save ourselves for a bright future. We have to stay in the present with the stressful things. We are welcome to talk a little about what we need for a better world. But I don't preach messages about a hopeful future like "Go home and everything will be sorted out". Nothing regulates itself, there is a lot of work. (Beate Hausbichler, 11/11/2017
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