Laurie Penny on activism: don't underestimate the power of storytelling

British writer, journalist and activist Laurie Penny has a lot to say about topics such as feminism, gender, equality, social justice and technology.

“I have always been highly moved by my sense of things not being fair and not being right, especially if I could see it happening to someone else,” she told Daily Review.

Penny will be a part of three different sessions this weekend at the Melbourne Writers Festival (August 28-30), followed by appearances at the Brisbane Writers Festival (September 4-5) and Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas (September 6).

Born in London and raised in Brighton, Penny has achieved much with her writing at the age of 28. She’s the youngest person to be shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Writing at the age of 23 for her blog Penny Red, has written five books (including her latest, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution), writes for publications such as Vice and the Guardian, is a columnist and contributing editor at the New Statesman magazine, and is editor-at-large at New York literary project The New Inquiry.

“I think journalism is an idea much like justice, or truth, or hope, which has no tangible edges,” says Penny. “It’s a concept human beings have invented — but that doesn’t mean it’s not desperately important. And it changes as we change. The idea of journalism is extremely powerful as a marker of what we intend to achieve with writing, video or any other kind of media.”

Penny credits Germaine Greer’s book The Whole Woman, which she picked up at the age of 11, as the starting point of her journey towards feminism and activism. “When I was about 18, I started getting more involved in online activism and blogging and realising that ‘wow, it’s not just me who has these weird ideas about changing the world!'”

Cyberspace has been a tough terrain to navigate for the activist, who has endured abuse and numerous threats from those opposed to her ideas and opinions. However, she acknowledges that it is a complicated platform.

“The internet is where I realised I wasn’t alone in thinking about issues of feminism and social justice. If the internet is a place at all, it’s the place where I continue to draw my strength, and I think it’s the same for a great many people — which is why that’s where people try to attack the new feminist movement. Because that’s where we’re strongest.”

The author has even had to spend time in a safe house as a necessary precaution due to death threats and malicious messages on social media.

“I always go back to what Melvin Kranzberg says: that technology is neither good or bad, but nor is it neutral. The thing that makes a piece of technology good or bad is the people using it and how they respond to it. The problems that women have been having on social media… are very similar to the problems women have had for centuries when we try to raise our voices and speak out about things.”

When asked about what she considers her greatest achievement thus far, she says: “staying strong and productive, especially in the face of the job I do”.

“I think that no shiny medal that anyone ever gives me will be more important than the fact that I’m still here and still working, and not letting the bastards get me down. Staying in the room, really, managing my mental health, surviving. Which I know is problematic to say in some ways because I’m also a person with white privilege, I grew up middle class, there are some things I have not had to fight. But everyone has their own struggles.”

In her latest book Unspeakable Things, Penny writes about modern feminism, aiming to take down double standards and the pressure society puts on girls and women.

“There are a great many changes I would love to see, but I don’t think it is the job of a critical writer to tell people how the world should be. What I try to do instead is offer strategies for understanding it and identifying problems. I think a great place to start would be full reproductive healthcare for every woman in the world —  complete access to abortion and contraceptive services, and full reproductive rights.”

Another strategy Penny suggests for understanding problems is storytelling, which she calls “a hugely important part of cultural change”.

“I think stories are one of the things that ultimately change the world. If we change the stories we tell about women and people of colour and LGBT people, whether we get to be the hero of our own story… then that will change the world in ways we really haven’t imagined yet.”

Penny remains positive about the future of cultural change, noting that the first generation of people who have “grown up on the internet” are just coming into positions of power in the media, and with “higher expectations about representation” for women and other marginalised groups.

“Mainly I think the important thing right now is not to give up hope. Hope is the last thing to die, it’s the most important weapon we have. It’s not sufficient on its own, but we have to remember that the world can change, and it is changing. I’m seeing more and more victories for feminism and social justice everyday.”

Laurie Penny will be appearing at the Melbourne Writers Festival from Friday August 28 through Sunday August 30.

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