In her new book of essays, The Witches Are Coming, Lindy West is back with her signature wit and unapologetic snark. She’s mad at cis white men, especially those in the political class, and she’s not afraid to talk about it. Whether she’s writing about abortion rights, climate precarity, or Goop, West’s latest collection tackles the broader theme of human rights: the right to live, to give and receive care, to imagine a more equitable future.
Rewire.News sat down with West to discuss witches, likability, self-care, social justice, and seeing the beauty in a broken world.
Rewire.News: In the opening essay, “They Let You Do It,” you write that President Donald Trump’s relentless repetition of the term “witch hunt” is an incantation, “calling itself into being.” Why do you think the image of a witch carries so much power in a variety of ways across political spectrums? And why do you think many feminists are reclaiming the term, yourself included?
Lindy West: There are two different related and complementary ways that people use the word witch. I think that men use “witch” as a pejorative because a witch is a woman who has power, and power in women is very threatening to a lot of people. If you can turn a powerful woman into a pejorative, that’s a really effective tactic to shut people down and discredit people. But beyond that, turning a woman’s power into something evil and scary is a way to make that power the vehicle for discrediting her—so that you’re not discrediting her in spite of her power, but because of it.
On the other hand, a lot of us are realizing that it’s time to step into our power and recognize there’s a reason why the white men in power are afraid. That reason is that our power, especially right now, is real.
A witch is not only a symbol of unapologetic female power but is also associated with magic. Magic is the ability to do the impossible. So many things right now feel daunting and hopeless and impossible, and the idea that we could find the power inside of ourselves to do the impossible is really comforting and galvanizing. We’re going to have to.
Rewire.News: “Do, Make, Be, Barf,” which is about attending a Goop expo, fits really well into this discussion of magic: this time, in the form of Gwyneth Paltrow, lifestyle guru, promising a quick fix to complicated problems. But you write that the danger of this kind of magic lies in neglecting to care for others as much as we do for ourselves. What do you mean by that, especially as it relates to privilege?
LW: Self-care for the very privileged can be a really easy way to abdicate responsibility. I think people use it as a kind of pass to get out of grappling with a lot of the collective, societal hard work that we have to do to build a more just, safe, and prosperous world for everyone.
Of course you have to take care of yourself if you want to be an effective caregiver for other people. Of course people deserve to have pleasure and joy in their lives. We don’t have to sit around and stew about doom and gloom all day long. But I think—especially when self-care becomes an industry, and a brand, and a lifestyle—it’s easy to get lost in it because people tend to avoid difficult things anyway. At that conference specifically, they were talking about self-care with a single-minded focus on the self and not on the community, and not on the world at large.
I think that this narrow focus, especially for people who don’t already have much of a dog in the fight—people who are already doing pretty well—is a really dangerous cop-out. That’s not what the term self-care is for. Self-care is a social justice term. Self-care is not about massages and getting an IV drip because you have a hangover. It’s not a term made by white women so that they can go get a facial or whatever.
Rewire.News: To return to the notion of magic as a sense of hope and wonder, which you also mention experiencing at the Goop expo, how do you think we can balance the horror of reality with the little bit of magic needed to dream of a future of equity, empathy, and justice?
LW: We have to refocus our vision on the beautiful and worthwhile parts of life, because otherwise how are we going to fight for something that seems doomed and bad?
That’s not very elegant phrasing, but it’s absolutely vital. I’m contradicting myself to a degree with talking about self-care, but you do have to make sure that you give yourself time to experience joy and to have fun. I definitely think that as much as the idea of self-care can be abused, hopelessness and despair are not active emotions. They cause us to stagnate and to freeze—to lose our ability to fight as effectively as we need to.
That’s why I tried to make the book as funny as I could, even though a lot of it’s really dark. I think humor is a really great coping mechanism. I don’t have a perfect answer. But it’s important to find things that make you feel like earth is worth saving and cling to those things and celebrate those things and remind the people around you about those things. Because otherwise we are doomed, you know?
Rewire.News: You write the essay “Gear Swap,” which recounts a story of your husband’s experience in a local Facebook group, as an example of how to be a white ally in the face of racism within social or professional groups. You point out that there are simple and effective ways to remove right-wing propaganda from so many of the public spaces where it takes up room and make the case for empathy as a powerful tool for doing this. How would you say your view has changed on everyday activism like this since publishing Shrill in spring 2016?
LW: I feel both more optimistic and more pessimistic about it. In some ways, the internet has gotten more set in its toxic ways since then.
On the other hand, as the people who are exploiting online communities in bad-faith ways get more bold, more organized, and more sophisticated, we also get more sophisticated, and as we get more comfortable in those spaces, our thinking gets more sophisticated.
When I was writing in 2012 that hey, maybe it shouldn’t just be conventional wisdom that women and people of color have to weather hurricanes of stalking and abuse just to do their jobs and be on the internet, people were like, “OK, hippie.” It was ludicrous to even suggest that at the time. And now, I think we’re having all kinds of conversations like that: about what we can do to make spaces safer. And yeah, I wish that we had had these conversations when those platforms were being designed, but we didn’t. But we’re having them now, and I think it’s pretty clear that whatever the next generation is beyond Twitter— because eventually Twitter will die and be replaced by something else—it’s going to have to have some thoughtful systems in place to prevent the exploitation of the platform. So, it’s like, it’s worse, but it’s better.
Also, at the time I was writing Shrill, people were really dismissive of online activism. People called it “slacktivism.” The idea that you can’t get anything done online has been proven false. We’ve had so many successful social justice movements take root online that have deeply changed the landscape of our country.
I keep returning to this idea of not being hopeless. What I loved about that gear swap story is that I saw people choose to moderate their shit and make it a safe, productive space. It’s possible, in an instance like that, to just choose. I found that very, very encouraging. It’s kind of funny how people just insist that there’s no way that you can make an internet without some violent stalking. Of course you can.
Rewire.News: Many of the essays in this collection center what could be called “problematic faves”: celebrities you grew up liking whom you now view with deep skepticism, like Adam Sandler and Joan Rivers. But you connect the disturbing aspects of their work and/or what you know of their character to the broader context of a society that is “rigged” to make sure cis white men maintain absolute power in pop culture and by extension, culture in general. The TV adaptation of Shrill is a major step away from that, in that it centers fat characters who are portrayed as full human beings and not just the butt of a joke. What other things can and should cis white women be doing to create a more equitable society, one in which cis white men are not holding all the power?
LW: White people, including white women, really struggle with not moving through the world assuming that we already understand everything. I think there’s such a reluctance to listen, even from a lot of well-meaning people. Whenever there’s any degree of criticism, or any kind of request for self-reflection or change, people just crash into this wall of, “Oh well I’m not racist.” That’s not useful at all. It’s vital to make sure that you remain curious and permeable and flexible—a person who is open to other people. That’s just such a fundamental thing. It’s not the end of the world if someone criticizes you or tells you that you hurt them or that you did something wrong. It’s an opportunity to not be that person anymore and to do better next time. And what a gift that is. I think reframing all of these conversations in that way is really helpful.
Another obvious thing white people can do is give money to Black people. Support Black-owned businesses, vote for progressive candidates. Pay attention to what the organizers and activists in your community are saying about what’s happening in your city. It’s so important to remember that large-scale change starts locally. So pay attention to your local elections. It matters who’s on the city council. It matters who’s in smaller political positions that you don’t even know what they do. It’s really easy if you are a privileged person to live on autopilot because the things happening in your life are relatively OK. So it’s always important to be turned outward and to be a dynamic, active participant in your community.
Rewire.News: How have queer and anti-racist frameworks informed your feminism? And what work are you still doing to practice a more inclusive feminism?
LW: Those frameworks have to be the foundation of feminism, of feminist practice and anti-racist practice. This isn’t a perfect analogy, but I often talk about bodies, and when I talk about fat positivity and body positivity …. If you are a thin white woman who says, “I’m body positive!” and your body positivity stops at you putting a picture of yourself in your bikini on Instagram, that’s meaningless.
The point of a movement is to alleviate injustice for all people in that group, which by definition extends to the farthest edge of that group and the most affected people. So if you’re a white woman practicing your feminism as a movement that is here to solve your problems and address the issues that affect only you, that’s not a feminist practice. That’s a white supremacist practice.
It’s hugely important, again, to be curious, to read, to remember that you’re not here to invent this movement; this work has already been happening for generations. I’m not here to redefine feminist activism. I am a person moving through my life, trying to do a good job, and I am under no illusions that I have invented any of these concepts or that I am going to be the kernel of a revolution. It’s vital to be cognizant of history and of the body of work that came before you, while also not running up to every Black woman you see and being like, tell me what to do to fix feminism! It’s about being respectful and proactive while not stepping to the front and saying, “this is mine.”
I think the key to that is meaningful engagement and not being a tourist in the advocacy. It’s putting your money down, putting your time down and getting to know people, actually doing your homework, doing research in the vast body of work that’s come before you. Be a more dynamic, permeable person who wants to, and can, learn and grow.
Rewire.News: You also write about likability as a curse that is experienced most often by people who are socialized female, and that in order to speak the truth, we must abandon likability. How and where do you see the power of discarding likability playing out in social justice movements, and how do you think we can increase this power of truth through creative means like writing or art?
LW: I think a big thing that would be very helpful would be for men to get on board. The scary part of telling ugly truth is the social consequences. It’s really daunting to know that by telling the truth about what’s happened to you, or what you believe, or what you see around you in your country, you might lose some kind of social standing or delicate approval that you have from your community.
Rewire.News: Yes, and you write about that too with cancel culture. There’s a sentence in the book that says, “People are dying to forgive you if you just live in the truth.” What do you think likability has to do with cancel culture, and why are people so afraid of cancel culture, particularly those who have to issue public apologies?
LW: When I say that truth-telling is ugly to people, I mean it’s ugly to people in power who are threatened by the truth. When we talk about cancel culture, for the most part, people who are canceling other people aren’t trying to solve societal ill. When I say people are dying to forgive you, I think of myself as an example. As a woman who grew up loving comedy, I still want to have the comedy, you know? I don’t want to have to give up everything I like because someone can’t apologize. Continuing to sweep bad behavior under the rug and expecting victims to suck it up and get over it for the greater good is not the way forward. You’ve got to clean the rot out of the wound, and that’s really unpleasant. It’s especially unpleasant for the first wave of people who start that process, because it hurts and it sucks and it’s scary, and people don’t want to do it. But in the long run, we will all benefit. I just think there is so much room in certain cases for reparations to be made, so much room for redemption and healing. Not in every case, but a lot of the time.
If you’re threatened by that idea, maybe think about why that is and open yourself up to the answer. Ask yourself where that fear comes from, and consider what you’re asking of people who have been victimized when you tell them to quiet down about it. Because this process of opening up is going to happen regardless. It’s already happening, and it can be really, really painful. It can be painful and constructive.