Culture Politics

Munroe Bergdorf on Activism, Call Out Culture, and Self-Preservation

"If you’re waiting for someone else to educate you, then you are part of the problem."

SPICY is one of 30 global youth platform partners in the launch of an initiative by CHIME FOR CHANGE and Irregular Labs to explore gender and our fluid future. Check out the other content and partner platforms hereThis article is written for SPICY by London-based writer Niellah Arboine through this initiative.

Munroe Bergdorf is a British model, social activist and LGBTQIA+ editor for Dazed Beauty, working within each medium from a platform of standing up for what you believe in. This year, she also made her incredible first documentary, What Makes A Woman? to draw attention to gender dysphoria, and the need for shifting gender definitions. We sat down to talk about how to be a better activist and the ways in which conflict arises in her work and online. Here, Bergdorf shares her thoughts on what can be done to open up dialogues online, become better allies, and fight against problematic big corporations.

NIELLAH ARBOINE:  How does conflict come into play in your work and your everyday life?

MUNROE BERGDORF: I’d say the main source of conflict in my work is usually when I’m having to explain things. I have to do that quite a lot to audiences that aren’t necessarily in my own echo chamber. Morning television is a great example. I experience conflict in people who don’t really want to understand, like Piers Morgan who has his mind made up already and you’re never going to be able to change it. It’s better to let their behavior speak for themselves. Let them shout and scream and kick and cry and you’ll essentially have made your point. Speaking over people gets nothing done. Conflict usually arises when you’re met with resistance.

NA: If you’re in a marginalised group, it feels like emotional labor having to explain and educate people on your identity. Whose job is it to educate? And what can allies do?

MB: I’m a great believer that if people do want to make a change, and if people actually want to be allies then they will take it upon themselves to educate themselves on issues. Expecting people who are marginalized by society to explain their own marginalization is emotionally laborious and triggering. It can be gaslighting and it’s lazy. There’s no excuse for it, especially since we live in the wonderful age of the internet. If you’re waiting for someone else to educate you, then you are part of the problem.

NA: You touched earlier on echo chambers. It’s so easy to live in an information and opinion bubble these days. How do we get out of our echo chambers? Do we need to?

MB: I think it’s difficult to get out of echo chambers unless you’ve got a job like mine. I think the best thing to do is to be aware of other people who aren’t like you. So, I’d like to make myself aware of what intersex people go through then when I hear someone use a stupid word I can be like, “That’s not the word. That’s not the mood for 2018. You need to move things forward”. A lot of people don’t even know that that’s wrong, but it’s dehumanizing. People aren’t aware that certain scientific language needs to be updated.

NA: You’re very big on social media. How do you deal with conflict that can arise on those platforms?

MB: You need to ask yourself: is this person willing to learn? Or do they just want to fight? If they just want to fight, then is it really worth your effort replying constantly to this person. Exercise some self-preservation. It’s not worth getting into it with someone you don’t know and whose mind you’re probably not going to change. That person is going to shut their laptop, take their dog for a walk after you’ve been pouring your heart out trying to change their mind. It’s just going to be horrendous for you, so don’t bother.

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Taste of Streep, Courtesy of Irregular Labs.

NA: In this age of “clap-back” and “cancelling” culture, do you think it’s stopping dialogue on social media, or are there benefits to both?

MB: I think sometimes people do need to be called out. I think that with corporations it’s necessary to call them out publicly because letters usually go into black holes and it’s much quicker. I’ve called out Grindr, I’ve called out L’Oréal. When it’s individuals and the idea is to change their minds, then I don’t know if that’s the best way to get a response from them. You’re kind of almost instantaneously demonizing them and alienating them in doing that, it automatically becomes personal. The idea is to change people’s minds, not alienate them. Corporations yes, individuals not so much.

NA: Politically, in the UK it can feel like we’re moving away from each other. Is it because of a lack of empathy or listening?

MB: I don’t think we actually are. I think it’s always been like this, but now people have the language to describe what’s going on. So everything that’s happened now with Trump is a reaction to what people didn’t like happening with Obama. It’s now being reflected in Europe and Britain. It filters through to popular culture. It’s almost like you can’t not have an opinion on politics these days. And if you say that you don’t get involved in politics, then you have automatically picked the person who is being oppressive.

NA: Do you think corporations have a responsibility to participate in political or social conflict?

MB: People want to know what brands they’re buying into, they want to know what their stance is on police brutality, what their stance is on people taking the knee. Stocks went through the roof when Colin Kaepernick was made the face of Nike. We want to see that change, like the diversity of Fenty, people are excited with Rihanna’s choice of casting. It’s a great thing what companies can do these days.

NA: Lastly, what self-care tips do you have for someone who has just come out of the aftermath of a conflict? Whether that’s online or in person.

MB: Feed your senses: go for a walk, breathe in the air, remind yourself of your humanity. Touch is an amazing thing. If you have a partner then be with them or a pet. Smells: light some scented candles, cook some food that reminds you of home. Or sleep if it’s really extra stressful. Everything seems better after a nap.