After I read the paper Moze wrote about the development of the Temple and what it means, my first thought was: “Well shit, now I have to prank the thing.”
I get an itch whenever someone even talks about Burning Man’s “cosmology” (and Moze talks about it very well). I think one of Burning Man’s biggest strengths is that it actively resists hermeneutics. Given how Burning Man is experienced and the expectations of the community, a “correct” interpretation of Burning Man – or even a collective one – is difficult, perhaps impossible. I like that.
So being told what the temple “means,” even in very general terms? Having it explained to me that it’s a space that Burners define in certain ways and treat with a given set of protocols? Yeah, I want to fuck that up. Badly.
But I won’t.
Not because it’s sacred … not because I don’t think it deserves it … but because the asshole-to-comedy ratio is just too damn high. Because while you may leave all your preconceptions and inhibitions and all your sacred cows in the dust when that naked Greeter gives you a really inappropriate hug, the one thing you always take with you is your basic humanity. Burning Man does not burn that away.
I like the assholes and negative energy at Burning Man – but to forget your basic humanity is to become the wrong kind of asshole. And I don’t mean “wrong” in a “you’re not a REAL burner” sense, and I don’t mean “wrong” in a “you don’t have the right to be a terrible human being,” way. I mean: the potential payoff from whatever act of whimsy you intend to pull is less than the amount of suffering you are likely to introduce to the world.
If there’s a reasonable expectation of that happening, you’re probably not a prankster, comedian, or artist: you’re just a bastard with a shtick. You can be that – but don’t expect anyone to respect or admire you for it. Instead, expect to be called on it.
Here’s an illustration of how that works. True story (though oversimplified), with the names omitted to protect the guilty.
Two years ago there were a group of Palestinian kids who had been in art therapy groups to help process their experiences. A local museum asked if it could display their art for an exhibit, and everything was set up. Then a group of protesters (the usual subjects) got offended because they felt this was a political exhibit attacking Israel (not entirely wrong) and they started turning on the heat. Sure enough, the museum caved and cancelled the exhibit.
A notorious local aficionado of whimsy (and Burning Man personality) then sent out an email to a group of like-minded souls, proposing a plan:
Let’s find a space and host that exhibit.
- AND let’s also create a protest of faux Israeli hardliners who will come and picket it.
- Then, once that’s started, let’s create a faux group of pro-Palestenian protestors to come and protest the faux Israeli protest.
- And THEN let’s have a group of faux anti-war activists come and protest the protest to the protest.
- And THEN let’s see if we can get a group of people to be faux pro-war protesters to come and protest the protest of the protest of the protest.
- The NEXT group of protesters would be faux Scientologists who want in on the action.
And so on: get as many fake protests protesting each other as we can. See if we can make it up to 30 or 50. Flood the area.
It’s a hilarious idea. People started signing up. Then one of the people on the email list, a legend in the Burner community who has helped commit some epic anti-corporate pranks, chimed in with a question:
“Haven’t those kids suffered enough?”
The whole thing shut down immediately. Because, yeah, when you actually think about it, what did those kids do to deserve all this crap except … ya know … live in a war zone. Ha ha. Sure showed them.
Which isn’t to say the idea isn’t hilarious: I still think it is. Love to do it for a different event. But at the end of the day the people most hurt and offended would be the kids living in a war zone, and the grotesque nature of their suffering would be bigger than the joke would be funny. Worse, they’re powerless: they have no ability to fight back in a meaningful way, to earn their agency and dignity by going after us the way we went after them.
To pick on those who have suffered greatly and can’t fight back is perhaps the lowest human impulse imaginable. It’s one thing to do it without realizing, and then feel horrified, and try to make amends: it’s unfortunate but there’s honor in that. It’s another thing to realize in advance that this is what you’re doing, and decide to do it anyway because you can’t think of a better way to occupy your time.
The frequent justification for it is the justification of bullies everywhere: “But it’s funny!” And, hey, this may be true. But is the funny greater than the amount of suffering it brings into the world? I can hypothetically imagine a situation in which the sheer hilarity of what is done to a powerless victim may be so funny that it rights all wrongs.
But most of the time when you’re picking on the suffering or the powerless, you’re just a selfish sack of shit. The odds are really good.
This is why I’m not going to prank the temple. Because however funny whatever I came up with was, and however annoyed I am by people who try to turn the temple into a universal rite for Burners instead of just a thing some burners do, the people who would suffer the most from it would be people whose only offense was having lost a loved one. They would suffer most – Moze’s paper makes that abundantly clear – and I know it going in.
I simply can’t think of anything that is funnier than their grief is deep. I got nuthin. It’s not that a prank isn’t deserved here, but basic human considerations come up first.
For a group that’s as deliberately offensive as so many of us can be, I’ve seen surprisingly little at Burning Man that delves into the realm of terrible humanity. We’re appropriately willing to aggravate and offend one another, but not to be bastards when we confront significant suffering or true powerlessness. Would that the world could say the same.
This is risk that I feel is dangerously high with this year’s theme: Cargo Cult is high stakes high reward. But a few of the commenters responding to my piece about it saw the right to prank as at stake. Saying “hold your fire” on Cargo Cults, they suggest, means we’re carving out “sacred spaces” for religion and politics.
“Irreverence or Assholery,” wrote Quentin, “is meant to keep religion, spirituality and political statements out of Burningnman. And that is good.”
This is wrong on all points. Religion and spirituality are self-evidently welcomed at Burning Man: have you seen all the statues of Ganesh? The morning yoga sessions? The spirituality based camps? More to the point: why would we impose a demand that religious people leave their religion at the gate? It would flat-out contradict Radical Inclusion.
And politics? How can politics not be welcomed at an event that once had an “American Dream” theme? Politics are everywhere. Chicken John once campaigned for Mayor of San Francisco at Burning Man. Alix Rosenthal camapaigned there for San Francisco city supervisor. Again, to say “political people” aren’t welcome at Burning Man is absurd.
What Quentin is getting at is that there is a spirit of irreverence at Burning Man guaranteeing that none of these things that are protected in the default world are sacred cows at Burning Man. No one is required to give your religion or politics any respect at all – and they are fair game for all manner of treatment. It’s not that they’re not welcome: it’s that they’re not protected.
And that is good.
But refusing to make any group a protected class is one thing: refusing to acknowledge the legitimate suffering and powerlessness of others is wholly different. Pick on powerful religions and political players all you want – there’s no question they’ve got it coming. But they can also fight back: Christianity and Islam and Scientology and America and Russia and China and Republicans and Democrats and whatever Michael Bloomberg is are all quite capable of defending themselves, and ought to be critiqued.
But the cargo cults? They can’t fight back. They don’t have PR machines and lobbying groups and fundraising operations. You have never been oppressed by them, but we have occupied their countries.
This makes a difference; not to the “rules” or culture of Burning Man or the validity of any artistic statement, but on a basic human level. You always have the right to mock, but is it the right thing? If the only reason you have to make fun of something is that Burning Man made it its theme? Well … do better. Seriously.
There’s so much worthwhile to say through art and whimsy. Make the world a more interesting place. Afflict the comfortable – but lay off those who have already suffered enough. Most burners get that intuitively. Occasionally, however, we have to remind each other.
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com