We’re no better than anybody else, you jackass

Humility isn’t a principle, but it’s still a virtue.

The session on “outreach to subcultures” at the Global Leadership Conference was winding down when the Kid-Who-Cares-More-Than-You in the front row raised his hand to ask the panelists a question.

It went something like this (I’m paraphrasing from memory):

“We’re hearing about all these really successful regional groups that are doing amazing community work, but I’m worried because I know that they’re also being approached to partner by corporate groups and religious groups that don’t live by our values, who are way off politically, and I’m wondering what we do to protect ourselves – to create a firewall that makes it clear that we’re not open to these partnerships.  What do we do?”

I generally don’t get angry in discussions about Burning Man, even if we’re arguing.  The worst that usually happens is I’ll mutter “fucking burners” under my breath, or tell one of my friends at Media Mecca how I hate us all because … well, I mean, look at us.  Bunch of freaks.  But that’s it.  Otherwise not worth getting mad over.  Not when there’s a friendly bunch of freaks to play with.

But that?  What the kid-who-cares-more-than-you asked?  I spent the next 10 minutes trying to find a dueling pistol.  Because that?  That thing he said?  THAT pisses me off something fierce.

I didn’t get to do anything about it.  I wasn’t wearing my rapier that day and the session ended two minutes later, before I got a chance to respond.  But as the crowd was filing out of the room the lovely regional leader sitting next to me, who just happened to be a clinical psychologist, told me “Go ahead and say it.  Whatever it is, you really need to get it out.”

She’s right.  I do.  Because while ranting may be the lowest form of radical self-expression, sometimes you just gotta slum.

So let me ask His Dreadlocked Majesty, King of White Activists:  where exactly do burners get off looking down our pierced noses at people who want to help?  What exactly makes us so much better than people who take a shower before they gift?

The next logical step from only letting people help if their politics agree with you is only helping people who vote your way.  And then, just because that kind of snobbery knows no bounds, only helping people who listen to dubstep in between accepting your charity and joining your protest against the patriarchy.

We’re better than that.  We’re better than every part of that.  To understand why, let’s start at the beginning.

When Larry Harvey went to Baker Beach in 1986, he did not hold a voter registration drive.  He burned a “man.”  The “man” was not holding a placard that said “Don’t blame me I voted for Mondale.”  Three years later, as it grew, the annual burn was adopted by the Cacophony Society, not the San Francisco Democratic Party.  If you can’t tell the difference, you’re the one they were making fun of.

Burning Man has, over the years, inspired a lot of people to do a lot of good – but not once in the 10 Principles does it mention politics.  Your environmentalist credentials are not checked at the gate.  There’s no pop quiz to see how you feel about free trade.  Your “free Mumia” tattoo is not condemned, but neither is it seen as a sign of virtue.  There is no political litmus test to attend Burning Man or participate in our culture.

In fact, there is no test.  At all.  Anyone is welcome.  “Radical inclusion” means not assuming that the people one camp over share your politics.

And if they don’t, if they have their own opinions, it certainly doesn’t mean you cut them off. What’s radically inclusive about drawing up the same goddamn boundary lines that divide everyone already?

No, that’s not us.  We’re the people who don’t turn our backs on someone who says “Can I help?”  That’s our best claim to virtue.

Because face it, we’re no better than anybody else.  We’re all too often vain and cliquish, wasteful and childish, petty and superficial.  Being a burner might mean you don’t actually put your pants on in the morning just like everyone else, but it gives you nothing in the way of automatic righteousness.

But at our best we’re inventive, we have a better time than anyone else on the planet, and when someone says “Can I help?” we don’t turn away.

You’re here because people didn’t turn you away, despite the fact that you – like me – are a colossal fuck-up.

Now some of us are out in the world, doing good things.  And sometimes people and organizations with whom they don’t agree (or you don’t agree) want to help.  And Kid Look-I’m-A-Liberal-Too! over here wants to know how we protect ourselves from them.

We don’t.  We answer them.  We give them an opportunity to help.

Which doesn’t mean we have to abandon our own principles:  if companies want to install solar panels that bear their logos … I don’t think we can do that.  If companies will help us distribute meals in poor neighborhoods if we include a NutriYum soft drink?  Or a pamphlet about Scientology?  Sorry, no can do.  Clubbing baby seals is right out if the clubs leave a trace.

But we can tell them how they can help, and we can listen to reasonable alternatives.

The utility of Burning Man’s 10 Principles, as Larry Harvey said in his keynote the next day, is precisely that they can contradict each other.  We are called upon to be both radically inclusive and radically self-expressive (among other things);  we need to find our capacity to be inclusive of others while being true to ourselves.  That’s a difficult calling – a line that no two people will likely ever walk the same way – but self-evidently a good one.

It may be uncomfortable.  It may be desperately uncomfortable, depending on who we’re talking to.  But that’s what the “radical” part means:  we push ourselves to be more than we are.  We’re only human.  We’ll never be saints, but we can be trying at least a little harder than we are now to be inclusive.

God I hate that kid.  But as it happens he’s friends with some friends of mine, who vouch for him – and he’s probably out doing more good in the world than I am.  He, ‘ya know, “cares” about stuff.

I guess it takes all kinds.

Another regional rep in the session told a story about how her group (I can’t for the life of me remember where) was working with a local Catholic church to support high-risk populations.

“They’re great,” she said.  “The church people are completely accepting of all our weirdness.  It’s actually us who are the problem.  I’ve got all these burners freaking out, saying ‘They’re praying again!  What do we do!’”

We try a harder.

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.

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

12 Comments on “We’re no better than anybody else, you jackass

  • Fred Lumpins says:

    Well, I suppose there are two camps here. There are the ones who like to think that “radically inclusive” means every-goddamned-body, regardless of irony that the ones who bring the poison that kills our tree tend to wear their putrid colors right on their sleeves. Those who think that allowing the tree to be poisoned is somehow ennobled…and pat themselves on the back for not being fascists.

    Then, there’s the camp that knows that if this poison that your “student who knows more than thou” seems to want to put in check had any say in the matter, there would be no Burning community, as it stands, protected. There would have been no Baker Beach and beyond. That know that major interest by for-profit money and by fundamentalist prosthelytizers is poison.

    “If all the laws, but one, [are] to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?” Abraham Lincoln (regarding suspension of ‘the Great Writ’)

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  • Abe L. says:

    know what else i said? “a house divided against itself cannot stand”.
    think about it, burners..

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  • Peace says:

    Interesting that this is related to the Aldus Huxley discussion froma previous blog post. In “Island” Huxley creates an ideal communitty, using Eastern Philosophy and psycodelic drugs to form a small utopia. One of the principles they live by is complete non-violence, so when a neighboring dictator wants to take over the Island, the inhabitants just let it happen.

    Huxley’s point is, it is better for your principles lead to your distruction than to diviate from your principles for survival, because surrendering your principles is simply another worse kind of self-destruction.

    Being radically inclusive is a gamble. Saying anyone can participate has changed BM over the years and it will continue to do so. It is a leap of faith to resist the instinct to protect the event as we know it by excluding those who don’t understand or have different ideas. If we started doing so it would be us causing the damage.

    As much as I’ve disagreed with Caveat on the academia issue, he’s right on here.

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  • JV says:

    Doesn’t have to be either/or. A balance can by struck and ad hoc criteria can be used as situations arise. I’m generally in favor of the “all are welcome” policy, but even with that, there can be limitations based on how a certain inclusion could adversely affect Burning Man. Because let’s face it, the yahoos ruin everything if allowed to. And yeah, I’m gonna go on record as stating that there are, in fact, yahoos whose agenda (or really, total lack of one aside from “PARTY!!”) is detrimental if unchecked.

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  • Peace says:

    @JV …SERIOUSLY? There is a level of “partying” you would not allow at Burning Man? Short of burning virgins at the stake I have no idea where you would draw that line or who would have the moral athority to draw it.

    You just can’t say, “you can’t come” without dimishing the event.

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  • sdjfhdsfhdfkh says:

    i’m tired of the whole us-vs-them thing. i think that radical inclusion means finding COMMON GROUND that unites everyone who wants to be involved, even if their backgrounds, personal beliefs in stuff, etc are different.

    i think the burnier–than-thou folks are just as dangerous as the yahoos or whatever labels they want to use to define anyone they feel threatened by. using the amount of years you’ve burned or the ways you burn as a justification for your ego as a burner is, i believe, a bad enough agenda. the burnier-than-thou’s tend to label people and create separation among burners far easier and quicker than anyone else seems to.

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  • JV says:

    My choice of words probably wasn’t a good one, but of course there are people/groups who, if left unfettered, would affect BM negatively enough to basically destroy it. The BMORG already shuts plenty of them out, mostly around corporate entities, so I don’t really see how making further distinctions is somehow unprecedented. My main point anyway was that it’s not an either/or proposition. There is no purely inclusive policy in place, nor is there a highly restrictive one. Taking it on a case-by-case basis is probably the best course, and it’s what the BMORG is doing already.

    And no, I do not wish to curtail anyone’s partying, lest my own get curtailed. I don’t think that’s in danger, anyway.

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  • Peace says:

    I think the bottom line is, anyone can come, even if you’re a corporation who wants to setup a camp at Burning Man. You just can’t setup a corporate camp at Burning Man. You can’t open a store, you can’t use it to promote your product (unless you are a very sneeky champaign company), you can’t be a corporation. You are just a group of people who happen to work for the same company. It’s the other principles that make Radical Inclusion possible.

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  • Camber BlankPage says:

    Maslow was a wimp! He did a great job of showing the human need for love and belonging but he failed to include that there is a shadow of that need for our identity to reject other people and communities. Fortunately, I think the need to reject isn’t nearly as strong, or as necessary, and can be reduced and stripped of power if I am aware of it.

    I also think there needs to be a HUGE distinction between actions, beliefs, and people. You may believe in some zombie, ninja, spaghetti god but that doesn’t make you a good person or a bad person. Throwing a fun-licious zombie, ninja, spaghetti party doesn’t make you a good person or a bad person. Assaulting somebody that doesn’t believe in your zombie, ninja, spaghetti god? Well, I’m not arrogant enough to say that makes you a good person or a bad person, but you aren’t welcome to my party where there are other non-believers whom could potential trigger another violent incident.

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  • Emma-gee Old Man says:

    “The utility of Burning Man’s 10 Principles…. is precisely that they can contradict each other.”

    No. While principles of equality and liberty and fuzzybunnies certainly can have points of conflict between each other, that doesn’t give them ‘utility.’ At their best, it means that difficult decisions require thoughtful persons to carefully consider multiple, opposing guidelines in an effort to reach a decision that feels honorable and just. At best.

    But all too often, when people’s ‘principles’ contradict each other, then their selective use of them amounts to little more than stating Their Personal Position which they conveniently put forth as though it were some larger Noble Truth.

    While almost anyone can engage in this sort of self-rationalizing/justifying behavior, in its purest form it is most often perpetrated by individuals in positions of hierarchical power who claim, to one degree or another, to *not* be in a position of hierarchical power.

    I’m not imposing my personal judgment upon you. No… It’s not my choice… This is simply one of our guiding principles. Unless, of course, I decide differently, at which point I will conveniently invoke one of our other, contradictory guiding principles.

    — All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others —

    “Three years later, as it grew, the annual burn was adopted by the Cacophony Society, not the San Francisco Democratic Party. If you can’t tell the difference, you’re the one they were making fun of.”

    Guess what, friend? The personal is political. The ‘Principles’ are political. It’s all fucking political. And if you can’t see the connections between it all, then instead of pointing your finger in self-righteous certainty at the dreadlocked activist kid, perhaps you should point it at that angry, ranting guy over there in the mirror.

    “…not once in the 10 Principles does it mention politics.”

    Yeah, well, the U.S. Constitution doesn’t mention politics, either. Is it possible that a statement might be deeply political even though it does not expressly use the word? Hmmm…

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  • Karina Seymoure says:

    I’m impressed, I must say. Really not often do I encounter a blog that’s both educative and entertaining, and let me inform you, you have hit the nail on the head. Your idea is outstanding; the issue is something that not enough individuals are talking intelligently about. I am very happy that I stumbled across this in my search for one thing regarding this.

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  • Hells yes. Camp Burnier Than Thou was here, but they moved to a better location. Less dust. Tell Geekster I said hi when you find it :D

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