[This post is part of the 10 Principles blog series, an ongoing exploration of the history, philosophy and dynamics of Burning Man’s 10 Principles in Black Rock City and around the world. We welcome your voice in the conversation.]
Of all the Ten Principles, I think the one most of us struggle with at one point or another is Radical Inclusion. Usually, that’s because it is in near-direct opposition to Burning Man’s North Star, the ideal that brought most of our bedraggled, bedazzled butts to the Black Rock in the first place: Radical Self-Expression.
Usually, when I think about Radical Inclusion, I think about the way we judge other Burners for doing it wrong in various ways: Too much oontz oontz or a preponderance of yarn dreads…wearing cargo shorts instead of hot pants…watching the event through the window of an RV…marching around screaming CHIIIRRRRRRRP when other people are trying to sleep. There are a million ways to do Burning Man, and just about any way you choose to do it, somebody’s going to have a problem with it.
But recently, my perception of the Radical Inclusion debate shifted, when I realized that we as a community might have an inclusion problem on a much more basic level.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend posted in a public forum that she, a gay woman, would like her community to stop using gay slurs like “fag,” particularly from one straight person to another. Straight people calling each other gay as an insult, she said, was indirectly perpetuating homophobia.
Well, she didn’t say it as nicely as that, and the reaction from the straight community was pretty strong. “We can call each other what we want,” the straights responded, almost in one voice. “It’s just a word, and we are just expressing ourselves.”
The resulting debate lasted for weeks, hurt a lot of feelings, and in the end nobody had an answer. Even among a relatively tight-knit group of Burners, it was impossible to agree. Is it acceptable to use gay slurs, or not? Are they even slurs if you don’t mean them that way?
Meanwhile in Sochi, the Olympic Games kicked off amid controversy over Russia’s strict anti-gay laws. There, the culture is very different from inside our Black Rock bubble: you can technically be arrested for talking about gay rights at all. Homophobia and anti-gay violence are common, as is discrimination.
Vladimir Putin insisted that the Games were a safe place for LGBTQ athletes, though he did have one message to the homosexuals: “Just leave kids alone, please.” The fact that homosexuality is still, in many cultures, equated with pedophilia is a pretty good indicator that LGBTQ people are still not fully understood or respected everywhere. Of course, the world responded with messages of tolerance—but the response isn’t what bothers me. It’s the initial intention: Gay people are not accepted in some cultures, full stop.
Here in the States, gay rights are finally improving to the level of near-equality—and for many people, it feels like it’s okay to relax a little. Calling your friend a “fag,” according to millions of straight American males, is practically a term of endearment. It’s a gentle insult, usually used as a joke. It’s far more common outside the Burning Man community than within it, but because our community is based in America, you can’t go too long without hearing it.
“Gay” isn’t the only epithet I hear from my American brethren and sistren. I am personally guilty of calling things “retarded” now and then. And there are plenty more. We use them; we hear them; we laugh. We don’t think too much about what it means here in our community, compared to what it means halfway around the world.
It usually doesn’t mean anything, but it does, but it doesn’t—but it does.
So here are some questions for you:
Do you use epithets, jokingly or not?
How does that work with your understanding of Radical Inclusion and Radical Self-Expression?
With your knowledge of tolerance issues in the modern world, would you ever consider changing how you use words with loaded meaning?
Are there things you might say in the default world but wouldn’t say at Burning Man, or vice versa?
The Hun has been building and blogging Black Rock City since 2005 as a member of the Department of Public Works. You can find her at jhfearless.com.
Top photo: Big Words by Laura Kimpton, Burning Man 2011. Photo by Steph Goralnick.