I want to thank, and applaud, members of the HYBYCOZO art crew for bringing up the difficult issue of Burners appropriating the ritual objects and culture of indigenous people for the sake of a party costume. I’m writing this piece in the hope of continuing the dialogue they started.
There is, to me personally, no more sickening sight on playa – I find it revolting – and while I would never expect every member of a tribal culture, or any culture, to be offended in the same way by the same things, I think it’s sheer sophistry to suggest that there isn’t a reasonable expectation that this is an action with a reasonable chance (an overwhelming one, really) of being very offensive, even hurtful, to someone who no one wants to hurt.
I mean, come on: even the smallest familiarity with the history of indigenous peoples (in America and elsewhere) should provide plenty of very good rationales for Not Wearing The Costume … and if someone doesn’t have even the smallest familiarity with that history, then their claims that it’s a “homage” or “respectful” fall pancake flat, don’t they. “I’m making an homage to something I am choosing to remain willfully ignorant of” is an attitude that calls for an immediate time out so that whoever said it can go think about making better life choices.
But my righteous (and, goddamit, wholly justified) indignation runs into a problem pretty quickly: if someone were to ask me “Caveat, where’s your leg to stand on here,” I don’t think I’d be able to find it.
The Lowest Moral High Ground
At this year’s Global Leadership Conference, I came on stage in a costume that was a poor imitation of a Catholic cardinal’s. It was a riff on our “Da Vinci’s Workshop” theme, to be sure, but come on – while Catholics have never had to suffer the same level of oppression (and outright genocide) as indigenous people (and hey, were often involved in that oppression), anti-Catholic disenfranchisement and oppression in America and around the world is nevertheless a historical reality. There have been anti-Catholic riots in America, anti-Catholic murders, and – yes – systemic oppression. America had a Catholic president before it had a black president, to be sure, but it’s only had the one, and it took until the 1960s to get him, and you’d better believe a lot of people voted against John F. Kennedy because they felt a “papist” had no place in power. Meanwhile there are places around the world where Catholics are minority communities persecuted for practicing their faith.
Some of these people might have a pretty reasonable case to make that my putting on a costume, that I didn’t earn, imitating their sacred symbols, was offensive, and even hurtful.
I knew this full well, and I chose to do it anyway.
No one complained, but if someone had, what could I have said? I suppose I could have used my education as a defense … I suspect I know a lot more about Catholicism and what my act of appropriation meant than the people wearing native costumes at festivals do. And I could have made an identity based defense of my own: while there’s no Catholic (that I know of) in my background, I am half-Jewish, so, HEY, I could just bring up the Spanish Inquisition and call it even.
But … come on. That’s offensively facile. Anyone hearing me do that would be entitled to put me into a time out so that I could reconsider my life choices.
The simple fact is that from a standpoint of historical legitimacy and cultural appropriation, I had no business being in that costume. And yet, I’m not apologizing for it, and the honest truth is that I will almost certainly do it again.
And okay, look, there are various reasons why I think it’s far worse to appropriate native traditions than Catholic traditions – why somebody in a Pope outfit doesn’t offend me the way somebody putting on a headdress before taking a tab to go have a “spiritual” experience at an all night rave with a great laser show does – but at this point I have to ask: is this in any way a productive conversation to have?
Let’s Visualize Success
I don’t mean “should we even be talking about cultural appropriation of native cultures?” Of course we should. If somebody is being hurt, we should talk about it. But is the approach of trying to compile a list of oppression based costuming taboos that we then attempt to argue for actually going to help anyone? Including and especially any native peoples?
I don’t think it is. I think it is exactly the wrong way – at least at Burning Man – to go about having this conversation. Any taboo based conversation like this at Burning Man is going to quickly devolve from a legitimate discussion of how native peoples are getting screwed by rave culture to a conversation about white guys (ahem) defending their right to access their creativity by – I dunno – dressing like a Catholic cardinal. Which is legitimate on the merits but also completely beside the point if we’re trying to talk about native peoples. It’s counter-productive, pitting two important values – respecting native cultures and encouraging creative inspiration – against each other in a way that ultimately reduces both. It turns advocates of self-expression against basic cultural competency. Even if this is a fight that can be won (and I don’t think it can, I don’t think there’s any such thing as “winning” on these terms), it’s surely not how we want it to be fought.
I’m not, incidentally, saying that this is what the HYBYCOZO art crew did, but it’s certainly what the discussion quickly turned into. And this is usually what happens when unfamiliar issues of social justice are first brought up at Burning Man (and arguably anywhere, but let’s focus on Burning Man). That’s a dynamic that I suspect everyone wants to short circuit, whatever their politics –and to be clear, people of all political persuasions are welcomed at Burning Man. A commitment to Radical Inclusion must involve people someone disagrees with if it is to mean anything at all.
So how do we reframe these discussions in a Burning Man context? How do we do better?
(This is, of course, a suggestion made as a contribution to a dialogue – an invitation to further discussion of a common goal, not an attempt to have the final word.)
A Line in the Dust
The first thing to recognize – and this is a tough step to take for a lot of people – is that Burning Man is not a “safe space.” Not just physically, not just a dangerous environment where exposure to the elements or bad personal maintenance can kill you, but existentially. Burning Man is not psychologically benign. This is not an accident, and this is not a problem: this is why it works. Burning Man enables and encourages the level of creative exploration it does because it is a social and natural environment dedicated to tapping into the creative unconscious, the realm of the artist, and the creative unconscious is full of dangers and pitfalls. It does not respect logic or politics or even basic compassion. It respects inspiration and iconography, magic and symbolism. It values creative potency over common sense.
Burning Man reaches people because the stakes here are real, both physically and psychologically. The great love and good and comfort that people feel here is powered by the same creative inspiration that can do harm because it goes there. People feel safe at Burning Man not because they’re protected from harm, but because they feel empowered to take meaningful risks. Burning Man takes your risks and lubricates them. And if you fall on your ass, there will be plenty of people to help pick you up. But you can fall on your ass – you will fall on your ass – and it will hurt. And that means the stakes are real, and any growth you have here is real too. We are not here to make macaroni art. (Except for you, Macaroni Art Camp, and we love you.) We do not value the socially appropriate smile over the honestly felt roar.
Advocacy efforts that base their efforts at Burning Man on carefully reasoned arguments and the establishment of taboos and social norms are going to hit resistance, therefore, not because of their content but because they are trying to use reason to establish taboos and social norms. The form, not the content, becomes the issue. (Which is what I see happening in much of the discussion following the HYBYCOZO crew’s piece.)
It therefore seems to me that the most effective form of activism possible at Burning Man is to engage through acts of creative inspiration. Which is to say: make art. Create experiences. You will never find an environment more resistant to a rational argument, or a group of people more open to being inspired by an aesthetic vision. To not just like it, but to live it.
Whoever’s Having the Most Fun Wins
To my mind, there is a strong upside to this: surely the best outcome is not to get appropriators to shut up, but to enhance the real voice of the cultures they are thoughtlessly taking advantage of. To confront not with rules but with a powerful representation of the real lived experience – and through that, not to demand that they back off but to offer a way that they can, out of inspiration and their own free will, move forward to meet you where you want to go.
Interdictions in Burning Man culture simple don’t work unless they offer people something they find more inspiring. The creation of roads was a limitation, but helped enable a culture of camps and villages by making it possible for people to find one another. The adoption of speed limits and clear guidelines for Mutant Vehicles actually made more people think that developing and running an art car was possible for them – and now Burning Man is the global epicenter of art car culture.
The key to the promotion of social justice at Burning Man – I think, and I humbly offer up as an intended ally to a cause that, however imperfectly, I believe in – is not to try and lay down the law, but to create an artistic and experiential vision of a better approach that people will want to be part of. Especially if it’s fun and engaging and empowers their own creative goals.
It’s not easy, it’s a lot to ask of people who are honestly right on the merits and have a reasonable case for saying “why can’t people SEE THIS?” But we don’t live in a reasonable world. We live in a world where people are eager to be meaningfully engaged. In creative communities, whichever cause has the best art and whimsy on its side always wins.
The true test for anyone trying to change Burning Man culture is therefore not “can I explain myself well,” but, “can I offer an experience of a better world that people will walk towards on their own – even if they don’t understand it.” There’s no guarantee that this will work, of course, but I think that over 30 years, Burning Man has demonstrated that it’s far better to offer people a compelling choice through art and whimsy than it is to insist at them.
Even if they reject that choice, by coming to engage with it, the dialogue is probably being elevated and advanced – and will have a powerful symbol for the next time it comes up.
Photo by Dmitry Chuntul