The second most common, and least helpful, way of looking at the question of “what to do about offensive art” is to put it as a contest between Radical Inclusion (making the argument that everybody needs to feel welcomed) and Radical Self-Expression (making the argument that everybody gets to express themselves however they want). Which of them should win? Which is the most important Principle?
But of course neither is the more important Principle: all 10 are equally important and equally indispensable. To the farthest point we can take it at any given moment, everyone is welcome here; and to the farthest point we can take it at any given moment, everyone gets to express themselves according to their own muse. Neither is really negotiable – and in fact, if you sacrifice one for the other on a routine basis, you lose both.
This is the second in a four-part series on how best to handle art that disrupts communities. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the Burning Man Project. Once published, the whole series can be found here.
Imposing routine restrictions on expression will end up making more people feel alienated, and fear that what is authentically inside them is unwelcome and doesn’t belong. While imposing ongoing restrictions on who can come to our events based on their aesthetics or politics will dampen peoples’ willingness to be authentic, for fear of accidentally ending up on the outside. Routinely subordinating any Principle to any other causes them to become slogans, not principles, and Burning Man to collapse into a summer school camp for earnest artists, something literally nobody signed up for.
Instead, the goal that we are always striving for – often failing, but always trying – is to have as much of all 10 as we can possibly get, at the same time. We don’t want to sacrifice inclusion for expression, or expression for inclusion: we want both. We need both, if anything we do is going to feel like Burning Man.
So the question to ask when confronted with acidic art is never “which do we value more: Radical Inclusion or Radical Self-Expression?” It is: “given the circumstances we’re in, how do we get as much Radical Inclusion and as much Radical Self-Expression as possible?”
(And this, it should be noted, applies to other conflicts between Principles as well: we don’t want to sacrifice Radical Self-Reliance for Communal Effort, or Communal Effort for Radical Self-Reliance – we want both. We don’t want to have to decide “between” Participation and Decommodification, or Gifting and Civic Responsibility, or any other hypothetical conflict – we need all 10, even when they conflict, especially when they conflict, if Burning Man is going to happen.)
And really, when you think about it, our goal here isn’t to exclude the makers of acidic art – who are in fact creating and participating – let alone to stifle the ability of people to say “I’m offended.” If people feel they “aren’t allowed” to be offended by what honestly offends them, then they can’t be authentically self-expressive. We want both groups of people to feel as welcomed and included here as possible, and to be able to express themselves as much as possible.
So when one encounters art that actually might be creating a problem – that potentially damages our ability to have an authentic community, rather than just offending someone – the goal is not to take the side of either expression or inclusion, but to find a way to use expression, inclusion, and the other 10 Principles to address the situation.
In the next installment, we’ll talk about what that looks like.