You’ve Failed, Now Do What Feels Like Burning Man – “Too Offensive For Burning Man?” part 4

In prior posts we’ve looked at the danger of trying to make generally applicable, abstract, rules for dealing with acidic art that everyone is supposed to follow. Doing so only creates more headaches, more tension, less autonomy, and ends up keeping communities from coming up with solutions that address the specific needs of the specific people actually involved in this situation.

That’s crucial to keep in mind if you reach a point at which, having listened closely to everyone involved and tried to find ways that supports both inclusion and expression, it just ain’t gonna happen. No one is going to agree, the situation is intractable, and a hard decision has to be made.


This is the final post in a series on how best to handle art that disrupts communities.  The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the Burning Man Project.  The whole series can be found here.


What happens next is that you are making a decision for this moment, with these people – not that you are setting a precedent for everybody and all time. What’s happening is that you’ve failed. You’re not going to get the best outcome, so you’ll have to settle for a stopgap one.

And hey, failure happens. Burning Man is built on a staggering number of failures and screw-ups, which were also learning experiences that helped everyone do it better next time. That’s okay.

But what they didn’t do is say “well, since we failed last time, we’d better fail the exact same way every time this situation comes up again.” They didn’t turn failure into precedent.

The next time a situation like this comes up, you’re still going to want to try having as much inclusion and as much expression both as you can get. You’re still going to want to talk to everybody and get their perspectives and see if you can help them get what they want in a way that also resolves the problem (provided that you’re not dealing with the same bad actors behaving in bad faith over and over again). That’s the go-to approach, regardless of whatever hack you need to do right this moment because dammit, sometimes doing the right thing doesn’t actually work and life sucks that way. BUT, the more you try to do it right, even if you fail, the better you get at it.

Still, even granted all this, there are these times, these moments, where you have a serious problem and somebody isn’t going to be happy and you have to make a judgment call. So what do you do? Come down on the side of expression? Of inclusion?

No and no – you’re not coming down on either side, because you need both. What you’re going to do now is the best thing you can think of for the people involved. You do the thing that, given the limitations you’re working under, feels most like Burning Man.

And that’s a subjective call, absolutely: but again, you’re not dealing with simple variables that can be gamed out in the abstract, you’re dealing with specific people in the here and now, who have their own unique needs, in a situation and environment that will be different every time. It’s those particulars, those specifics, that you need to focus on: your guiding Principle at this point isn’t inclusion or expression – it’s Immediacy. Given the necessity for an imperfect solution – given the fact that we have failed to solve this the way we really want to – what is going to work best with these people, at your event, in your community, at this moment? The aim you’re going for isn’t some arbitrary standard of good or bad, right or wrong, it’s: “what feels most like Burning Man?” Because that’s what everybody came here for, and that’s what we’re all about.

If you’ve failed to have the most Burning Man approach, which is to resolve it so that everybody gets to express themselves and everybody gets to be included, do whatever the next most Burning Man thing is. And there’s no way somebody looking from the outside in, without access to the specific people and context, can tell you what that is in advance. This is especially true for a global community – a simple set of instructions from Headquarters isn’t going to be able to adequately resolve a conflict over violent words at a burn in Asia, a conflict over depictions of racial history in the American west, and an issue over religious persecution in Spain. But the people at these events know what Burning Man feels like. You do.

And if we fail sometimes to get this right, as long as we’re genuinely trying to do better each time, it’s okay. That’s Burning Man.

Play Often Achieves What Stern Lectures Can’t

What you don’t have to do is issue some sort of Solomon-like paean of wisdom that solves racism or asshole behavior forever. Well, I mean, if you’ve got something like that, awesome. Do that. But, if you’ve got that just ready to go, what the hell are you waiting for? Seriously, why aren’t you doing that now? Speaking for myself, I’d love to hear it.

But if you don’t have that, it’s okay. You can admit to the imperfections of this situation. You can admit that what you’re doing is provisional, best-you’ve-got-at-the-moment. And you can remember – please do – that often what feels most like Burning Man is art and play and bizarre and irrational, rather than a stern lecture about right and wrong.

While you want to be careful not to make the situation worse, being playful, taking an approach grounded in art and whimsy, can often make things a whole lot better. Those are tools at your disposal, and they are often the best tools you’ve got. Don’t put them away just because the situation is serious.

If nobody’s having fun, or at least laughing in the face of catastrophe, it probably won’t feel much like Burning Man.

The final thing you do is learn from your experience and try to do better next time. Which, incidentally, is exactly what you’ll do even if everything goes right. The whole point is that no two situations will be the same, there is no universal solution, but you can get better at this.

Some Burning Man community leaders are absolutely amazing at these difficult conversations. Astonishingly good. They got that way by having these conversations, not avoiding them, and embracing complexity and the contradictions of our Principles, not looking for the quickest way out.

I think the best way we can prepare for these situations is not to create a better set of rules, but to learn from one another how to have difficult conversations. I think a set of best practices, of approaches and tools that other Burners and organizers have used to get people to talk to one another honestly and authentically, would be of tremendous use.

A Final Thought About Why This is Hard

For those of you who have read all this and are thinking: “well, that was a lot of words just to tell us to always be inclusive and encourage people to express themselves, even when those two things clash; to use our best judgment when there’s an issue; and to focus on what feels most like Burning Man. Really, it seems like that’s actually pretty simple.”

To you I say: yeah, absolutely right.

The best approach is actually very simple in theory but very difficult in practice. The problem is that in our effort to solve these issues we usually make it too complicated in theory in an attempt to make it simple in practice – to try to shield people from having to be autonomous agents who think for themselves. Default world culture prefers consistent directions that everyone follows to people being challenged to come up with their own best solutions.

Burning Man doesn’t work that way: the 10 Principles help you come up with better approaches to these problems in the moment, not in the abstract. They help you find ways to make it feel like Burning Man, but they don’t give you right answers.


Cover image:  painting by Piero di Cosimo

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

31 Comments on “You’ve Failed, Now Do What Feels Like Burning Man – “Too Offensive For Burning Man?” part 4

  • Augie says:

    Nicely put. Miss you all.

    Augie (“)

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  • Crash says:

    this whole series has been SO burning man.

    the last two paragraphs especially.

    the default world is all about rules to follow, so you don’t have to think too hard, that you can lean against so you don’t fuck up too badly.

    Burning man isn’t about that. it’s not about walking in straight lines, and it’s not about safety. It’s about discovery. talking with people who don’t share your perspective is a great way to discover something, and finding difficult solutions to difficult problems is exactly what gets the man built every single year (shoutout to you vitruvian man, you may not have spun, but you were still majestic).

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  • RedPandaMonium says:

    Very well written. Coming from someone who likes to shake up the status quo, there is a line where ones art should be heeded not to cross over into outright hostility just for the sake of being hostile. And, the conclusion begs people to take this concept of treating others with dignity and respect into the default world where us burners are role models for the narrow minded.

    Anyways, that’s what I took away from this series.

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  • Fnu Lnu says:

    Everything Cav said is right on. And, at the end of the day, the thing that feels most like Burning Man to me is usually the thing that feels like love.

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  • Let’s use some concrete examples. Say that Harvey Weinstein were coming to the Playa, along with Bill Cosby — before they were jailed, or after. A number of people say, “I can’t feel safe with those people here even though (they are not convicted/have served their time.)” How do you resolve it? To include one person you must exclude another. Does the number of people change this, if 20 people will leave if they come? 100? 1,000? Or is it the principle? Now they want to put up an installation, “In defence of sexual predation.” What are you concretely proposing to do?

    Next the folks from “Unite the Right” want to come and have a march and an installation about the evil of Jews, well decorated with swastikas. Some from my tribe declare they can’t feel safe on the playa if they are here. What does your philosophy suggest be done?

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    • Bilbo says:

      I am obviously not the writer but this is maybe a good exercise to see if I understand his thoughts.

      In the case of Harvey and Bill Cosby, well this isn’t exactly art but we’ll ignore that. You would talk to the people having concerns, talk to Bill and Harvey themselves. Most likely the fact that their behaviors were brought to light had a profound impact on their lives and they are not the same people they were, though they absolutely could be.

      To me that situation would then most likely devolve to the mediators take on Bill and Harvey’s response to people being uncomfortable by their presence, and perhaps giving them a chance to speak to those who feel concerned. It might be that after having a chance to talk and interact with the two, rather than basing judgments off of a very limited perspective of someones life, people’s concerns are alleviated and there is no more conflict.

      However in the event that people still feel absolutely unsafe that these two people are present to a degree they have to leave themselves, then a hard decision has to be made. Maybe Bill and Harvey are told to leave, and maybe that’s the right choice. Maybe not. But that’s the point right? Every situation will be unique and there will never be just one right answer. The only thing we can do is try our best to reach the best outcome to strengthen the community.

      As far as the second example I think it’s quite clear that any hate speech or obvious targeting of any group of people as “lesser” would absolutely not be tolerated in any event. That’s not art, it’s plain prejudice

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    • Andy Cohen says:

      >the evil of Jews, well decorated with swastikas

      Why do you think Jews are evil? Swastikas are patently offensive, you should not be displaying them on the playa in decorated fashion.

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      • Shrek says:

        The most Burning Man response possible to most things is to burn it to the ground and start all over again. Whether the art “worked” or “didn’t”. … Just saying!

        The Nazi example is an explicit example of “acidic art” – it is specifically designed to provoke, to create exclusion, and incite community violence. It’s the easiest call in the world – they are not there in any good faith support of the Ten Principles. If they want to stick around then they better be damned ready to put on a Playa performance of “Springtime For Hitler” from Mel Brooks’ The Producers; or the rest of the community will have to dress up like Captain America (naked, but in red white and blue body paint, of course) and kick their asses.

        In the case of two famous sexual predators; as far as I know, Burning Man doesn’t cross check the names on their ticket sales site against any National sex crime registry. I don’t see how you can exclude those two assholes just because they are famous, unless you are willing to do the detailed work of also excluding the many such assholes who are not famous. I can certainly understand worrying about the safety concerns due to the presence of such individuals, but there’s far more to fear from the predators you don’t recognize than the everybody recognizes well before they ever have a chance to get close to you.

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      • Keary says:

        He was positing a hypothetical question regarding Unite the Right. You are taking a phrase out of the context of the sentence and incorrectly ascribing it to his belief.

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  • King Of The North says:

    Well considered and written. I love a libertarian spirit, thick skin, and fucking you if you can’t take a joke. However, I believe in kindness and compassion too. Navigating my own convoluted beliefs (somehow, I often manage to hold opposite views at the same time) is tricky enough. Having to peacemake within a community… well, I’m just glad there are thoughtful people out there willing to take this on, and to do so with the lightest touch.

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  • Mary Swanson says:

    Radical Inclusion is very important. But don’t forget that BM is a hive of supreme perversion and is part of the rape culture. If we can’t protect the children from these offenses to common decency then we should not allow children into the event. Or find a way to somehow prevent ticket sales to people with severe personality disorders or felony records. Luckily, DPW doesn’t buy tickets or they’d all be out. PSA: Don’t place Kids’ Camp near the Ghetto next year. We had too many problems with DPW trying to get into camp to chat the kids up.

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  • Zhenya says:

    SIMPLE… but Not EASY.

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  • Christopher says:

    How about “popularity wins” (as much as I hate the sound of that). If most of the people hate it, get rid of it. If they build it for self expression then let them keep it… in the back of their tent.

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  • Cliff says:

    I read the series and loved it. It has me reflecting on my own long-standing issue….how do you break through the hesitation to create a Burning Man experience (maybe it would be considered art?) because of the fear that people could/will react badly to it? I’ve had a many-year thought of facilitating a Catholic Mass on playa….and actual Liturgy with a Priest. I was so set on this idea a few years ago that I made contact with a Catholic Priest in Reno that offers Mass in Gerlach once a month…who was totally up for it if I could get it to fruition. My impetus on this was/is a desire to see how a Mass on playa would manifest, who would show up for it, and how this ritual from my default life would play out in my Burn experience. I’m not a staunch Catholic, but I am one, and it’s always seemed so separate from my Burner identity.

    I’ve never pulled the trigger on this mostly because I’m already very busy with my current Burning Man responsibilities, but also because I’m fearful of the negative reactions it could generate. There are plenty of triggers that go along with anything Catholic. I’m not sure how I would process putting a lot of work into an experience that could be beautiful and impactful for me and some other folks, but painful and unwelcome by others. I’m still thinking on this possibility, but this series offered a good chance to reflect on it.

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    • Keary says:

      There is a good sized Jewish camp that holds Shabbat services with music and food. It’s a beautiful event open to all. I don’t see why a Mass should not be allowed to be celebrated. Certainly Buddhist and Hindu iconography is widely present at the event. I had my Bar Mitzvah on the playa. None of the above has been offensive or in poor taste. What happens if a religion oriented group decides Burning Man is a good place to proselytize? Or Westboro Baptist shows up and wants to show us the error of our ways?

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  • Hunter says:

    Caveat, this has been a brilliant discussion and some of your best writing. In the past, at the conclusion of most of your essays, you usually finished with a list of what you were ‘listening’ too while you were writing. What music were you listening too when you were writing this series? Write on…

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  • Cindy says:

    It’s not fair to blame the Jews for this.

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  • Marissa says:

    The thought that strikes me is that friction and dissonance is a collective opportunity not an existential threat. The more we engage with what is uncomfortable, the more we evolve and grow.

    Really enjoyed this series and fully support that idea of keeping ourselves in the moment instead of automating more of our interactions on playa (or anywhere else for that matter).

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    • Chester says:

      I agree. The Principle of “Immediacy” is the most vague and the easiest one to cite to get tiny boppers back to your tent. I mean, people only live once.

      I alway carry a walkie-talkie and pretend I’m someone important and I don’t have time for the 16 year-old escape from her parents. 90% of the time, it works every time!

      We need to spread this culture of free-love far and wide. These community standards are the future. The rest of the world needs to embrace what we’re doing out there on the playa. The gifting; the love. Peace!

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  • Joe says:

    “Some Burning Man community leaders are absolutely amazing at these difficult conversations. Astonishingly good. They got that way by having these conversations”

    It’s too bad we got an article about theory of what to do, rather than stories about actual leaders and how they had difficult conversations that we can learn from.

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  • BobC says:

    Burning man….your overwhelmingly white privilege is showing…

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  • I’d like to know what people posting here would do in the specific situation of a theme camp repeatedly bringing an upside down burning cross, calling it a pogo stick, claiming that they have POC in their camp who aren’t offended so it must be okay, and refusing to listen when other POC and allies stated they felt as if they could not reasonably feel safe around this “art”.

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    • Timmy Bunny Cute Face Fluffy Nice says:

      That’s a good question. Most camps do have a token POC to virtue signal that the camp is tolerant of blacks or whatever. It’s important to have at least one of them in every camp for appearances. Fortunately, there are so few POC at Burning Man that I don’t think they would raise a fuss if a camped strapped its POC to the pogo stick and then burned it. It’s called radical self expression or inclusion or immediacy or something like that.

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  • Angel says:

    I have to lol at whoever is deleting provocative comments on an article about art being provocative. Welcome to the metatheater!

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  • Steven Hempel says:

    I am the truth and the light

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  • PoiPriestess says:

    I don’t understand the point of these articles. Every example you gave crossed a legal line. Brandishing a knife while threatening people and soliciting kids for sex cross a legal standard. Why did you waste people’s time with these articles? Because you didn’t actually say anything with any example that shed any new light on things by my measure. Are you trying to say something more than, “don’t break the law when creating your art” because I don’t see how everyone can truly agree something crosses the line unless it does break the law. If this is Burning Man attempting to create some sort of safe space it’s puke worthy. I am a burner to not have to deal with safe spaces.

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    • Johan says:

      Even a legal line is a community rule we as people invented. That is the whole act of politics. There were times that soliciting kids for sex was normal. Even de term “kids” is people-made. At Halloween we chase people with chainsaws.

      I think this is really a great article series, that is holding up a mirror on viewpoints, emotions and the way we as people live in groups.
      Keep up the great work to all!

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