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.