Publisher’s Note: This essay was written over a year ago, but due to Larry Harvey’s untimely death it was not released at the time. We are grateful to share it with you now, since it speaks so profoundly to some of the issues our community is facing as we evolve and grow. It was written in response to a request from the organizers of a Burning Man Regional Event, who were offered an affiliation opportunity that didn’t fit neatly within the bounds of the Principle of Decommodification, and asked for guidance from the Philosophical Center. As was his habit, Larry developed the piece slowly, thoughtfully, and collaboratively, incorporating contributions from many of his colleagues and friends. During his long tenure with Burning Man, Larry wrote extensively in this Journal and elsewhere, and anyone who wants to know more about the culture would do well to read more of his work. This may have been the last piece he wrote, but it will not be the last to be published here, as we go about the business of collecting his writings for publication.
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
―Ralph Waldo Emerson
Gifts in Burning Man culture are offered unconditionally. In the case of individuals who contribute to our community, such gifts are relatively easy to accept, and it is only common courtesy to recognize these givers and their contributions. While there is no requirement that anyone accept a gift, we do not put litmus tests about politics, lifestyle, moral worth, or anything else on individuals who wish to give unconditionally, and we should accept these contributions gracefully. This is an application of the Principle of Radical Inclusion.
It is also appropriate to thank those parties who give gifts in an institutional context. If an organization proffers gifts that are consistent with our values, we should certainly find an appropriate way to thank them. This can take the form of personal, one-to-one expressions of sincere gratitude. However, when dealing with individuals, organizations and enterprises, if anything is offered with an expectation of return, though it may be a friendly favor, it is not a gift — it is a transaction. Transactions aren’t a cardinal sin; they are a way of doing business, but in the case of institutions this can resemble what is known as a “co-branding opportunity,” a promotional exchange. The appearance of engaging in such a relationship without a culturally compelling reason can destroy the trust that authentic engagement depends on. This is an extension of the Principle of Decommodification.
In such situations, the standard we suggest is a default no — unless there is a culturally compelling reason to say yes — and determining this should be done on a case-by-case basis. There is no substitute for deep thought and engagement, and a standardized test is, in and of itself, a failure of our culture to engage — it can dehumanize experience.
But there are some approaches we can use and questions we can ask that can help bring clarity to this issue.
Finding Culturally Compatible Partners
In order to determine if there is a culturally compelling reason to say yes to an institutional gifting opportunity, we should at a minimum ask:
Are the values of the agency wishing to contribute aligned with our own?
- What is its structure? Is it corporate? Nonprofit? Community-based? A government agency?
- What is its mission? What are they trying to do in the world? The essential mission of the Burning Man Project is to disseminate the culture of our community throughout the world, and it is our maxim that the means that we employ must always be cognate with our values and goals. How closely do the values and goals of the organization match our own?
- What are its principles? What do they stand for? How aligned are their stated principles with our 10 Principles?
- What is its business model? How do they actually do what they do? How do they behave? Whatever their stated principles and mission, what means do they use and what results do they get? Remember: nonprofit organizations can have rapacious business models, while for-profit businesses can act ethically.
What is the relative value of this association?
- How are we benefiting from this association?
- How are they?
- If we are being asked to contribute substantially more to this relationship than we’re receiving, would we do it as a gift, without asking for anything in return? Would the other party consider turning their contribution into a gift? Have we asked?
- How much does what we are receiving directly benefit our community, or promote our values in the world, as opposed to simply being helpful in the moment?
What is the depth of story?
- Can you explain, without bullshit or spin, why this relationship is meaningful to Burners or to Burning Man culture?
- What more is happening beyond an exchange of endorsements or one consideration in exchange for another? Anything?
- Is this association genuinely supporting our mission and values, or will it ultimately distract from them? An unconditional gift can often be used in ways that truly fit the needs of the recipient. But conditional relationships can come with obligations, and the less such a relationship actually contributes to our mission, the heavier the burden of those obligations grows. There may be times when givers wish to specify exactly how their gifts will be employed. But we have found that when such well-intended contributions are in conflict with our values or our mission, it is often impossible to harmonize the vision of the donor with our own.
What is the authenticity of the relationship?
- Do we have a history of good relations with the entity wishing to contribute?
- How sensitive have they been in the past, and how accommodating are they now, to our cultural needs? Why would we associate with an organization that has not treated our cultural concerns as important?
- How did this idea come up? Was it proposed by their marketing department, or did someone at the company have an experience at a Burning Man event and is looking for a way to thank us? One example of this is Google’s famous use of Burning Man’s symbol in conjunction with their logo. Situated within one of the “O’s,” it appeared for one day only on their website, and the Burning Man organization was not consulted. But in the event, we judged this to be a spontaneous expression of enthusiasm and gratitude, not a cynical exploitation of our iconography and demographic.
This is not a checklist: it’s not that we can automatically connect with entities that meet 90% of these requirements, but refuse if they meet fewer. But it does illustrate the issues we should focus on, and highlights the ideal form of cooperation. While not a checklist, it can indicate a hazardous zone: the more you have to struggle with these questions, the less likely it is that the suggested relationship will live up to the values of our community.
Beware of Branding
“True stories, not brands” could be our informal motto on this issue.
Accepting a donation puts the focus on the work we’re doing and the culture we are building, but a commercial logo puts more emphasis on the transaction and can take the relationship perilously out of context. The Burning Man organization does not have an advertising budget, and in its internal discussions avoids the word “brand,” preferring “identity” or “reputation.” Reputation has a moral dimension. It is something earned by actions in a social arena in which people are immediately present to one another: its context is an actual community, not a demographic. Commercial brands and their attendant advertising campaigns do not issue from the lived reality of a community. They project images onto products and they cater to consumers. More meaningful symbols spontaneously emanate out of cultural interaction. At the Burning Man event in the Black Rock Desert, team members in various departments create their own logos to express a sense of group belonging, and the Burning Man symbol itself derives from a hand-drawn cartoon by a participant on a postcard sent to Burning Man headquarters — it was not produced by focus groups.
We do not intend to fetishize a strict “no logos” rule. But it is far, far better to find a way to thank donors directly through authentic and expressive gestures than to insinuate a logo near our own iconography. And if in very special situations you must use a non-commercial logo, it is better to locate it in a discretely separate context where it is distant from any community gathering places (virtual and otherwise). Gifts should enable participants to embrace immediate experience, but they should never be allowed to intrude upon or substitute for such experience. There should be no suggestion that anything in our community is “sponsored by” or “brought to you by.” This is even more vital when dealing with Burning Man’s own iconography. Except in cases of truly deep and sincere relationships, other institutions should not be enabled to appropriate our symbols.
Framing Has Value
When contemplating gifting opportunities, you must be sensitive to how they are discussed. In the case of individual patrons, a donation shouldn’t be a secret unless the donor prefers to remain anonymous. But we do need a commitment from businesses and other organizations to talk about their relationship with Burning Man in ways that do not place our community in the position of looking like a commercial or endorsing entity. This is the difference between working with an organization that respects our values and what we are trying to do in the world, and an organization that does not. This should be laid out not just in principle, but achieved through constant practice: frank and open discussions within your team or your community can help ensure the language that you publicly employ reflects our culture.
One final thought. This discourse is as much about sensibility and intuition, soulful qualities, as it is about rules and formal criteria. Steer clear of dogma in all of your discussions, and keep in mind the motto of the Philosophical Center: Belief is Thought at Rest.
Top photo by unknown photographer