Running a successful war at Burning Man is extremely difficult — and what it means for a war to be “successful” at all is often not immediately apparent to people. But before we discuss the “how” and “why,” let’s talk about the “why not.”
Because if you try to start a war at Burning Man, you’re going constantly to run into three objections, two of which you’ll have to overcome, one of which you’ll need to make sure you respect.
This is Burning Man! War is Negative Energy! We Don’t do That Here!
The very existence of the Thunderdome should be enough to stop people from making this argument. The fact that Burning Man is an epicenter of personal meltdowns should be enough to get people to question this premise on their own. Go out at night in Black Rock City and you will find so many people who are feeling frightened and depressed and lonely … and that’s not a mistake. That’s how this works.
Burning Man is not the happiest therapist’s office on earth. We very much activate and explore the parts of life that people with a limited vocabulary will group together as “negative.” We keep trying to tell people “we are not a giant party,” and they keep ignoring us, and then they get mad and surprised when things happen out here that don’t happen at parties. Which doesn’t mean they have to fight a war, any more than they have to fight in Thunderdome, but it is something we do. Of course it is.
When Radical Self-Expression and Radical Inclusion work in tandem, the whole of the human experience gets brought in. Everyone we can bring in is asked to express what is foundational to them. To say that such expression should only deal with love and positive emotions begs the questions “Whose love? Whose positivity? On whose terms? What if we don’t experience those things the way they do? Why isn’t our experience legitimate?”
But then raises the further question: “Why CAN’T we use art and self-expression to explore and better understand things that distress us? Why is that not acceptable? If I want to make a statue that explores what scares me, or depresses me … if I want to create a ritual that pushes my own sadness and exposes my own isolation … if I want to tap into the anger inside me and turn it into a theme camp … why is that a problem? Why don’t we do that here?”
Of course we do that here. The fact that we can do that here is why this works. Places that demand you be happy and positive never achieve what Burning Man does.
War at Burning Man is an art project. It is an act of Radical Self-Expression, Communal Effort, Immediacy, Participation, Radical Self-Reliance, Gifting, and even … if we do it right, Radical Inclusion. (Wars need soldiers: anyone can participate. And if we’re good at creating war as an art project, the step between “new enlistee” and “general” is remarkably small.)
War at Burning Man can be done in a way that is completely consistent with the 10 Principles — at which point, where’s the objection? And why not try it … especially if it’s more fun than what you’re doing right now?
I Don’t Want to Hurt Anybody
Oh, absolutely! Neither do I! And I am pleased to be able to say that over the last nine years I’ve conducted four wars that have not resulted in a single injury, let alone fatality.
One only has to read the actual text of Radical Self-Expression to understand that non-consensually injuring someone isn’t what we’re talking about here.
So where the first objection is a failure to understand how Burning Man works, this objection comes from someone who can’t really imagine how a conflict at Burning Man could work. I mean, what do you DO?
That’s actually what this series is about. Because while this is rough play, to be sure, play that taps into the forms and patterns and edges of anger and strife and hostility … it is play. And play, done right, explores those things without falling victim to them. And can even harness them, sublimate them, for higher ends.
A well fought war leaves everyone happier than when you found them, eager to tell the stories and cherishing the memories and bonded with fellow participants.
Notice that in the war that is our text for this series – the conflict between Eggs Bar and HOTD — the major events are all ones that make people laugh with delight, rather than wince. Yes, HOTD’s ingenious move of opening a VIP section in Eggs Bar was an act of aggression — but it was so funny that it made Eggs Bar staff laugh their asses off about it, and many are still laughing today. Eggs Bar’s finding out the names of HOTD campers and secretly posting a fake shift schedule for them … yes, clearly that’s a strike against one’s foe, but it’s the kind of event that creates awe and wonder in everyone it touches. “How did they DO that? That’s really creative …”
Looked at another way: this conflict is an opportunity, a gift, through which your “opponents” can engage in their own acts of Radical Self-Expression; have an opportunity to participate in something amazing; and discover new levels of Radical Self-Reliance. If, through the events of the war, they actually feel that this is what’s happening, then far from hurting them, you’ve significantly enhanced their Burning Man experience.
You’re taking on a risk, to be sure: you’re risking that you can do this well, instead of screwing this up. But if you don’t want to take risks, should you really be at Burning Man? That’s not a moral judgment, just a practical question.
The final objection is:
I Don’t Want to
And this … well … this is actually a pretty good objection. I mean, you can try to talk them into it. You can give big speeches about the glory of conflict and the fun of war and the way in which this moment — this moment, right now — will elevate the soul and go down in Burning Man history as a time when we all became brothers and sisters together. You can totally give a St. Crispin’s Day speech.
But … if they still say no, you’ve gotta honor it. They’re cool. Move on.
And never, ever, try to twist someone’s arm into fighting a war, or use institutional leverage or power. (Although bribes are okay, as long as they’re funny.)
Even if twisting someone’s arm works — and it usually doesn’t — you really don’t want someone fighting in a war who resents being there. All that stuff I said about this being a gift and an act of self-expression and delight? People who are resentful about having to do something are terrible at giving it as a gift, will (accurately) express their resentment, and get in the way of the transmission of delight.
And that is a key dynamic of war at Burning Man: you’re trying to inspire people, not force them. If someone’s not actually inspired, or at least amused, they are right to say they shouldn’t be playing.
Inspiration can take many forms — that is exactly the point — but we all know the difference between being weirdly inspired by a set of strange circumstances, and being forced into something by a set of strange circumstances.
That’s the difference we’re playing with. And we’ll explore how in the next instalment.
Top photo: Battling it out in the Thunderdome (Photo by Steve Tambosso)