I don’t want to talk about diversity right now — I don’t have anything new to say about diversity at Burning Man that I haven’t already said elsewhere (such as here, here, and here). But I do want to talk about the conversation about diversity.
Let’s get meta.
I’ve recently been traveling around to different areas of the U.S., talking to Burners, and the topic of “diversity” in some form has come up every time. Anyone who thinks “this isn’t something Burning Man talks about” is clearly not paying attention, because from what I’ve observed over the last several years, it is a topic that most people who consider themselves an active part of Burning Man communities are actively trying, passionately trying, to talk about. (This includes Burning Man headquarters, for sure.) The amount of attention paid to it, and verbiage spilled on it, is enormous.
So why, if everyone wants to have this conversation, has it led to what pretty much everyone agrees is too little progress? Talking with Burners on my recent trips, I have two observations about that.
A Comments Section Is Not a Conversation
The first is the extraordinary degree to which these conversations are different when they are conducted in person and when they are conducted online.
While of course I have seen in-person conversations about diversity go off the rails, I have now had enough conversations about diversity at Burning Man online and in person to say that, in my experience, they are predictably different things. The recent in-person conversations I’ve had about diversity with Burners have been as far from online’s angry screeds and call outs and defensiveness as one could possibly get.
Participants were firm in their convictions, absolutely, but they were also compassionate. They understood just how difficult the conversation can be, and how conflicted we can be about it based on our own backgrounds and histories. They listened as much as they talked, and wanted to listen more. They were not blaming anybody, just looking for solutions. They were saddened by the way these conversations seem to turn into something completely different online, where people don’t so much talk as comment at each other.
And obviously “people who go to my book events” is not a representative sampling of “Burning Man participants,” let alone a larger population still. Some people are also trying to troll in person, too. Yet it did clearly demonstrate to me that not only is a different, better kind of conversation about diversity possible, but that people are having it in person.
This, I think, matters to know. By definition the conversations that happen online are more visible — but they are not more representative.
Hard Conversations Take Practice
The second observation is something that many people brought up in place after place, location after location: however eager we are to “solve” this, we also need to recognize that this is not a conversation we are good at having. That is something we need to be more aware of every time we talk about it: we are not good at talking about this, and need to proceed as though we’re learning the basics, rather than leading a graduate seminar.
However much we want to jump to the end and “solve diversity” right now, I don’t think we’re ready. In fact, a big part of our problem is that even among people of good will, doing and speaking in good faith, there is no clear agreement on what a “solution” looks like. We have identified a problem, and are clear on the direction we want to move in, but we don’t yet agree on where we’re going, or what success actually looks like.
When you think it about it, it’s quite appropriate that a discussion on “diversity” includes many diverse viewpoints, rather than a singular vision. But all too often we act as though there is a single page we need everybody to get on, and we proceed to discuss it as if that were the case.
We are bad at this. Not uniquely bad: the idea that Burning Man is worse at talking about diversity than other institutions in our culture is laughable. For all that it is a righteous one, this is a wickedly hard conversation. Our problem is that, because Burning Man is seen as culturally enlightening and in possession of moral authority, people (ourselves included) assume we must be good at talking about tough subjects. We’re not.
We value Radical Inclusion. We still struggle with it. The two are both true at once. (In fact, I’ve argued elsewhere that it is the nature of Radical Inclusion that you struggle with it. If it’s not hard, you’re not doing it right.)
A Hopeful Thought About Where We Go From Here
For all that we are bad at this, I left these conversations more optimistic than I started. To realize that the diversity conversations online are not actually representative of the diversity conversations happening in person is comforting — and to see them happening with insight and compassion is deeply gratifying.
And the thing about hard conversations is, we can get better at them.
Indeed, if there is a common thread that has been linking my recent thoughts on the hardest topics Burning Man culture faces, it is this: Burning Man doesn’t need more rules or rubrics — about diversity, about art, about economics, about plug-and-play — nearly as much as it needs community members who practice having hard conversations enough to get better at them.
Rules are, almost by definition, one-size-fits all, and after a certain point won’t serve a genuinely diverse community, while people who are genuinely good at hard conversations with people not in their immediate community have a much better chance of finding truly inclusive solutions that also allow us to move forward — not as one single entity, but as each of the thousands of communities that make up “Burning Man” around the world.
To me, what this suggests is that conversations about diversity are best handled locally, in person. By all means, look to far off thinkers and insightful articles and commentaries as inspiration — but have the conversations with the people around you, and nearby, about the situations you’re actually in.
To the extent I’ve seen that happening, those conversations about diversity have been genuinely inspiring, and I’m grateful.
Top photo: “Open Hearted Meditator” by Swig Miller, 2018 (photo by Mattias Löw)