The Radical Act of Inclusion — Now As Much As Ever

People have tried to pull me into a number of discussions about whether we need to change the principle of Radical Inclusion because the times we’re in are so divisive, tumultuous, and evil. 

The times are different, absolutely. But the discussion isn’t. It’s exactly the same conversation we were having about Radical Inclusion in 2018, in 2012, and in 1996 — even before there was a principle of Radical Inclusion. The fundamental dynamic is always the same: we do not want to make art and create experiences with those people (the ones who believe in radical exclusion), yet Burning Man is at its very best when we figure out ways to make art and create experiences with everyone we possibly can. That will always be the case, and it will always be very hard, and it will always suck. It also represents a rare and precious opportunity in life. 

That rare and precious opportunity might suck less — I think this is true — if we didn’t try to make Burning Man culture the measure of all things in our lives. If we understood that it cannot be all things to all people, or even all things to us personally, at all times. Rather, Burning Man has particular things to offer, and thus plays a particular role in our lives. 

Which is another way of saying: Burning Man is not an exclusive culture. By definition. Not one Principle — not one — says anything about how and why to exclude people. The 10 Principles talk about respecting the needs of those you give gifts to, they talk about “Communal Effort” and “Civic Responsibility,” absolutely, but they never once encourage exclusion. Just the opposite. So if you need to be cutting people out of your life and deciding who you do and do not do things with based on their politics or associations … Burning Man culture is probably not the right tool to help you do that. Which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it: there are lots of good reasons to do that. There are people I don’t hang out with in my life, too. It’s just that Burning Man culture doesn’t actually lend itself to that kind of thing. 

Which is fine. There are plenty — plenty — of philosophies and religions and political movements that are happy to help you get angry at people and exclude them and strive for a more righteous world filled with people more like us. You’re never going to run out of systems of thought and belief offering to help you do that.

Burning Man is different. It’s radically inclusive (among other things). And the thing about Radical Inclusion is, it will make us feel uncomfortable. If we are entirely comfortable with the people we are including, then we’re not really being radically inclusive at all: we’re hanging out with people we’d hang out with anyway. Nothing radical about that.

Certain kinds of inclusions are radical acts. Surely we see that now more than ever. 

And sometimes we’re not up to that. And again, that’s fine. I am never going to tell anyone they have to hang out with Nazis, or tell Nazis that they have to hang out with me. Holy hell, no. But such inclusion, were I up to it, would indeed be a radical act. And when I want to exclude people in my life, I never try to justify it by saying “well, exclusion is a Burning Man thing.” 

It’s not. 

The problem comes in when including some people makes it impossible to include others — which I wrote about at length when asking the question “Is there art that is too offensive for Burning Man?” 

The answer to the question as stated is “no”: No, Burning Man revels in the offensive. And that’s important — we cannot be “radically self-expressive” if we have to promise to never to offend anyone. 

But for the record, telling someone “That piece of art seems racist to me” is Radical Self-expression, too. How can we possibly have a radically self-expressive community if it excludes honest discussions of racism? The idea that somehow offensive art is Radical Self-expression but that telling someone their art is offensive is not … How would that possibly work?

The number of Burners who insist that people have to put up with anything they do in the name of Radical Self-expression but who then try to shut the conversation down when they’re criticized is … frankly … embarrassing. 

Even worse, some kinds of offense are explicitly designed to chase other people away. To make their participation in our culture impossible. Hate symbols aren’t “just art,” they are objects with a history and were specifically designed to say “you do not belong here, and will be met with bodily harm if you try to stay.” It is not reasonable to expect people to feel included, or to participate, under such circumstances. That’s a threat, not an invitation, to participate.

Does that mean there should be a blanket ban on hate symbols or a list of forbidden words? No. Both because of Radical Inclusion and because there is a degree to which people may very well be using their Radical Self-expression to explore these symbols and historical issues in good faith. Much as “I don’t see color” is a bullshit answer to racism, “we don’t permit people to explore the art and issues of race as it arises in their own lives and the collective unconscious” is bullshit too … at least for Burning Man culture. Of course people need to be able to explore and examine the poisonous and troubling things in their lives and in their societies. That, too, is a radical act.

The way forward is to stop looking for abstract answers that apply in all cases. We don’t need rules, we need wisdom. Each situation is going to be unique, so the specific people who are present need to figure out whether those who are actually involved are acting in good faith or not, and whether it is reasonable for the specific people affected by their actions to feel threatened or not. 

Which is to say: this is the point at which the hard conversations have to happen. Not the imposition of a blanket rule, but a direct conversation with everyone involved to see how you can have the most Radical Inclusion and the most Radical Self-expression and the most Civic Responsibility and the most Participation and all the rest, all at once. 

And it’s really hard, and it often doesn’t work out, and you sometimes have to just admit that you’ve failed to live up to your standards and do the best stop-gap measure you can in this moment, and commit to trying even harder and doing at least a little bit better next time. 

But that’s what Burning Man culture is committed to: the hard conversation. Having it, learning from it, getting better at it, and then having it again. 

And if you read this and think “Fuck no! I’ve had enough hard conversations with these people! I don’t need more of this in my life!” … then absolutely, hell yes, draw that line! That is a legitimate and reasonable thing to say. Sometimes we need to draw lines of exclusion in our lives. It’s important! It matters! 

It’s just that Burning Man culture is constantly trying to find ways it can pull people in to create art together. That’s what it does. And so sometimes Burning Man is not the right thing that you need in your life at this moment. In fact, let’s say this even more clearly: Burning Man is never the only thing you’ll ever need in your life. The 10 Principles are not the right answer for every situation in life: they’re what you use to create Burning Man. That’s it. If they are useful to you in other situations as well, great! But if Burning Man is the only thing that determines who you associate with, who your friends are, how you vote, and what your politics are? I dunno — you probably need a second opinion.

It’s okay to say “you’re not what I need right now” to Burning Man culture — especially since, Burning Man culture being what it is, we’re committed to finding ways that will work for you to come back. That’s Radical Inclusion.

And … I’ll be honest here … there are ways in which I don’t know that Burning Man is the right tool for many of the struggles we’re facing now. If it’s the right lens through which to approach many of the conflicts we have. I really don’t. If you tell me “sometimes we just need to roll up our sleeves and fight,” I can’t disagree with you. 

But I am sure about this: humanity will always, always, need spaces where people who disagree can come together and find a common culture, a common task. There will always need to be spaces — impossible spaces — where people who don’t agree about much can still find ways to engage with one another.

With half of America turned against the other half, with much of the world in a fighting stance against the rest, we have a desperate need for spaces, even temporary ones, where we can change the subject, see one another, and learn how to work together. Even with those people. Especially when we are those people. 

Burning Man is the best such space I have ever encountered. Its value as a political prop, or a bandwagon jumping pawn in the culture wars, is very limited. It’s not good at that stuff. What it’s good at is getting very different people to come together and create experiences of art and Immediacy. Helping us express ourselves and see one another. It doesn’t draw firm lines, it offers transformational experiences. Which by definition shifts lines and proceeds from the basic assumption that participation can change people. 

That’s what it does. 

That is not the right solution to every problem. But there will always, always, be a need for it. It is not “now more than ever,” it is “now as much as ever.”



Image: Healing Hands (photo by Lauren Dooley)

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

18 Comments on “The Radical Act of Inclusion — Now As Much As Ever

  • Diogenes says:

    I have always loved the principles and practicing adherence and learning from that……radical Inclusion has always been a principle……..has the interpretation changed ? We have that principle and should get a pat on the back for being ‘there’ already …..not now suddenly needing to think about Inclusion……’s almost as if we should feel guilty instead of happy…..

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  • Tom ( the Bishop ) Andrejko says:

    Political correctness is Fascism pretending to be manners. (George Carlin). Burning Man is open to anyone who can make the journey and pay your way !!! Buy the ticket, take the ride.

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  • splat says:

    It’s hard for me to imagine the things people will do to each other, even though I’ve viewed mankind’s brutality in life. It’s hard to imagine why age discrimination is a thing, even though I’ve encountered it myself. And political differences? What a raging year of near all-out war between the factions. I guess I’m just delusional to think I can go to the playa and get away from much of these faults and ugly attributes that appear to bring some of the respondents here so far down toward an angry depressed state of expression.

    Yes, shit exists. But I’m still heading to the playa to feel the love and camaraderie that has buoyed my spirit higher than almost any other thing I have experienced in my life. Here’s to hoping we hug and genuinely feel the love that I know I, personally, and so many people I know want and need to feel.

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    Thank you for your article. You are spot on!!!!

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  • Harley K.Dubois says:

    Love this.

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  • Sebastian says:

    Really good piece, right on the spot about. I agree, radical inclusion is a way towards needed and important “experiences of art and Immediacy”

    Thank you Caveat

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  • having thoughts today says:

    This is more of an independent observation not a critique of the article.

    Burning Man is (currently) mostly white but it isn’t white culture. When Burners who are not white participate they often discover this! Radical Inclusion! The more any burner recognizes default culture is best left at gate the more they will get out of the burn. Then transformed attempt to not pick it back up at exodus… which is the much harder act.

    I think Burners who are american western white liberal progressives have the hardest time with this since often they have the least to leave behind at gate. Little parts of their default culture sneaks in.

    Ask a Black or Hispanic or Asian Burner how much they have to leave behind… much more. I sat with an Asian Burner at Shaman Camp in tears for some time as they shared with me how hard it was for them to do that and how transformative it was.

    As a burner from a white conservative southern culture I identified with much of what they revealed. Since there was so much we had to identify and leave at gate, most of it stays there.

    Not so much for my liberal american camp mates who assume Burning Man Culture is actually their culture due to the larger amounts of simpatico and its origins of a San Francisco scene.

    But it is still very important they leave it at gate too. It actually would really help with the Radical Inclusion thing.

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    • Juice says:

      I appreciate your insight on white liberals (me being one) and how it is most likely easier for many of us. It is providing some good food for thought. I hear you that it would be more difficult for conservatives to leave things at the gate, given that the event likely has more liberal attendees, and as someone who has attended in the past, this is good awareness for me to take in if I ever return. I would say it is much harder for BIPOC who have a lifetime of generational trauma, as well as current trauma due to systemic and overt racism in our society. These aren’t things that can necessarily just be left at the gate, but for many are carried always. I’m appreciative of the insight your comments have brought to me personally.

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    • BubbleWrap says:

      Thank you for this. Some Burners can’t leave their mobility or body differences at the gate. But we can find connections that strengthen us while we explore and share with others what aids and hinders our BRC experiences. That’s the best of Radical Inclusion to me.

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  • Amity Morin says:

    Now this! Great articles on this website. Thanks!

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  • Juice says:

    I am curious, and assume perhaps incorrectly, that the author of this piece is a white man. I would be very interested in hearing directly the experiences and perspectives of BIPOC burners and or from BIPOC who don’t attend because it doesn’t feel radically inclusive to them. While I agree with some of the things in this piece, some of it feels like typical whitewashing of the the bigger issues, which are not actually political, but ones that are about ethics and morality. How we treat people, finding ways towards a more equitable ways of being, anti-racism, etc may fall into political conversations, but they are about basic morality and ethics. Radical inclusion takes work. I want to know what the Burning Man organization is doing to be more radically inclusive? It is not passive. Just saying something is radically inclusive does not make it so. The author says what BM is good at is “What it’s good at is getting very different people to come together and create experiences of art and Immediacy.” I would argue that it is good at bringing different WHITE (mostly liberal) people together. That is not radical inclusion. As a mom of two BIPOC, it has become clear as the fabric of our society has been shifting to have difficult conversations and move to a place of more equity for all, that BM, like many festivals, is not shifting with the times. Maybe it won’t. Unless it does though, it’s not an event I feel comfortable attending or supporting. While my kids have not attended BM, it is clear to me that to best support them, I need to be in spaces that feel like my kids would be accepted, valued, feel their full worth, and if/when they encountered racism, whether it be overt or a micro aggression they would find support and action would be taken to stop or correct the harm done. As and example, BM has done some work to make consent a priority and important so that people feel safe. It can’t prevent all consent violations, but it can make its stance on consent known and take action when a violation occurs. What is being done to make other marginalized groups feel safe in this environment? I deeply appreciated the statement made by Death Guild recently, as to why they would not be attending BM if it happens this year. It highlights much of what needs to shift within the organization.

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  • Birning man is far from radically inclusive:

    I have never felt so unwelcome and uncomfortable as the time I entered the DPW VIP zone on the Esplanade, “we build this city so we can be arrogant “ attitude has got to go

    The arrogance of a San Francisco’s trustofarians about owing the event has got to go

    The frat party VIP zones have got to go

    The Center camp slated for the homeless shelter is a public health disaster zone and is no longer available to functional attendees

    Fraternity like structure of DPW and Death Guild has got to go

    Maybe drop the “radical” and just include everyone

    A Friend, 17 th year Burner

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  • Susan says:

    So powerful and amazing.

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  • Kurt Zorch says:

    Grow your tent – a great concept, but a hard thing to do in reality. As Caveat says, hard things but it’s important to keep trying.

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  • MT Jane says:

    Thank you for taking the time to work this out with us, CM — and with such generosity of spirit and wisdom. Grateful for a voice of reason.

    When I hear people using BurningMan as a soapbox for issues of the day, feels counter-intuitive to me.
    It creates a tear in the fabric, letting the de-fault world seep in.

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  • Monique Schiess says:

    We changed the wording of the inclusion principle at AfrikaBurn a few years ago. The context being that we feel that in a scenario where we are “inventing the world anew”(part of AB’s Mission), and that in its best iteration the event is a tool for change (through all those mechanisms that Caveat mentions) then being passive about integration is not an option (and truth be told, it really shouldn’t be for anyone or anything).

    Pretty much since inception of AfrikaBurn (but then ramped up and amplified from 2015) we have had an ongoing reflection on what barriers to entry to the event and then the community are in terms of historic and current disadvantage. In our country (South Africa) and it’s explicitly explicitly fucked up history and present, it is about race. So nestled in a much bigger dialogue, and strategy around this question, is the actual principle, which is beautiful and contains all the challenges that Caveat has outlined above. We felt that if a new new person is contemplating coming to the burn and feels that the principle appears as a little glib against their radically lived history and context, we felt that tweaking it and adding was the right thing to do. The essence is the same. It reads:

    Everyone should be able to be a part of AfrikaBurn. As an intentional community, committed to inventing the world anew, we actively pursue mechanisms to address imbalances and overcome barriers to participation, especially in light of past, current and systemic injustice.

    We welcome and respect the stranger. Anyone can belong.

    Here is the thinking behind it if you want to read more:

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