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.”
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.”