The session on “outreach to subcultures” at the Global Leadership Conference was winding down when the Kid-Who-Cares-More-Than-You in the front row raised his hand to ask the panelists a question.
It went something like this (I’m paraphrasing from memory):
“We’re hearing about all these really successful regional groups that are doing amazing community work, but I’m worried because I know that they’re also being approached to partner by corporate groups and religious groups that don’t live by our values, who are way off politically, and I’m wondering what we do to protect ourselves – to create a firewall that makes it clear that we’re not open to these partnerships. What do we do?”
I generally don’t get angry in discussions about Burning Man, even if we’re arguing. The worst that usually happens is I’ll mutter “fucking burners” under my breath, or tell one of my friends at Media Mecca how I hate us all because … well, I mean, look at us. Bunch of freaks. But that’s it. Otherwise not worth getting mad over. Not when there’s a friendly bunch of freaks to play with.
But that? What the kid-who-cares-more-than-you asked? I spent the next 10 minutes trying to find a dueling pistol. Because that? That thing he said? THAT pisses me off something fierce.
I didn’t get to do anything about it. I wasn’t wearing my rapier that day and the session ended two minutes later, before I got a chance to respond. But as the crowd was filing out of the room the lovely regional leader sitting next to me, who just happened to be a clinical psychologist, told me “Go ahead and say it. Whatever it is, you really need to get it out.”
She’s right. I do. Because while ranting may be the lowest form of radical self-expression, sometimes you just gotta slum.
So let me ask His Dreadlocked Majesty, King of White Activists: where exactly do burners get off looking down our pierced noses at people who want to help? What exactly makes us so much better than people who take a shower before they gift?
The next logical step from only letting people help if their politics agree with you is only helping people who vote your way. And then, just because that kind of snobbery knows no bounds, only helping people who listen to dubstep in between accepting your charity and joining your protest against the patriarchy.
We’re better than that. We’re better than every part of that. To understand why, let’s start at the beginning.
When Larry Harvey went to Baker Beach in 1986, he did not hold a voter registration drive. He burned a “man.” The “man” was not holding a placard that said “Don’t blame me I voted for Mondale.” Three years later, as it grew, the annual burn was adopted by the Cacophony Society, not the San Francisco Democratic Party. If you can’t tell the difference, you’re the one they were making fun of.
Burning Man has, over the years, inspired a lot of people to do a lot of good – but not once in the 10 Principles does it mention politics. Your environmentalist credentials are not checked at the gate. There’s no pop quiz to see how you feel about free trade. Your “free Mumia” tattoo is not condemned, but neither is it seen as a sign of virtue. There is no political litmus test to attend Burning Man or participate in our culture.
In fact, there is no test. At all. Anyone is welcome. “Radical inclusion” means not assuming that the people one camp over share your politics.
And if they don’t, if they have their own opinions, it certainly doesn’t mean you cut them off. What’s radically inclusive about drawing up the same goddamn boundary lines that divide everyone already?
No, that’s not us. We’re the people who don’t turn our backs on someone who says “Can I help?” That’s our best claim to virtue.
Because face it, we’re no better than anybody else. We’re all too often vain and cliquish, wasteful and childish, petty and superficial. Being a burner might mean you don’t actually put your pants on in the morning just like everyone else, but it gives you nothing in the way of automatic righteousness.
But at our best we’re inventive, we have a better time than anyone else on the planet, and when someone says “Can I help?” we don’t turn away.
You’re here because people didn’t turn you away, despite the fact that you – like me – are a colossal fuck-up.
Now some of us are out in the world, doing good things. And sometimes people and organizations with whom they don’t agree (or you don’t agree) want to help. And Kid Look-I’m-A-Liberal-Too! over here wants to know how we protect ourselves from them.
We don’t. We answer them. We give them an opportunity to help.
Which doesn’t mean we have to abandon our own principles: if companies want to install solar panels that bear their logos … I don’t think we can do that. If companies will help us distribute meals in poor neighborhoods if we include a NutriYum soft drink? Or a pamphlet about Scientology? Sorry, no can do. Clubbing baby seals is right out if the clubs leave a trace.
But we can tell them how they can help, and we can listen to reasonable alternatives.
The utility of Burning Man’s 10 Principles, as Larry Harvey said in his keynote the next day, is precisely that they can contradict each other. We are called upon to be both radically inclusive and radically self-expressive (among other things); we need to find our capacity to be inclusive of others while being true to ourselves. That’s a difficult calling – a line that no two people will likely ever walk the same way – but self-evidently a good one.
It may be uncomfortable. It may be desperately uncomfortable, depending on who we’re talking to. But that’s what the “radical” part means: we push ourselves to be more than we are. We’re only human. We’ll never be saints, but we can be trying at least a little harder than we are now to be inclusive.
God I hate that kid. But as it happens he’s friends with some friends of mine, who vouch for him – and he’s probably out doing more good in the world than I am. He, ‘ya know, “cares” about stuff.
I guess it takes all kinds.
Another regional rep in the session told a story about how her group (I can’t for the life of me remember where) was working with a local Catholic church to support high-risk populations.
“They’re great,” she said. “The church people are completely accepting of all our weirdness. It’s actually us who are the problem. I’ve got all these burners freaking out, saying ‘They’re praying again! What do we do!’”
We try a harder.
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com.