Burning Man and the W-Word

Burning Man’s DEI initiative runs counter to its culture. The principle of Radical Inclusion was the vector through which the alien ideology was introduced.

Burning Man and the W-Word

This is a response to an article written by Anonymous Author 304 (AA304) related to Burning Man's DEI program, known as R.I.D.E.

AA304 gets a lot of things right in his (her?) essay.

Perhaps wisely, they avoided the “w-word” even though everyone reading it knows exactly what they’re referring to. Here I'll be using “Critical Social Justice” (CSJ), a term coined by Robin DiAngelo and Ozlem Sensoy, and used by some academics, to refer to the ideology that dares not speak its name.

First, context.

Pressure on the Burning Man board was evident prior to 2020. This 2019 petition being circulated prior to the burn that year was titled:

To: Burning Man Board of Directors
Radical Inclusion Must Mean Racial Inclusion

More on Radical Inclusion in a bit. The petition contained demands such as:

We urge the Board of Directors of Burning Man Project to take action now:

Institute comprehensive anti-racism training for the entire board and staff

Make an explicit commitment to increase the attendance of people of color at the Burning Man event and develop a short and long term implementation plan

Create recruitment initiatives to increase people of color applicants for leadership positions within the organization

Support and compensate current Black leaders, within the Burning Man community, through incubation strategies designed to increase participation

Take a stand against the cooptation of culture, especially indigenous culture


And as Favianna Rodriguez demonstrated with her petition, this wasn’t merely the ranting of one individual. She got 3,208 signatures.

This social trend had already been brewing for at least six years.  Lest one get the impression that Burning Man Project spontaneously decided to go all in on DEI after the killing of George Floyd, it was already being pushed that way. That pivotal moment was enough to shove Burning Man Project in the direction it was already headed, kind of like a reverse “shock doctrine.” In the emotional aftermath of Floyd’s murder, many of the Rodriguez proposals were adopted.

As an aside, if each of those petition signers had simply invited one black friend they would have tripled the number of black burners in a single year! No one, including the borg, could have done anything to stop them; not that anyone would have even wanted to.  This would be an effective strategy for those for whom statistical racial representation is overwhelmingly important.  But instead of thinking in terms of individual initiative, self-reliance, communal effort and do-ocracy, the strategy was essentially to use accusations of racism against the board to bully it into making the desired changes. White people have a strong aversion to being called racist.  The board was no exception. So, between board members who were already CSJ disciples and those who could be intimidated, changes were made, and R.I.D.E. was established.

Those familiar with CSJ’s ideological origins will recognize why seizing control of a hierarchical structure would be appealing.  We are meant to believe that top-down dominance is a necessary means to achieve equity. Much more likely, the equity argument is a means to achieve ideological dominance and control.

One of the most profound realizations of those early, unprincipled years was that the absence of authority and social control led to anarchy… that was pretty fucking magical!  Although hierarchy is inimical to Burning Man ethos, clearly the organization has strayed. The ideal hierarchy would be the minimal amount necessary to make the event happen. How much hierarchy is necessary to create a non-hierarchical, or even anti-hierarchical, event? There’s a bit of a paradox there.

An organization or community where power is decentralized is harder to control directly, and you must rely on persuading people to adopt your position, say, to invite their non-white friends or whatever.  But if power is your real goal, then you need a centralized, hierarchical structure through which to exert that power. While the Burning Man community is somewhat resistant to intimidation, the Burning Man Project was clearly not. I imagine in both the community and the organization we’re dealing with a combination of those who’ve been intimidated, and those who’ve voluntarily adopted CSJ. (And maybe most people are in the "WTF is going on?" category.)

In order to have a sane conversation on this topic there’s a crucial bit we must all understand: words don’t mean what you think they mean.  One of the strategies CSJ activists employ is a covert redefinition of terms. A word will have one commonly held meaning, generally the one found in the dictionary; but its meaning in Critical Social Justice will have been altered to advance the CSJ ideology.

In CSJ, specifically the activist branch known as DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion), inclusion means something different to its dictionary definition.  (So do equity and diversity, but I’ll leave those for another day.) The fact that inclusion had already been redefined in CSJ, and was coincidentally enumerated as a Burning Man principle, made it an obvious target to play this game of mixed meanings.  DEI and Burning Man could easily be conjoined via the Radical Inclusion principle, and so Radical Inclusion, Diversity and Equity (R.I.D.E.) was born. Fuzziness around the definition of inclusion is the vector through which the alien ideology entered Burning Man.

The original meaning of Radical Inclusion was really more akin to radical non-exclusion: “Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.” In contrast to the CSJ definition which stridently militates for what must happen, it’s passive; that is, it declares that there are no prerequisites nor actions taken that would prevent anyone from attending and participating. You don’t have to do anything in particular, you simply have to not discriminate.

It was a description of what had occurred organically in the eighteen years prior to Larry Harvey’s enumeration of principles. In the absence of any official edict about welcoming strangers, a welcoming culture had spontaneously arisen. Most of us would celebrate that on a philosophical basis. And in reality, no one was discriminated against based on their race or any other social identity.  All were welcomed.

CSJ’s strategy is ineffective and counter-productive even in situations where there has actually been discrimination. This is becoming apparent with the backlash against corporate DEI, and studies showing it to be ineffective or worse.  Applying it in an American subculture in which discrimination was manifestly not occurring was particularly boneheaded—if what you wanted was to combat racial discrimination. But if you were really more interested in gaining control of a culturally influential organization and using it as a platform to advance your ideology, it was ideal.

There’s another reason why R.I.D.E. will have limited effectiveness in terms of manipulating racial representation via ticket availability and price: it’s illegal. Under both federal and state law, treating people differently on the basis of race or a slew of other characteristics is flat-out illegal.  As it relates to businesses, the Unruh Civil Rights Act specifically prohibits preferential treatment in provision of goods and services based on race. Anyone who believes they have been subjected to discrimination has the right to file lawsuits seeking damages and other remedies, plus attorney’s fees and court costs.

It would be reckless of BMP to implement any policy that could be interpreted as giving preferential treatment based on race.  Even if a lawsuit were ultimately thrown out or settled, the reputational damage could be significant. Per the recent SCOTUS ruling on this, efforts to achieve racially discriminatory ends by non race-based means seem unlikely to fly.

AA304 already laid out some of the problems with “equity.” CSJ activists link their conception of equity with inclusion. Inclusion is interpreted to mandate actively recruiting non-whites to engineer a hypothetically “correct” participation percentage. The tactic is to use things the borg can control like messaging, ticket price and availability to induce non-white attendance.

This is clearly a radically different concept to inclusion, and using the same word for both things is guaranteed to lead to misunderstandings.

We want to avoid misunderstandings, right?  Well… funny thing.  Part of the CSJ strategy consists of creating precisely this type of confusion.  It’s no accident that words like racism, diversity, equity, inclusion, gender and even woman have become definitional battlegrounds!  The ideology replicates and advances by insisting on its own definitions of words, and blurring the underlying distinctions for those who aren't CSJ initiates.

This in turn facilitates a rhetorical device knows as a “motte and bailey.” It consists of advancing the ideological interpretation of a word, but when there’s pushback, retreating to its easily defended original interpretation. In the case of inclusion, the CSJ interpretation is that, as Rodriguez made explicit in the title of her petition “Radical Inclusion Must Mean Racial Inclusion.” By conflating the two disparate concepts, the ideology gains a foothold for acquiring political power within the organization. (That’s especially clear with Rodriguez’s demand for staffing changes that, while ostensibly advocating for non-white representation, increase organizational control by CSJ ideologues. The likelihood of a non-CSJ individual being recommended and approved for such a position is virtually nil, regardless of their race.)

But if anyone should object to such measures as race-targeted ticketing, the activist will fall back on defending the commonly held interpretation of inclusion as simply being fair treatment. For example, one member of the R.I.D.E. Stewardship Group, when pressed, commented:

Now some folks feel that [R.I.D.E. initiatives] is somehow antithetical to to [sic] Burning Man Values in some way. Hard to see how taking into consideration members (and potential members) of the community would fall outside the principles of the event.

Obviously, the critique of R.I.D.E. is not for “taking into consideration” members and potential members of the community!  Taking people into consideration is conveniently vague, and eminently defensible.

Much trickier to defend are mandatory anti-racism trainings for staff, targeted funding favouring non-white artists, “innovating the way in which tickets are allocated for Black Rock City,” “increasing BIPOC event access by making changes to our theme camp, artist, and mutant vehicle selection processes” and promoting such activities in the regionals.  Even cloaked in euphemism, such race-based initiatives are controversial.  There are also direct efforts at indoctrination in the CSJ ideology on the Hive, including Introduction to Anti-Racism and R.I.D.E.: Burner Fragility. I couldn’t resist checking them out. They are as bad as one imagines. These educational modules definitely incorporate the ideas of Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, which is immediately apparent to anyone familiar with their work.

What’s going on looks like an undisguised attempt to indoctrinate burners in the ideology of Critical Social Justice, and turn the organization into a CSJ bastion.

Anyway, you can read what R.I.D.E has to say about itself on the Burning Man web site, and here also is a good summary.  They’re perfectly open about what they’re up to.

I’ve been referring to CSJ activists as if they were all the same, but this is a good time to mention that they aren’t.  There are hardcore ideologues steeped in Theory, who understand and can articulate it.  There are many others with a superficial understanding who are on board because they’ve been told it’s the right thing, and it doesn’t demand much of them except repeating CSJ platitudes and putting the occasional laugh emoji on posts they’re unable to comprehend, let alone refute. Okay, that’s a bit harsh.  But I’ve rarely found anyone who is willing or able to make the case for CSJ. What I’ve encountered is people who are adept at avoiding the conversation, and at shutting down any effort at having a rational discussion.

Most of us share the same values of lower-case “social justice.” We would like to live in a society that treats people fairly.  But Critical Social Justice merges laudable social justice values with an activist strategy for achieving them that is highly destructive. It’s the strategy that’s the problem. There’s such a tight connection between espoused values and strategy that if you point out problems with the strategy (e.g. it’s hugely counter-productive!) you’ll be accused of opposing the values, i.e. you’ll be called a bigot.

I’m sure they all believe they’re doing the right thing.  But by “believe” I don’t mean they just think it’s right and are open to hearing counter-arguments, I mean it’s like a religious belief.  I’m sure in their minds they are fighting the good fight against the evil of bigotry.  But far from extending the valiant efforts of civil rights leaders in the sixties and the progress that was made, they are undoing them.

Overall, AA304 understands a lot of what is problematic with R.I.D.E. However, I think they're underestimating the seriousness of the problem.

BTW, there’s a book that may be of interest called Countering Wokecraft, A Field Manual for Combatting Woke in the University and Beyond, by Charles Pincourt and James Lindsay. Some of it is specific to CSJ takeovers in academic institutions, but much is applicable to other types of organization. I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who has worked for BMP during this shift, or has relevant first-hand experience in other organizations.