a Polite Funological debate – can festivals save the world?

At the current rate of traffic to this site, it will break the 1/4 million hits threshold by April fools.  But as satisfying as this is, it is less important to me than what happened the day before yesterday.  Which was being politely, but formally debated on another blog about whether festivals can change the world.  I am excited about this debate because Rosie is actually part of the Burning Man organization and while she is not speaking for BM inc in her post, she is certainly an insider, with perspective and experience which many participants cant have.  And i am thrilled about the debate, because i want her to be right and this exchange of perspectives will hopefully help our shared wish for these events to be high positive impact and world transforming.  And of course controversy spikes web traffic, and i love traffic.

Let me try to summarize her points here (but please read her article linked above):

  • BM builds community, inspires resilience and resourcefulness.
  • BM connects people to feel empathetically connected to humanity
  • BM encourages contribution to crafting a better world
  • BM is an antidote to isolation
  • BM has sparked many civic and artistic endeavors

Boringly, we don’t disagree on any of these points.  As i have written in this blog, i think Burning Man is a tremendously significant event for these and other reasons.  Rosie is right to challenge me on the trite phrase “Save the World”.  In the ways mentioned above these transformational festivals (like BM) are increasing our chances for survival, empowering and transforming individuals and taking on some political issues.  And to be fair, BM actually does this better than any festival i have been to.  It is more transformative, it has more active external political initiatives and importantly is memetic in that it replicates regional burns of the same structure (so that everyone does not need to go to Nevada for this experience).  So in this sense Rosie is right.  Specifically she sez:

And looking at doing the hard and hostile work, let’s again, point to the work of Burners Without Borders:  Here is a group of people that formed and built relationships with each other at Burning Man. The individuals that generated this group, likely without knowing it, were in effect training themselves with useful skills by building survival systems in the harsh desert where Burning Man is held.  ”Following the 2005 Burning Man event, several participants headed south into the Hurricane Katrina disaster area to help people rebuild their devastated communities” (source)You’re going to have a very tough time convincing me that a festival wasn’t in part responsible for the existence of this humanitarian aid group that is out there in the world doing “the hard work which needs to be done…”

Where i think BM and the other transformational festivals fall short is the notion that these events and the things which they inspire are enough work for us to get where we need to go.  I feel that there is a certain type of “lazy activism” in which participants can go to these events and party and perhaps partake in these civic and political parallel projects and think that they have done their share of world fixing.  The hype of the Bloom video seems to encourage this “we can do it all if we can make it to these festivals” feeling to it.  Or more simply put Bloom makes saving the world sound easily accessible.  This feels naive to me, i am not sure of Rosie would agree.

  Burners do help improve the world.

Get on the bus: Burners do help improve the world.

We dont really have a disagreement on diversity.  Rosie says:

Yes, the majority of music & art festival attendees at this point in time are white…. I had a desire for the event to be more diverse because I believe diversity creates strength and interesting variation in an ecosystem. However, as someone once told me, “You can’t force diversity. You CAN steward it, but it has to be generated by the interest of minority groups/individuals themselves, and then supported by the ecosystem of the event.”

If BM can attract a more ethnically diverse base of participation, that is fantastic.  And i also believe you cant force diversity.  And i am a bit skeptical that this expensive, remote, dominantly white event can morph into something far more inclusive – and i would be happy to Rosie to point out how i was wrong in this, including BM inc plans to deal with this.

And the most dangerous part of the Bloom project (which Rosie does not mention) is the idea that these festivals can play a role in re-indigenization.  My intimates who work on cultural appropriation issues are completely unconvinced this can be pulled off.  My view is that i really want to understand how this might work, but i start from a somewhat skeptical place.

Is this what the city of the future looks like?

Is this what the city of the future looks like?

Rosie says:

They are a useful source of inspiration, of bringing people more alive than they were before the event. This aliveness, this enthusiasm and passion for life is something they can take back to “their regular lives.” I contend that festivals can be an inspiring part of the continuum of one’s life. There is no “regular life” or “default world.” All of your experiences are part of your life and your world.

i totally get her point, and we will have to respectfully disagree.  Until participants have significantly transformed their lives (which many have already done, but i dont think most have) there is a “default world” which they are returning to, which is frequently spirit crushing and strongly discourages the type of radical self expression that BM is so good at promoting onsite.  

i cant go back to my straight job dressed (or thinking) like this.

i cant go back to my straight job dressed (or thinking) like this.

Where we are highly aligned when it comes to her posts conclusion.

Festivals serve as a tool in helping individuals connect both to a part of themselves that may have been lost since childhood, and also connect to a tribe that they resonate with. Technology combined with your passionate desire and your aligned action will keep you connected to your tribe, and if you want to be a bigger contribution to the world, you can.

Absolutely, my thoughts precisely.