On Radical Inclusion

In a lot of my communities, either explicitly or implicitly, the concept of ‘radical inclusion’ comes up.

For burners, it’s a stated value. For geeks, it’s something that isn’t said so much as felt (although this feels increasingly untrue as geekery goes mainstream and there’s so much more policing against ‘fake’ geeks). And, people I know question what does radical inclusion mean, who can you include, and what behaviors make it imperative that you exclude someone?

This is an excellent question to bring up and a bit of a third rail amongst my friends. That is, I think this is something lots of people are trying to figure out (I know I certainly am).

For me, virtues and values inevitably point to a tension, point to a dialectic and a dialogue. I’ve become enamored recently with the concept that ‘wholeness as holiness’ and I think values have to be perpetually rebalanced with one another because inevitably there’s tradeoffs to be made. Putting aside nonconsensual behaviors (which are ALWAYS deal breakers) what about someone who you are absolutely convinced can’t even for a moment escape commodification, can’t for a moment be genuine or immediate (the broiest bro who ever broed for instance); do you invite them into your home? To your party? To a festival? I wouldn’t, but then again I’ve never thought that the ‘radical’ modifier to inclusion meant ‘without qualifications.’

I like the metaphor of tribal identity/group cohesion (even one that only exists for the six hours of a party or munch) like a cell membrane, deciding what stays in and what goes out and what gets transferred between. If there is no membrane, there is no cell; only undifferentiated free floating media. Radical Inclusion then, is not about an elimination of the membrane but about the reconfiguration of how it works and what it selects for. Ultimately, ‘Radical Inclusion’ is about rejecting the readymade template, the knee jerk response of who gets included and who gets excluded and instead rejiggering recreating it as something that works better. And this work never ends, and this work is primarily done by constant communication.

Unfortunately, the essential ‘mushiness’ of what is meant by ‘Radical Inclusion’ as a principle gives those so inclined a ready built dodge to avoid discomfort of making judgements, avoiding conversation, or a way of dismissing legitimate concerns by relentlessly focusing on facile ‘positivity’ as though a slavish devotion to ‘niceness’ would sort everything out. In concert with this, I think there can be a fear of making a judgement, of arguing a case. Because you might get it wrong. Because you might hurt/exclude someone who doesn’t deserve it. Because in this process so often you have to listen to multiple accounts of behavior and make for yourself a discernment about who is right and who is wrong and you’ll almost never *really* 100% know if you fully understand it all. And also, because you might set up standards that put you in opposition to the group (and thus be excluded yourself).

I suspect that people who tend to thrive, who tend to relish these sorts of judgements aren’t usually attracted to the certain communities that I don’t often participate in. Basically, burners have plenty of artists/geeks, not so many cops/judges.

Making judgement calls is extremely vulnerable to human foibles. We’ve all been left out, shunned for unfair reasons. We’ve all experienced (or at least witnessed) that oh so human cruelty of the group deciding (fairly OR unfairly) that this person is a problem, inflating their faults and transforming a full human being into a simplified scape-goat pariah; flattening an individual till they serve merely as the symbol for all the group isn’t (and the end of the possibility of mercy/reconciliation). This process protects the group from shit humans and is fully justified even as it can be used to hurt the innocent (or, more likely, the innocentish who can so easily be punished far more than their sins would warrant). Rather than accept you might be wrong in your exclusion (and strive to do your best), it can be ‘simpler’ for some people to not stress so much about it and deal with the consequences (this is even easier if you won privilege bingo and don’t have the same threat profile as someone who didn’t).

Probably where it’s hardest for me to make these sorts of calls is when it comes to second hand reported behavior; how should I choose how to feel & respond to what I heard someone doing… especially when it doesn’t fit my model of the person? This is further complicated by the fact that women, people of color, and LGBT individuals regularly have their concerns and experiences dismissed (when they aren’t discouraged from reporting issues in the first place), so people who hurt others/cross boundaries are regularly give far too much space to operate simply because they seem ‘nice/awkward/not like that.’ Personally, I tend to believe people about their experiences and I try to apply double the effort when it comes to the experiences of people who live less privileged lives than me since I sometimes struggle to reconcile mentally with a lived experience can be so different from my own; if I’m not careful, I overdoubt simply not to over-disturb my prejudices and comfort.
Then, of course, there is the issue of how much should you exclude someone. Is unfriending them/not inviting them to your party enough, or can you literally no longer attend a party/festival where you both are present? If you heard about shit going down between them and their last girlfriend, do you have a duty to warn every girl they’re talking to from then on? Again, there is always a tension, a need to measure your response based on your certainty and the severity of the issues/behavior. On a personal level, I suspect I am biased towards making peace at too much cost and would stand to improve the by being a little more courageous at calling out bullshit (even at the risk of being wrong) though I know people for whom I think the opposite is true.

To provide a definition is a provide an anti-definition; to say ‘here are my people’ inevitably also say ‘over there are not my people.’ You can’t ultimately include everyone (lest, ‘Burning Man’ or ‘Burners’ has no meaning save as synonyms for ‘Existence’ and ‘Human Beings’). We all draw our lines somewhere. But some people will respond to any attempt of line drawing they don’t like with simply saying ‘it’s incompatible with radical inclusion’ as a way of shutting down conversation (which is an incredible disservice), and this value seems especially vulnerable to this tact. But that doesn’t mean these same people aren’t drawing lines (because they are) they’re just doing their damndest to avoid making them explicit.

The last thing I’ll say on this is something that hasn’t been touched upon as much; the different between ‘inclusion’ and ‘tolerance.’ You tolerate the things around that don’t mean anything to you, that aren’t hurting you. You ‘include’ by finding a place, a meaning for things or people, their efforts and their input. For me, being ‘included’ means I’ve entered a reciprocal relationship where value flows both ways; I have a voice to be heard, I have work to be done, games to play, and so on. So, for me, ‘radical inclusion’ means to work harder to find a place/meaning/value exchange for more people (and especially people I’m quick to discount/dismiss in my life because of superficial reasons).

But not everyone.

Part of what makes this value so important is the need to avoid having a social structure collapse into stagnation of your five, ten, fifteen, one hundred favored who repeat their preferred pleasures until they grow stale… no matter how much you love them. Everything stagnates and dies without new blood for renewal. It’s important to push past our biases, most especially our tribal bias that says the new is scary. And it’s hard, but the work is important. Trying to practice this value/virtue means simple to strive to be just a touch less judgey, a touch more accommodating, more willing to meet the stranger and make a place for them by your clan’s fire.

I know some boundaries that aren’t negotiable, some rules of behavior that if broken mean I won’t make a place for another (and will actively seek to ensure that others are aware). But then there are lots of other instincts & triggers; people that piss me off, people I envy, people who seem relentlessly negative or boring or fundamentally uninteresting. Can I make a place for these people, can I include them? Can I -by word or deed or simply learning a different cognitive trick- transform their nails on the chalk board to music? Maybe. Maybe not. Because I don’t know how ‘radical’ I can be in my inclusion; but it’s nice from time to time to remind myself to push a little further to find out.

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