Over the last few days I’ve been involved in a heated argument in the burner community about a specific art project on a specific participatory festival. It has been years since I got into a match of to-ing and fro-ing opinions back and forth like this, and for good reason. At least if the reason is that you actually think that heated discussions will actually lead to any significant change in the person whose opinion yours differ from.
I have, however (and perhaps not to my credit), been taking a sort of meta perspective on the whole thing at the same time as I’ve engaged in it. Immersed and suspended in the air above, you could say. Although I have had some opinions, it has almost also been a kind of scientific study of how people react to one another and under what circumstances change is possible.
Let me first of all say that listening to people is a core part of my job. My ph.d. thesis rests on a tremendous amount of focus group interview material. About a thousand pages worth of interviews, transcribed. Also, the theme of my thesis is not some fluffy out-of-touch style academia topic. It’s about religion and politics, what people put into these concepts and how they relate them to each other; how the relation looks today and what the relation should look like in the best of worlds, according to them. My role in the focus groups has been to set people on a talking-path by asking as open questions as possible. And for the most part this has worked very very well. At one point, early in my interviews, I posed the question ”what is the good society to you?” to one of my focus groups. That was all I said, and then they talked about it non-stop for 30 minutes, where I didn’t say a single word.
So I know a thing or two about listening. And I know a thing or two about the power of the right questions. (Again, I will choose to not reiterate the question at the heart of the matter, as not to make people feel like I point fingers at them.) The story goes like this: A controversial arts project was announced (on the Facebook page of the event), and it was presented with very (very) little information about how the project would happen. A lot of people thought it was exciting and about 100 people had already clicked like and commented with their anticipation of the project, when the first negative comment came. ”How could you possibly think this is ok? Call me triggered?” ”I now wont come to the festival at all” ”WFT” and so went the list.
At first the organiser was patient and ensured the angry commenteers that there had been reading up on the controversial topic at the heart of the arts project, and that thought had gone into the planning. Somehow, this was not an acceptable answer. They had to write more clearly exactly what they were planning, angry facebook profile x said. Hear hear, said angry facebook profile y. This is about the time where I jumped in, and said that it is fair to assume that there may be reasons why you don’t all the information beforehand, if you plan on doing something that may contain an element of surprise that is crucial for the experience; giving away the ending of a story, before someone starts to read it, will not necessarily help people appreciate the story, right? Furthermore, I broadened the scope. Angry facebook profiles x and y had decided that one definition of the controversial word (let’s say that the controversial word was pizza, to keep this less abstract) was the one to focus on. Don’t you see how you make people feel unsafe when you throw around your mozzarella pizza. It didn’t help much that several people said that, ‘well, there are other toppings for pizza, not everything is about mozzarella’. Again, this didn’t help at all. The responses from angry x and y, was that ‘well, if the organiser would’ve been clearer about his pizza-intentions, but there is no mention of the toppings you describe’, ‘and also, the organiser is still not telling us exactly everything’. And so it went, round and round in a circle of indignation, and refusal to let go of the equation that all pizza must have mozzarella on it.
Internet comment-warfare is nothing uncommon. It is, however, much less common in the burner community. The default response when someone doesn’t like or see the merit in what you are creating is almost always, ‘well then, you just go and do your own art project beside this one’. You do you. I do me. And here is where I am coming to some sort of point:
The absens of the critic is one of the burner community’s foremost successes.
That people are not critics of other people is, to me, the very core of the burner community. The way to handle seemingly bad initiatives is to simply not get involved, don’t show up. The way to handle seemingly good initiatives is to get involved, show up, share event-info, help, build, co-create. There is extraordinary power in this. People feeling like they are helping someone; that is transformative for many people who maybe often feel like they can’t really help other people out. And conversely, receiving help from people that are close to perfect strangers, that is also transformative. Wow, look what kindness this person just showed me. Look at how they poured time, energy, their skills, and their resources into what was once just a brainchild of mine!
The whole burner community hinges on this, and its value absolutely cannot be underestimated. Syntheist philosopher Alexander Bard aptly called it do-ocracy.
Being critical is not an end-goal in itself. Being able to formulate angry criticism costs nothing. We are in a world where we somehow have been made to believe that we should be critics. When we go out to eat, we can voluntarily spoil an entire meal over the notion that we should analyse and critique as much as we enjoy and are in the moment. In fact, if our expectations aren’t met, then critique wins over the pleasure of a good glass of wine, a gently prepared first-of-the-spring asparagus, with a homemade hollandaise, enjoyed in the company of good friends, having good conversations and laughs. We can ruin all that with playing the critic. But, guess what? No one wins that game. No one gets happier when you play the critic.
At Google it is often said that people try to kill different projects as quickly as possible. The more ‘kill-tests’ they survive, the stronger they get. We may take this as a reason for killing off people’s brainchild, but that’s getting it all wrong. At Google, this is done in a supportive environment, where time and resources have already been poured into the project, and as the project survives the different challenges thrown at it, even more time, resources and wo/manpower is thrown at it, to make it grow into a success. For us who deals with projects that aren’t necessarily about changing the world through selling some technological solution, there is even less point in any kill-tests. We can change the world, by reaching out to one another, pouring in our time, resources and power. Throwing our weight behind someone else is building interpersonal trust. In a setting where that is established, there is room for critical questions at points (”are you sure this beam will really carry all that weight?”, ”are you sure salty licorice is a good pizza topping?”). But then it doesn’t come from someone distanced, removed, cold, who has nothing invested. It doesn’t come from the critic, it comes from the co-creator. And to be a co-creator of people’s dreams, that is not removed at all. Maybe that’s even a dream in itself?