We recently stumbled upon this great write-up about how different people relate to and enact the 10 principles at Burning Seed, our Australian sister burn. This was originally posted on Philosophy of Burning, by Wonka.
Recently, I’ve surveyed many members of the Australian Burning community broadly about their experience with the principles. Beautiful, inspiring stories of transformative effects in embodying these principles were abundant. Many participants have experienced major self-development in encountering these principles and in attempting to enact them in the “default world”. No doubt, the transformative power of these principles is, in part, what draws us to the Burning culture.
Here, I’ll focus on how the principles are used, mostly on-site. In a philosophical mood, we might wonder what the principles truly are. Are they an ethical framework akin to the Ten Commandments? Are they a list of values or virtues we should strive to embody? Are they a standing description of behaviours the community already embodies? How could we go about finding out what they essentially are? Larry Harvey and Caveat Magister have written on this topic, and you can find their papers here. This way of providing an answer is called ‘citing the expert’. It is the most common way of justifying beliefs or answering a question nowadays: just Google it, and be referred to the expert. Another way is by asking how the principles are used by participants. We can see how the principles operate “on the ground” rather than in the potentially lofty heights of theory-crafting and idealism. These principles, undoubtedly, take different forms or constellations in the many amazing individuals that embody them. So, if you’d rather not follow me down the rabbit hole, you can take your regularly-ingested pill of ‘citing the expert’ by clicking the above link and just settling on what Larry and Caveat say. Otherwise, let’s jump in and pursue what philosophy is all about… inquiry.
Firstly, we need to make sure we have appropriate scope in our investigation. Rather than having the lofty, abstract goal of determining what the principles are in a universal, definitional sense, it’s much more tractable to take it to the level of individuals. Our guiding question then becomes this: How is it that certain individuals (or types of individuals) use the principles? As opposed to offering a statistical analysis using diffuse survey methods of all you lovely weirdos out there, I’m going to employ a trick common to user interface designers called ‘persona building’. Personas are gross generalisations of typical categories of users, grouped in likeness to how they relate with the interface in question. For example, in designing a better interface for rubbish and recycling bins, we might postulate a few personas that relate to how conscious one is of proper recycling and rubbish sorting practices; e.g., Uncaring, Lazy, When-Convenient, Activist. Importantly, any actual person may not be adequately characterised by just one of these personas. Rather, most individuals will embody different persona characteristics at different times and places. Despite any inability of persona-building to adequately capture the complexity of an actual individual, it helps designers create an interface that can accommodate as many different users as possible.
So, here is a list of personas that capture a range of ways in which individuals use the principles. This list was derived from a combination of personal experience, interviews with burners, and web-based discussions/blogs about the principles. Very clear character-types emerged from the thicket of various stories.
The anarchist: Principles are understood as a normative framework. Acts in ways that reject or counter the framework.
The fanatic: Principles are understood as a normative framework. Acts in ways to enforce and promote the framework.
The hippie: Acts in ways to promote, embody, and expect “social” principles (e.g., Radical Inclusion, Communal Effort, and Participation).
The asshole: Acts in ways to promote, embody, and expect “individualistic” principles (e.g., Radical self-reliance and Radical self-expression).
The partier: Acts in ways to promote, embody, and expect “party” principles (e.g. Immediacy and Radical self-expression).
The civilian: Acts in ways to promote, embody, and expect “civic” principles (e.g. Civic Responsibility and Participation)
What we get are personas that vary along three axes: 1) Normativity, 2) Individualism, and 3) Citizenship. If you’re unfamiliar with the term “normativity”, all it means is something that is like a set of laws. Normativity implies that one should behave along the lines it sets out; an “ought” claim. Think of the laws of a state or of a religion. The proclamation of “Burnier than thou!” is befitting a normative conception of the principles: “Where’s your damn cup, man?!” There are certainly other ways to understand the principles than laws. One is that they are a description of what burners already do! Nothing more. By describing what we do, we passively invite others that want to do the same to join in. Another possible way of understanding the principles is as virtues. Virtues are categories that represent quality of character. These are to be strived for and cultivated within individuals. They represent goodness of human being. The axis of Individualism is so familiar to most of us that it hardly needs explaining. For the asshole, expression of self takes precedence over inclusion of others, and therefore the asshole is more individualistic than the hippie. The hippie is oriented in more social ways, and therefore is less individualistic than the asshole. The final axis is Citizenship, and notes the level of involvement of the individual with the civic/organisational aspects of Burning (e.g., volunteering for Greeters, DPI, Rangers, organising a theme camp or art project, etc.). One less interested in civic aspects of the burn is often in the mindset of being there to experience the burn fully in all it’s glory with every breath (or, in less gracious words, partying hard).
As you can see, the fanatic and the anarchist are similar in taking the principles very seriously. However, they have the most potential for outright conflict:
F: “Hey! Leave no trace you MOOPer!!!”
A: “Keep your rules to yourself, hypocrite!”
Both personas understand the principles as a moral code, or strong normative framework. One accepts, embodies, and enforces them while the other undermines, rejects, and fights them. This situation does occur, but luckily it isn’t very common to have actual Burners embodying an extreme version of either fanatics or anarchists. (For those of you keen on Burner history, the ten principles were created amongst conflict between fanatic and anarchic tendencies in Burner leadership.)
The most common conflict arising at Burns regarding differences in use of the principles revolves around the hippie and asshole interaction:
Hip: “How about a big warm hug, mister?!”
Ass: “Why don’t you go hug yourself, or better, a tree?”
Hip: “Excuse me, us in your neighboring camp are having a soul cleansing session in five minutes. Would you like to join us? And could you turn your music down for an hour?”
Ass: “Bitch, I came here to get f’d and jam metal music all mother-f-in day!!! Y’all could move your soul cleansing sesh elsewhere, I reckon!”
Of course, these examples are extreme, but you get the point I hope. The hippie embodies and expects inclusive aspects of the principles. The asshole embodies and expects individualistic aspects of the principles.
Other issues arise when a partier decides to take on civic duties or when civilians gain fanatic tendencies and recruit volunteers by guilting them into it. I’ve often heard burners say something like “I wish I partied a bit more this time,” or “I really want to give back a bit more next year”, which are prime expressions of wanting to be more of a partier in the first instance and more of a civilian in the latter.
It is extremely important to emphasise that these personas are meant to capture extreme limits of personality types in using the principles. None of us are likely to be defined by one persona. We fluidly shift through many if not all of them on site. These personas can overlap as well. I’ve had memories of being a bit of a fanatic asshole at times, for instance in denying people use of my cup mostly because I felt they should have one! What’s nice about these personas is that they create a useful language for talking about one’s own or another’s actions involving the principles, but they already make sense in regular use:
“He was being a bit of an excessive hippie by wanting to open up the discussion, when really we needed the team lead to be a bit more of an asshole to get this done!!!!”
“Quit slaving away oh mighty civilian and come play with us!!!”
“That anarchist didn’t have any real reason why he didn’t MOOP sweep, other than hating being told what he should do. ”
Good! So we’ve acquired some new categories for thinking about how we might be embodying the principles at various times. There’s a glaring hole though: nothing from these personas implies how we should be using the principles.
Here, we’re going to draw on a very old friend, Aristotle, to help us out. He, way beyond any of his incredible predecessors, recognised that living ethically is extremely tricky. Every person must individually confront the challenge of an ethical life, with situations that have never before arisen in their world. Aristotle was inspired by craftsmen and artisans who, when confronted with a novel problem, fluidly act in ways that often validate the attribution of “expert”. What happens in this expert behaviour? One “sees” their way through the problem based on a long history of carefully engaging with issues in a similar context. Aristotle argued that to live ethically is similar to being an expert.
Ethics, on this view, is not primarily about defining a set of rules to be governed by. In other words, it is not essentially normative. The fanatics and anarchists are wrong. Ethics is a matter of gaining expertise in the context of moral behavior. We do not “abide by” an ethical framework, we grow and become moral beings within ethical contexts.
So, we might posit another persona: the expert. This persona recognises that each circumstance can present novel contingencies, which must be navigated skillfully and fluidly. Importantly, how one person might navigate the situation is not necessarily the way that every person should navigate it! Experts in other crafty contexts know that each craftsman must overcome or employ her own bodily and mental tendencies.
Therefore, how one person “does what’s right” in a certain situation will differ from another person. This is understood in Ranger training, and beyond very sensitive issues that require procedure, how one Ranger deals with a circumstance will differ from another Ranger. This expert takes the principles as virtues to be strived for, knowing well that some are difficult to embody at the same time (e.g., Radical Inclusion and Radical Self-Reliance). If you’ve glanced over Larry’s writings, you’d have noticed that this aligns with how he intended the principles to be received: “Philosophy occurs when principles collide, and we should allow these Principles to interpret and interrogate one another.” We should also posit the persona of the novice. This persona is akin to the expert in taking the principles as virtues to be strived for, but is still learning how to best embody them in her own way.
Aristotle discussed this in terms of “finding the mean between extremes”, stating something to the effect of “the target is small and easy to miss”. It’s very difficult to “get it right”. I reckon most of us are novices if we’re honest with ourselves. That’s likely a big reason we keep coming back to burns and are still trying to figure out how to bring it more into the “default world”. We get to grow and become moral beings within this wholesome, complex ethical context on offer with the ten principles. Importantly, as novices we might occasionally be fanatic hippie civilians or anarchic asshole partiers but what the principles are, in reality, is how we use them. We always have an opportunity to change what they are, for better or worse, by enacting them differently.
In conclusion, don’t let anyone tell you what the principles are. They are as they manifest in reality, which is as people use them. By offering these personas or categories, I hope to be gifting a language in which we can understand ourselves and others better within our community. Rather than being unable to understand a reaction of the asshole-type, someone with hippie tendencies might instead see that this reaction comes from (over)valuing individualistic principles. These personas, at least, help us label tendencies, which allows us to objectify and analyze them better within ourselves and others. This is a healthy process and could help alleviate potential conflicts. I also hope to have instilled a recognition with most all of us burners that we are novices regarding how we use the principles. This, also, is a good thing! Woe if the striving should cease! We love striving and growing within this amazing context that the ten principles help to create. Rather than signing off by saying “Be Good, my children!”, I’ll say: “May many incorrectly perceive you as an expert, you weirdos!”
If you don’t already know them or could use a refresher, here they are as initially conceived by Larry Harvey in 2004:
Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.
Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.
In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.
Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.
Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.
Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.
We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.
Leaving No Trace
Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.
Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.
Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.