I’d like to take a moment and pretend that Thanksgiving is the perfect time to talk about something that I meant to write about just after Burning Man.
Because Thanksgiving is about … you know … community … and … stuff. Really, it’s the perfect time to talk about this. You’ll see. Way better than Christmas.
Every year we see new trends in the way Black Rock City is covered in the media, and this year there were a small spate of stories whose topic sentence went: “can you BELIEVE how many rules there are at Burning Man, where everybody’s SUPPOSED to be completely free?”
I’m talking about posts like “The Endless Rules of Burning Man,” by Christine Grillo; “25 Burning Man rules you might not know about”; and “The Strangest Rules You Didn’t Know People at Burning Man Have to Follow.” (I’m only linking to the first one, because it’s the most interesting of the three, the others being basically click-bait.)
There’s a legitimate discussion to be had here, and it’s one that people in our community have been having since the day we added roads and somebody complained that now he could never truly express himself. But an awful lot of these pieces were based instead on:
- Misinformation about what’s happening, and
- A misunderstanding of what it means to be free
The first issue is really annoying, but pretty much what we’ve come to expect from the internet. Still, just to clarify:
- The Rangers aren’t police, let alone a militia
- Black Rock City has no drug laws – that’s a state and federal government thing
- You CAN bring two-ply toilet paper to the playa if you want. You just can’t use it in our porta-potties, because they break the porta-potties. It’s no more a bureaucratic nightmare rule than is a sign at a coffee shop bathroom saying “don’t flush paper towels down the toilet, because they break it”
- There are no official Burning Man rules about how you get your playa name
- There is no required Burning Man orgy protocol
- Goggles are not “mandatory” in the sense that you have to have them or else we punish you – they’re “mandatory” in the sense that if you don’t have them, nature will probably punish you
… and so on.
Further – and this is important – just because some person comes up to you and says, “Hey, you know, there’s a way we do things and you’re doing it wrong,” doesn’t mean they are actually speaking from experience with the Official Big Book of Burning Man Rules. In fact, there is no such document, and they might very well be just an asshole who gets off on telling people how to do things.
Not one of these articles seems to consider that possibility. It’s enough to make me want to pass out fake “Official Big Book of Burning Man Rules” books filled with nonsense, and see how far it gets.
Also, to the author of the “Endless Rules” article: if someone explaining Leave No Trace to me unasked were to say “May I have the gift of your attention?” I would hate them too. Hate. That kind of stupid hippie bullshit is specifically forbidden in the Official Big Book of Burning Man Rules.
Or it will be. I promise.
Freedom’s Just Another Word for a Community You Get to Build
But there’s also something else happening here that gets at a very real issue about what freedom actually looks like, and what it means – something which is never considered in these pieces.
Because in fact many of the things that are cited as official or unofficial “Burning Man rules” – like how you behave at a sex camp, or how much of an asshole you have to be to fit in with the DPW, or how and whether to talk about your day job – are in fact not “Burning Man” rules but camp or team rules made by the camp or team. That is to say, they are self-determined.
Now from a view of freedom that takes nothing but individual autonomy into account, sure, WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE TO TELL ME HOW TO DO ANYTHING!?! Absolutely. But on the other hand … don’t the people who create a camp or a team get to decide what it’s going to be like? Isn’t a fundamental aspect of freedom the ability to live according to your values, and create communities that share them?
Put another way: if Burning Man forbid you from creating a camp and saying “this is how we ask people at our camp to behave” because somebody else might not like it, would you be more or less free?
Burning Man would be far, far, more restrictive on the freedom of people attending Black Rock City if it were to try to tell them that they can’t set up their own communities, organize them the way they like, and create their own community rules for the people who live in and visit them.
The ability to create and live in communities that work the way the people living in them want, instead of having to align with everyone else, is an expression of freedom. People have freely chosen to create their own rules, and to live by them. People who don’t want to do that can set up their own communities, and their own camps, that do things differently.
The fact that people have chosen to form communities and come up with their own community expectations in no way infringes on your freedom – but it is the essence of theirs. Self-determined rules are a manifestation and a sign of freedom.
Nor does Burning Man mandate that people form communities – that happened all on its own, because it turns out that when they are free, people choose to do that.
Rules created by people living them from the ground up are entirely different than rules imposed by people from the top down – and this is a crucial distinction that these articles decrying the rules and bureaucracy of Burning Man fail to consider.
As Burning Man has grown – that is to say, as more and more people have come intending to engage with this community – a number of rules based around environmental preservation and safety have had to be developed. (We do have values beyond “do your own thing,” you know – and if you don’t know that … have you really done enough research on a community you’re intending to visit?) If you’re bringing hazardous fuels, there are some rules. If you don’t know how to clean up after yourself, there are some rules. And yeah, we’ve got standards for Mutant Vehicles. But outside of that, “Burning Man” itself actually imposes very few rules – as opposed to traditions that the participants have created themselves, expectations of conduct that have emerged organically from the ground up, and the idiosyncratic values of thousands of camps spread across the desert, existing collaboratively side-by-side.
If that’s not a working model of freedom in a pluralistic and post-modern world, I don’t know what is. Even though – yes – there are some rules to keep both you and the place in a good enough shape to do it all again next year.