You Got Your Rules in My Freedom! You Got Your Freedom in My Rules!

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.

 

Photo by Todd Gardiner

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat Magister

A member of Burning Man Project's Philosophical Center, Caveat served as the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca from 2008 - 2013. He is presently working with Burning Man's education program on a cultural studies curriculum for Burning Man culture. Caveat is the author of the short story collection A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City, which has nothing to do with Burning Man, and the novel The Deeds of Pounce, which is about goblins. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

14 Comments on “You Got Your Rules in My Freedom! You Got Your Freedom in My Rules!

  • Mad Max says:

    So Mad Max. Never gets old.

    I’m going to dress up like Mad Max next year.

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  • Burner with no Playa name says:

    Excellent article. Thank you for your insight.

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  • Desert Silence says:

    Is it the idea that it might be really cool if hundreds of people get food poisoning from improperly cooked or stored food, so we should do without the food inspections? Or that it would be really cool if someone dumped a ton of water on the playa, creating a muddy mess, and that’s ok because it was POTABLE water? Or that we should litter the desert with junk on the grounds that freedom is cool too?

    The person who wrote the article is a lunatic.

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  • Dustin says:

    When I saw this in my feed this morning my first thought was “I bet this is another well written apologist article from Caveat that completely misses the point” – and I was not disappointed.

    When burners are complaining about rules we are not talking about the survival guide, or being told to not throw garbage on the ground, or theme camp behavior rules. We are talking about of all the bureaucratic Burning Man Org rules.

    There is a 35 page manual on how to volunteer at the Department of Mutant Vehicles. Note that this doesn’t cover the guidelines for actually bringing an artcar – it is literally 38 pages of roles, responsibilities, and processes to inspect other people’s art on playa.

    There is a 76 page handbook for art grant recipients, and a separate 16 page supplement on how to receive water deliveries.

    God forbid if you want to actually light something on fire at burning man anymore as you must adhere to a long list of approved materials and paints, submit multiple applications, safety plans, attend multiple meetings, etc (I didn’t bother to count the pages).

    I’m not saying we don’t need rules. I’m sure much of the above content is very reasonable, and writing it down helps when thousands of people have the same questions, or when organizers change year to year. But taken together, this bureaucracy is having a large negative impact on the event. They make it harder to build art. Make it harder to bring a camp. Make it harder to participate. “More rules! More rules! Tell us how to have fun!”

    I’ve heard a lot of “leadership” talk trying to figure out why the event has changed over the past 10 years. Why so many newbies? Why don’t the veterans come back? Why are there so many camps that are just bars, sound systems, and clever costumes with a color scheme? Why is there no fire art any more? Too many of these conversations put the onus on participants and that they need to be properly socialized. Barf. The organization needs to take a hard look at itself and the perverted incentives all these rules have created.

    I know you have to balance enabling the creative risk-takers against protecting idiots from themselves (and blowing up the city). But the pendulum has clearly swung too far towards the idiots. Too many meetings, not enough build days. Too many forms, not enough art. From what I’ve heard from many artists, after a few years they just get tired of jumping through the hoops.

    The good news is that this has led to the growth of a lot of great regionals – where artists can still stretch their wings, build art, share it with other creative people, and have fun.

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    • Caveat Magister says:

      Hi Dustin:

      Is the DMV handbook too big? Are the art grant proposals too complicated? Could be! As I note in this post, “There’s a legitimate discussion to be had here” about things like that.

      But none of the articles I referenced ever talked about the art grant proposals or the DMV. They talked about how you “have to wear goggles” and “you have to be an asshole with the DPW” and “there are rules at an orgy.”

      The kind of articles I was talking about weren’t having an informed discussion about Burning Man policies – they were confusing the traditions and rules that communities create *because they are free* with bureaucratic red tape. That’s the issue I’m trying to address.

      I think the reasons and ways Burning Man has changed in the last 10 years have a lot more to do with things like ticket scarcity and the emergence of an international commercialized “festival culture” that didn’t exist in Burning Man’s early days, than it does a proliferation of Black Rock City red tape. (And some of this is a positive development: why don’t so many artists return? Well, for one thing there all these new festivals mean there are a ton more places where they can display their art, many of which are less of a pain in the ass than hauling stuff to Burning Man. That’s a good thing!) But I agree with your larger point here that Burning Man should always look at the incentives its policies create and never assume that we’ve got it right. Sometimes we don’t.

      But again, that’s not the kind of critique that the articles I’m talking about were making.

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  • turkoise says:

    hi, just thanks

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  • Bananarama says:

    This “community” of burnier-than-thou citizens you speak of now shuns most, if not all, of the things that made Burning Man what it is.

    – Fireworks – Nightly ritual is now gone, scale of displays that survive is very small in comparison
    – Fire Art – Almost entirely propane now
    – Public Nudity / Sex – Only happens behind closed camps now. Reports of sheriff’s ticketing for public sex on the playa. Add in cell phone service and digital cameras, and you have the current situation. Public freedom in this regard has been on a downward spiral ever since the Jiffy Lube sign incident.
    – Art Cars – Rules STRONGLY discourage any small budget projects. Tons of reports of rangers acting like cops for the DMV/Borg. Rangers rock their usual spiel of “if we didn’t do it, the sheriffs would”, but would they?
    – Rangers – Changed from boy/girl scouts helping out to wanna-be police force who spend too much time on police-like activities like Perimeter team.
    – Sheriff/BLM Enforcement – Lets be honest here, the ONLY reason BM happens where it happens is because it was the most god-forsaken piece of earth that nobody cared about, while still being within a day drive of CA. The Sheriff used to not care what happened as long as we bought them shiney new SUV’s and ATV’s every year. That has changed dramatically in the last ten years. They want the event gone, or sanitized and deprived of it’s soul like some county rodeo. Many, many of the best and brightest burners have stopped participating because of it. The BM org’s “our hands are tied” response is lackluster. Hopefully Fly Ranch ends up a respite from the sheriff and his politickin, but I’m not holding my breath.

    So yes… the rules changed, and they changed for the worse. You can write it off as growing pains, but you shouldn’t pretend they never changed while you navel gaze as why the event isn’t what it used to be.

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  • Victoria Evanoff says:

    Nice article

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  • Scott (Omega) Martin says:

    I only have 7 years as a Burner and have a little to say about changes I have seen. I am a ‘rules guy’ and that is why I have found the Playa (home) a place to be free for two weeks (I support a theme camp as my way of giving). As a certified Emergency Manager and a background in law enforcement/healthcare security I get rules but we have become a breeding ground for the unprepared to water down what I believe in my heart would be a core community I could support if we all had to gather and create a safe haven due to a sociatel breakdown. A balance is needed or we will continue to erode at our core. A great conversation both in the ‘Endless Rules’ article and this ‘Rules in my Freedom’ article. Thank you everyone for sharing your hearts and minds for us all to grow. Enjoy the holidays.

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  • Bitter burner aka there is hope says:

    Rule#1 make friends with a st(ranger)
    Rule#2 Gerlach or bust
    Rule#3 break the rules and run into the fire, RIP you crazy diamond
    Rule#4 safety second

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