Thoughts about being an asshole at Burning Man

This could be you.
This could be you.

After I read the paper Moze wrote about the development of the Temple and what it means, my first thought was: “Well shit, now I have to prank the thing.”

I get an itch whenever someone even talks about Burning Man’s “cosmology” (and Moze talks about it very well). I think one of Burning Man’s biggest strengths is that it actively resists hermeneutics. Given how Burning Man is experienced and the expectations of the community, a “correct” interpretation of Burning Man – or even a collective one – is difficult, perhaps impossible. I like that.

So being told what the temple “means,” even in very general terms? Having it explained to me that it’s a space that Burners define in certain ways and treat with a given set of protocols? Yeah, I want to fuck that up. Badly.

But I won’t.

Not because it’s sacred … not because I don’t think it deserves it … but because the asshole-to-comedy ratio is just too damn high. Because while you may leave all your preconceptions and inhibitions and all your sacred cows in the dust when that naked Greeter gives you a really inappropriate hug, the one thing you always take with you is your basic humanity. Burning Man does not burn that away.

I like the assholes and negative energy at Burning Man – but to forget your basic humanity is to become the wrong kind of asshole. And I don’t mean “wrong” in a “you’re not a REAL burner” sense, and I don’t mean “wrong” in a “you don’t have the right to be a terrible human being,” way. I mean: the potential payoff from whatever act of whimsy you intend to pull is less than the amount of suffering you are likely to introduce to the world.

If there’s a reasonable expectation of that happening, you’re probably not a prankster, comedian, or artist: you’re just a bastard with a shtick. You can be that – but don’t expect anyone to respect or admire you for it.  Instead, expect to be called on it.

Here’s an illustration of how that works. True story (though oversimplified), with the names omitted to protect the guilty.

Two years ago there were a group of Palestinian kids who had been in art therapy groups to help process their experiences. A local museum asked if it could display their art for an exhibit, and everything was set up. Then a group of protesters (the usual subjects) got offended because they felt this was a political exhibit attacking Israel (not entirely wrong) and they started turning on the heat. Sure enough, the museum caved and cancelled the exhibit.

A notorious local aficionado of whimsy (and Burning Man personality) then sent out an email to a group of like-minded souls, proposing a plan:

Let’s find a space and host that exhibit.

  • AND let’s also create a protest of faux Israeli hardliners who will come and picket it.
  • Then, once that’s started, let’s create a faux group of pro-Palestenian protestors to come and protest the faux Israeli protest.
  • And THEN let’s have a group of faux anti-war activists come and protest the protest to the protest.
  • And THEN let’s see if we can get a group of people to be faux pro-war protesters to come and protest the protest of the protest of the protest.
  • The NEXT group of protesters would be faux Scientologists who want in on the action.

And so on: get as many fake protests protesting each other as we can. See if we can make it up to 30 or 50.  Flood the area.

It’s a hilarious idea. People started signing up. Then one of the people on the email list, a legend in the Burner community who has helped commit some epic anti-corporate pranks, chimed in with a question:

“Haven’t those kids suffered enough?”

The whole thing shut down immediately. Because, yeah, when you actually think about it, what did those kids do to deserve all this crap except … ya know … live in a war zone. Ha ha. Sure showed them.

Which isn’t to say the idea isn’t hilarious:  I still think it is.  Love to do it for a different event.  But at the end of the day the people most hurt and offended would be the kids living in a war zone, and the grotesque nature of their suffering would be bigger than the joke would be funny.  Worse, they’re powerless:  they have no ability to fight back in a meaningful way, to earn their agency and dignity by going after us the way we went after them.

To pick on those who have suffered greatly and can’t fight back is perhaps the lowest human impulse imaginable.  It’s one thing to do it without realizing, and then feel horrified, and try to make amends:  it’s unfortunate but there’s honor in that.  It’s another thing to realize in advance that this is what you’re doing, and decide to do it anyway because you can’t think of a better way to occupy your time.

The frequent justification for it is the justification of bullies everywhere:  “But it’s funny!”  And, hey, this may be true.  But is the funny greater than the amount of suffering it brings into the world?  I can hypothetically imagine a situation in which the sheer hilarity of what is done to a powerless victim may be so funny that it rights all wrongs.

But most of the time when you’re picking on the suffering or the powerless, you’re just a selfish sack of shit.  The odds are really good.

This is why I’m not going to prank the temple.  Because however funny whatever I came up with was, and however annoyed I am by people who try to turn the temple into a universal rite for Burners instead of just a thing some burners do, the people who would suffer the most from it would be people whose only offense was having lost a loved one.  They would suffer most – Moze’s paper makes that abundantly clear – and I know it going in.

I simply can’t think of anything that is funnier than their grief is deep.  I got nuthin.  It’s not that a prank isn’t deserved here, but basic human considerations come up first.

For a group that’s as deliberately offensive as so many of us can be, I’ve seen surprisingly little at Burning Man that delves into the realm of terrible humanity.  We’re appropriately willing to aggravate and offend one another, but not to be bastards when we confront significant suffering or true powerlessness.  Would that the world could say the same.

This is risk that I feel is dangerously high with this year’s theme:  Cargo Cult is high stakes high reward.  But a few of the commenters responding to my piece about it saw the right to prank as at stake.  Saying “hold your fire” on Cargo Cults, they suggest, means we’re carving out “sacred spaces” for religion and politics.

“Irreverence or Assholery,” wrote Quentin, “is meant to keep religion, spirituality and political statements out of Burningnman. And that is good.”

This is wrong on all points.  Religion and spirituality are self-evidently welcomed at Burning Man:  have you seen all the statues of Ganesh?  The morning yoga sessions?  The spirituality based camps?  More to the point:  why would we impose a demand that religious people leave their religion at the gate?  It would flat-out contradict Radical Inclusion.

And politics?  How can politics not be welcomed at an event that once had an “American Dream” theme?  Politics are everywhere.  Chicken John once campaigned for Mayor of San Francisco at Burning Man.  Alix Rosenthal camapaigned there for San Francisco city supervisor.  Again, to say “political people” aren’t welcome at Burning Man is absurd.

What Quentin is getting at is that there is a spirit of irreverence at Burning Man guaranteeing that none of these things that are protected in the default world are sacred cows at Burning Man.  No one is required to give your religion or politics any respect at all – and they are fair game for all manner of treatment.  It’s not that they’re not welcome:  it’s that they’re not protected.

And that is good.

But refusing to make any group a protected class is one thing:  refusing to acknowledge the legitimate suffering and powerlessness of others is wholly different.  Pick on powerful religions and political players all you want – there’s no question they’ve got it coming.  But they can also fight back:  Christianity and Islam and Scientology and America and Russia and China and Republicans and Democrats and whatever Michael Bloomberg is are all quite capable of defending themselves, and ought to be critiqued.

But the cargo cults?  They can’t fight back.  They don’t have PR machines and lobbying groups and fundraising operations.  You have never been oppressed by them, but we have occupied their countries.

This makes a difference;  not to the “rules” or culture of Burning Man or the validity of any artistic statement, but on a basic human level.  You always have the right to mock, but is it the right thing?  If the only reason you have to make fun of something is that Burning Man made it its theme?  Well … do better.  Seriously.

There’s so much worthwhile to say through art and whimsy.  Make the world a more interesting place.  Afflict the comfortable – but lay off those who have already suffered enough. Most burners get that intuitively.  Occasionally, however, we have to remind each other.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man.  His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization.  Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat grew up wanting to be a Russian novelist, but the closest he ever came was getting personally insulted by the first democratically elected president of Poland. Now the volunteer coordinator for Burning Man's Media Team (itself a volunteer position), Caveat has been messing with Burners for the last five years, and has a hard time believing some of the stuff they've let him get away with. He is a publisher at Omnibucket.com, served as editor of Chicken John’s philosophical autobiography “The Book of the Is,” and archives his publications and personal blogs at www.TheWachsGallery.com.

40 thoughts on “Thoughts about being an asshole at Burning Man

  • sacred cows make the best hamburgers…

    with that said, it is not funny if it involves schadenfruede of those that are innocent, or undeserving.

    as someone who occasionally fires off rounds that end in collateral damage, i can also say there is no worse feeling than hurting someones feelings when you just wanted them to laugh.

    it’s a tightrope…how many people loved cosmo kramer until michael richards said a “bad” word?

    how many parents wont let their kids watch Pee-Wee Herman because of what he got caught doing?

    Performance art is meant to cajole, disturb, possibly upset, and the great thing about burning man is if you dont like what you’re seeing, you can change the channel, by turning around.

    i think public opinion is a good meter, the crowd knows when yopu’ve gone too far, and will let you know, pretty quickly.

    i hope they will.

    sometimes it’s the only way to keep fuckos like myself in line…

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  • I wish more people could see me screaming at people flying down my street every year. If you wanna drive by my camp like you are in a fucking race then you are gonna get a load of shit from me. I remember 2 years ago being known in my neighborhood as Camp Fuck You! And i was the local asshole who was applauded for screaming at fucking tourists mobbing down our road all day long in their air conditioned cars. At one point we got a bunch of cones and closed our road. If DPW or EMS would have come down our road we would have gladly moved the cones aside.
    I like being an asshole when Im on the playa. It feels good to vent on ignorant virgin dipshits every once in a while.

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  • Though provoking piece. Your make a valid point about the suffering vs. enjoyment when someone is considering a prank. I’ve never had the urge to use a prank as my form of expression, and neither have any of my camp mates. I don’t condone people being assholes anywhere, but shit happens. I suppose the bad prank situation may start with the “I”… a person who only thinks about “I”… thus the a prank turns into a “prIck”.

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  • I don’t think that could have been better said. Leading a whole bunch of people to make giant snarky art projects over the years I have had to remind everyone to not be cruel in the persuit of a joke. I tried to make sure that all of us when we manned the bait shop were making people laugh and giving out a bit huge if someone took our madness the wrong way.

    But, wow,… I feel like putting your post in the build space, in its entirety. Making it mandatory reading for everyone and then going out and hiding someones car!

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  • Interesting argument about not being the wrong kind of asshole — as if there’s a right kind of asshole. The formula “my funny outweighs your pain” is valid only in your own mind.

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  • “freebird!” lol!!

    I love the assholes at burning man. As long as they’re my kind of assholes.

    Some of my fave jerk things:
    1. The guy with the bullhorn who says, “You’re doing it wrong”.
    2. When there were fake porta potties were on the playa. I loved watching those poor fools go through the door.

    Note to self: find jerk camp this year.

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  • We all need to laugh at ourselves more. If we are in a sensitive situation and can’t laugh at ourselves and someone is being an asshole to us then guess what we could be an asshole right back. Like Skyzer and his cones. I would be perfectly happy to tell him If his cones bother me by running over them or tracking him down and ask him why oh why he blocked my flow? Once he explained himself to me I would no longer think him an asshole (tourists are assholes) and we would kiss and make up. So if you really want to do a piece that challenges the very core of the temple I say go for it, but you could also explain yourself. Believe it or no I have spoken with people who never experienced assholes at Burning Man until maybe their 8th or 10th year. Personally that is a big reason why I love BM, I don’t worry if I am being an asshole or not.

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  • Yes yes yes! I witnessed a young girl riding her bike down one of the roads topless & someone with a bullhorn sitting on a platform of some kind yelling out comments about each person riding by…he made some remark about the shape of her breasts & she immediately pulled over & put a top on. For a minute I thought, “what an asshole” this guy is, she must be terribly insecure & this may be the only time in her life that she’s really allowed herself to feel free enough to do something like that and he goes and ruins it for her. But then, less than a minute later, he face planted. I wish she could have seen it.

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  • Fuckin A Right. You hit the nail square on the head. I could not have said it better myself, and I always think I can do better. This right here is %100 dead on, and it is too often that I am forced to remind burners that while they Could take a particular course of action, and still be burners, a better question is Should they take that course of action, and would they still be human if they did.

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  • >> I like being an asshole when Im on the playa. It feels good to vent on ignorant virgin dipshits every once in a while.

    ^angry guy.

    “ignorant virgin dipshits” – wow.

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  • how appropo that simon should be first to post and then make sympathetic (or really just pathetic) reference to michael richards. when someone felt awkward and uncomfortable about this years theme and the maturity in general of the entire burner community in relation to issues of colonialism, entitlement and privilege here was his take:

    http://eplaya.burningman.com/viewtopic.php?f=325&t=63254&start=30#p905825

    there are no sacred cows in this community, only sacred bullshit.

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  • Why not a “faux protest” of a hospice? Or how about a “faux” cross burning on an unsuspecting African American family’s lawn…Hilarious! sometimes it’s not ironic or funny….sometimes if it looks like dog shit, smells like dog shit, and tastes like dog shit it’s really insipid performance art by wanna be hipsters…

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  • The theme may be Cargo Cult. But it really is not. A Cargo Cult is a rather perfect example of what the true theme, I believe, to BM this year. That theme is magical thinking. Yup. See we can laugh at the cargo cultist because they make airplanes out of sticks and burn them to appease the gods who will then deliver the goods in cargo.
    That is magical thinking. Guess what 99% of religions and beliefs and blah blah blah have magical thinking within them. Nice satire there. I love it.

    So have at it. Make noise in the sacred space. Blast freebird at the temple burn. I’ll laugh my ass off. And when I laugh the hardest I’m usually laughing at myself.

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  • I have a sacred personal rule to only fuck with people who can fuck me up, make me disappear and/or who can afford it.

    I love it when people fuck with other people as long as the asshole to comedy ratio is right. It happens to all of us and should be funny. I have no patience for bullying or picking on weaker people.

    Like when I tried to throw the nail into your cup from the roof of the “media lounge,” but ended up only hitting the rim of the cup, that was HILARIOUS. But if the nail landed in your eye or something, that might not be as funny.

    My room mate and I pretend to shank each other and serve very vocal death and violence threats at each other in public, but she knows I would never do anything mean to her.

    I can appreciate a mean sense of humor, but i have no patience for cruelty.

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  • actually, for some of us, not being an asshole is getting out of our comfort zone, and visa versa….

    as with anything, if your gonna be an asshole, do it with love.

    yeah, theres some zen shit, for all of you quietly condescending buddhists, you know, the ones who think it’s unbuddhist like to touch their inner asshole, or they are afraid they wont have karmic hand sanitizer or some bullshit.

    is it too soon?

    fuck,

    sorry.

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  • so a rabbi, a priest, and a buddhist monk are on a plane….

    ah shit…

    this kinda sucks…all of my usual material might piss someone off, or offend their sensibilities…

    crap, i just realized, all thats left is mime.

    i cant do mime,

    it offends me…

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  • Radical self expression and radical inclusion definitely allow irreverence and ‘assholery’ an they should…however, that does not change the fact that the person’s artistic and self expressive choices have gravitated to being a dick. If you wanna be a dick, and prank, or tarnish other people’s experience, by all means feel free to do so, because this is Burning Man, and you are free to express yourself however. Just dont be surprised if your Burn becomes more difficult, if your shit breaks, or your mind snaps, or all you encounter are opportunities to be your dick-ish self. Maybe even some bigger dicks than you will come and rain on your parade. It’s all up to you.

    That said, I choose to use this opportunity for self expression to expand my consciousness into new arenas of co-habitating and making art. I also find intrinsic and powerful value in attempting to align towards allowing others their space and increasing my attempts at service, radical self reliance and clear, respectful communication. Obviously this doesn’t work all the time, and sometimes being a dick, and screaming ‘Go fuck yourself’ over and over is the only recourse, but what goes around comes around, imho. Karma is a mean ass bitch, whether you call it that or not. Our universe seems to radiate and reflect back at you what you put into it, be they thoughts, actions, words, or artworks.

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  • Princess Inari, have you ever been to Gigsville? I had the good fortune to be stalking a resident there when their Jalapeno Fisting Workshop was scheduled, and could hear the laughter and screams of “oh my god, someone actually showed up” from over at the bar…

    WTF is a gig anyway?

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  • I was witness to a victim of a prank that had no humor in it whatsoever. Said prank was an in-your-face, fuck you thing to do. The victim was reduced to tears and came close to leaving days early.

    To my mind there is an edgy, in-your-face attitude at Burning Man, and I like it. Honesty in its purest form is edgy and in one’s face.

    Like some famous judge said “I can’t define pornography but I know it when I see it. There’s such a thing as good-natured assholery at Burning Man and there is some hostile aggressive assholery at Burning Man as well. I can’t define it, but I’m pretty sure I know it when I experience it.

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  • Blah Blah Blah, all this talk about being ass holes and the moment “most” of you get on the playa face to face with other Burners (human beings) you will be the sweetest person you can be. Why because we all have love as our beginnings. When we were kids we didn’t think about whether or not we should play with another kid we just said “do you want to play” or “can I play” and that’s why we love The Burn. Because it allows us to be kids. All this ass hole talk is simply coming from a Default world perspective. When your at the burn would you really take the time to write this long essay about wanting to be an ass hole, but then backing down because it might hurt more people than your intended target? No, I’m sure you would have listened to the persons view, said “that’s a load of BS. And went about your day, Because your day was most likely Rocken’ cause your on the playa.
    If not ……..you need a hug bro. Because any one that would invest days of their life planning to make another member of their community feel bilittled for simply having an opinion you don’t like, needs a serious intervention. Look, ass-holes need love too. And if your on this forum boasting how your proud of being an ass-hole at Burning Man, maybe you should get out of your own way. I know there are tons of people that are ready and willing to show you guys some love, you just have to stop being an ass-hole long enough to recieve it.

    Quote of the Day: “I like being an ass-hole at Burning Man”

    I invested one week, over a thousand dollars, and drove all the way to the middle of a desert in Nevada to be around a bunch of people having the time of their lives, just to be an ass-hole.

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  • dear buddhists and hippies.

    lighten the fuck up, you humorless nag champa lickers.

    stay in center camp, where it’s safe from people like us…..we’ll stay the fuck OUT of center camp, because it just brings out the worst in our Fucko Nature.

    just as in the past we had Disturbia and the soft and fluffy zone (1998) perhaps we could have an area that was asshole free, and another would be Free the Asshole.

    cross-pollination and inter asshole dating will be encouraged, and maybe a dialogue between the two zones could be started, and future agreements on settlements and control of the temple can be discussed.

    until then, we must remain vigilant of our rights to express our inner asshole, if you dont like it, then go ahead, threaten us with your so called karma shock troops.

    what, i aint got Puns? whatchu think, i SOLD them all?

    bitches.

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  • Good point, made way more complicated than it needs to be. Why are you being an asshole and what are it’s practical implications?

    You’re being an asshole just to be an asshole, or the biggest result is that it hurts someone. You’re an asshole.

    You being an asshole as a way of pointing out some confusion, some stuck-in-our-way-ness, whatever you want to call it, and as a result, you being an asshole does (significantly) more of that – creates more wisdom – than it does causes pain (even if maybe the person doesn’t realize it), you’re not really an asshole at all. Sometimes the only way to truly be loving and wise is to be an “asshole”. Sometimes by trying to be the “loving and wise” flower-child, you’re actually just being an asshole.

    Chogyam Trungpa was a tremendous Asshole. Capital A. But – maybe – all for the cause of freeing people from their shit. Not sure if Simon has any idea what “Buddhist” means or not; doesn’t appear to. Whatever though.

    Of course, what you think you’re doing and what you’re actually doing don’t always align. We ain’t all Trungpa. Sometimes it’s safer just to play nice.

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  • I think the assholery is only upsetting if you are unprepared for it. Read the blogs, spend a month or so on eplaya and you pick up on it real quick.

    If you just read the ten principles, then you might get the feeling that this is some wondrous utopian hippy village where everyone is super nice to everyone and no one fights or yells or makes fun of your hair.

    The difference for me is that instead of putting up a shield like I do in default world, I put up my fists. I’m allowed to be an asshole right back. I revel in it.

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  • So maybe the principle of no taboos and restriction (radical inclusion and expression)is the sacret cow.
    Anyways on cargocults:
    The theme is misunderstood when you say that there is offence by pranking the tribes. See there is now right or wrong interpretation. But it would be difficult not to see how Christianity is a cargocult too. most religions if not all tell of the gods who will be back. I think this is the intended point is any one is itching to critisize it… but after all u know, its open to interpritation

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  • There is a difference of being an asshole and being a douche. Assholes in BRC are great. They make people uncomfortable and shake-up the experience. They are creators of thought and fun. Assholes know how to push the boundary and move the line. Assholes are harmless. It’s when they become douches that I have a problem.

    Douches are not having fun. They don’t make the situation uncomfortable, they make it scary. If your goal is to start a fight because you need to feel good about yourself, you are a douche. If you are so drunk or/high that you are being a dick with zero awareness of the result of your actions: you are a douche.

    I know douches are present all week but in my experience they seem to multiply when the weekenders show up. If you see someone being a Douche on the playa, get a ranger or better yet find an asshole.

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  • This give anyone else a Team America flashback? I was at the screening at BM2012, just to tie it in… Fuck Yeah!

    “We’re dicks! We’re reckless, arrogant, stupid dicks. And the Film Actors Guild are pussies. And Kim Jong Il is an asshole. Pussies don’t like dicks, because pussies get fucked by dicks. But dicks also fuck assholes: assholes who just want to shit on everything. Pussies may think they can deal with assholes their way. But the only thing that can fuck an asshole is a dick, with some balls. The problem with dicks is: they fuck too much or fuck when it isn’t appropriate — and it takes a pussy to show them that. But sometimes, pussies can be so full of shit that they become assholes themselves… because pussies are an inch and half away from ass holes. I don’t know much about this crazy, crazy world, but I do know this: If you don’t let us fuck this asshole, we’re going to have our dicks and pussies all covered in shit!”

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  • One of my favorite moments. Hanging out early in the week in the morning at the newly minted temple. Some woman there getting her picture taken posing against an outside wall. Suddenly, out of the blue some loud pranksters wearing lab coats and green wigs crash their golf cart right into the temple. It was hilarious. it was completely unexpected theatre of the absurd. O the precious temple defiled by these goons. Expectations crashed, mind reboots with laughter. Pro assholes.

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  • Yes there is a “correct” Burning Man experience. However much people want to believe that anything goes–it doesn’t. Imagine if The Borg declared that no Man would be built one year, or for several years in a row? The citizenry would see it as an unforgivable blaspheme. And remember Paul Addis? He was prosecuted for setting The Man on fire 2007. The Man. The Man that is SUPPOSED to be set on fire. Anything that is defined at all by any definition, however vague, is then trapped within the limits of that definition. And there are limits, many of them, and many expectations that have come to be known, even in BRC, ones that most festival goers, and the ruling body, are not open to see changed.

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  • How come i am the only asshole that wants to suggest we dumb it down a bit and make the theme for the burn something simple like “HATS”
    Personally I’m gonna walk around wearin a pair of cargo pants chanting my own name till i have a cult following after me also chanting my name!
    Being an asshole out at that event is what makes it so special. I suggest being an asshole at least one day out of your week out there to everyone.
    One time i was being a dick to these two nice old ladies. The one lady kicked me in the shin the other lady tackled me a gave me a nuggie! I then in turn gave the first lady a zobble on her belly while her friend laughed her ass off at the entire situation. Later on these ladies kidnapped me and made me go watch cinema at the local dome down the street playing the classics!
    None of this amazing evening would have been possible if i would have not been an asshole in the first place. You gotta have tact when being a jerk out there. Some people are REALLY in the dumps. They don’t need to get dumped on further. It’s the ones that are on cloud nine. Those are the one’s! They needa good schalacking of abuse!

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