Why The 10 Principles Will Never Help You Win Your Argument About Burning Man With The Shirt Cocking DJ You Hate So Much

[This post is part of the 10 Principles blog series, an ongoing exploration of the history, philosophy and dynamics of Burning Man’s 10 Principles in Black Rock City and around the world. We welcome your voice in the conversation.]

Worst.  DJ.  Ever.  I hate him so much!
Worst. DJ. Ever. I hate him so much!

Someone recently told me that he knew his camp had become an important part of Burning Man culture after someone accused them of ruining it.

I laughed for a solid 10 minutes.  It’s that funny because it’s that true.  For every person who is active in Burning Man culture, there’s a Burner convinced that person is selling it out.

Is this a “teachable moment” – or are we just assholes?

Anthropologists and historians remind us that “culture” is not a monolithic thing – it always contains cross-currents and subcultures and family feuds.  There is no single “American Culture,” or “Christianity” or “Hollywood” – there are only currents, united to a greater or lesser degree by a common history, sensibility, or project.

There’s no reason Burning Man should be different, and even a casual glance at the playa revels that under the blinking lights we are a community diverse enough to be divided.  Not so much by race or creed, but by whether we like dub-step, whether we know our enneagram score, and whether we want to prank the world or save it.

Some of us are artists who use reclaimed materials to raise world consciousness before dancing all night, while others are software engineers who love to sit on top of RVs under the desert sky with a bottle of bourbon, flying drones.  What unites us, I have held, is a common aesthetic that is active enough to be a project in its own right – “Burning.”  We are united by a verb, by a thing we do.

But that kind of unity obviously doesn’t prevent us from calling each other out as perceived despoilers, over and over and over again.  Why are these arguments so easy to get into and so hard to settle?

Part of this is that people care about Burning Man, and “burning,” so damn much:  nobody accuses people of ruining a thing they never cared about in the first place.  But another reason is that we generally look to the 10 Principles to provide clear guidelines on this kind of issue.  We assume that if we can interpret the 10 Principles correctly, it will be easy to see where the lines in the sand are – and who’s on which side.

It’s an understandable idea.   After all, it’s what the rules and interdicts of most cultural systems are for:  they tell us who we are and what we do (“Honor the Sabbath and keep it holy”), or at least don’t do (“Kill”), or what rights and privileges our membership comes with (“free speech”).

The guidelines of culture are designed, at heart, to tell us which side of a line we’re on, and what we have to do to stay there.  There are always loopholes and questions, but the goal of a system of cultural interdicts is to minimize ambiguity.

Which is exactly where the comparison breaks down for Burning Man, because the 10 Principles DON’T minimize ambiguity.  On the contrary:  they generate it.

That’s in part because, with the possible exception of “Leave No Trace,” none of the 10 Principles are measurable by quantifiable means.  There is no scale of self-expression from 1-10 such that if you wear fuzzy boots, show cleavage, and spin poi you are two points more personally expressive than someone who dyes his hair and draws graphic sex acts on the back of compostable coffee cups.

Not only is there no quantifiable measurement to adequately describe whether someone is following the principles, the very act of attempting to make such a rubric is itself usually a violation of the principles.  To insist that everyone express themselves along certain lines is to render those who refuse more radically self-expressive, not less.  To insist that there are only a few correct ways to include others is to be exclusive.

Perhaps most difficult of all:  the principles contradict one another.  Self-reliance and communal effort; civic responsibility and radical self-expression – these things make different demands on the same individuals during the same circumstances.

The result is ambiguity.  Massive ambiguity.

If we’re upset by this, it’s because we want our lives to made easy:  “Just tell me the right answer so I can be a good fucking Burner and get on with my life!”

I sympathize.  We’ve all been there.  But the things that the 10 Principles are calibrated to accomplish –  to help us humanize one another, form community, generate new art and expression … “to burn” – are not accomplished when people are trying to just get their work done and go home.   There is no shortcut to radical self-expression, or to immediacy, or radical acceptance – these are things you either throw yourself into, or you’re not really doing it at all.

Which is to say:  the 10 Principles aren’t calibrated to make our lives easier.

They are calibrated to get us off our asses and engage with those elements of the human experience that can’t be effectively quantified.

Are we doing that or not?  There’s no universal answer, because the unquantifiable aspects of life are situational:  while I can offer suggestions on whether I think what someone is doing is in line with best practices … and there’s value in that … I can’t possibly judge what enhances self-expression or community or participation in a unique situation, with specific people.  Only you – the person who’s directly engaging with these unique people in this unique time and place, can determine whether what you’re doing is bringing out their humanity or not, making them feel included or not.

There’s no way to do that except to try to do it, and no way to be sure you’re on the right side of the line except to give it your all.  And if you’re doing that, then whether or not you succeed, your actions are in line with the 10 Principles.  If you half-ass it, or just follow a rote formula, or put in the minimum effort in to get your camp mates off your back and your project done … then no.  Nuh-uh.

That’s an ambiguous standard, I know:  it doesn’t offer a list you can check off, or a certificate suitable for framing.  And that’s the point.  An ambiguous line is one that demands actual attention and effort.  Anything else is just begging to be gamed.

Which means that a commitment to the 10 Principles is a commitment to live with ambiguity.  If we’re trying to give people a truly human experience, then we can’t know how it’s going to turn out in advance (not for sure), and if we want radical self-expression then we’re never going to be absolutely sure which side of the line we’re on.

We’re going to try to figure it out – constantly, repeatedly – because it’s only natural that we want certainty.  But to the extent the 10 Principles require us to sacrifice anything, certainty is it.  We just have to live, moment to moment, experience to experience.  And it’s never going to make our lives easier.

Why would we do that?

Well, look, going out to the desert doesn’t make our lives easier either.  We Burn because we want our lives to be more fun, more extraordinary, more honest, more full of possibility … sometimes because we want to change who we are, or even the world.

Or pick your own reason.  Why do you Burn?  I can’t stand in judgment of it, and I honestly don’t care.  But you’re here.  If you’re Burning, you’re giving up no small measure of comfort for no small measure of … possibility.

The 10 Principles help us accomplish that – they are aspirations and guides.  But they are not checklists or merit badges. To the extent they unite us at all, it is in our effort to live up to the 10 Principles, rather than in correctly interpreting their content.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man is the author (under a clever pseudonym) of “A Guide to Bars and Nightlife in the Sacred City,” which has nothing to do with Burning Man. 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. He is not an official representative of Burning Man, or even an employee, and does not speak for the organization. He archives his work at www.TheWachsGallery.com

19 thoughts on “Why The 10 Principles Will Never Help You Win Your Argument About Burning Man With The Shirt Cocking DJ You Hate So Much

  • Good one. In addition to ambiguity, I think there is a good deal of abstraction. Ambiguity somewhat implies there might be a right answer, while abstraction acknowledges that the whole of the event will never be experienced by a single person. No Burner’s experience is exactly the same as any other Burner’. So that person you just think is “wrong” has a completely different perspective than you do. We have a created a whole that the parts can never fully perceive, so there is no one way to “get it right”.

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  • >So that person you just think is “wrong” has a completely different perspective than you do

    Did that Burner who took a shit on our replacement lumber just have a different perspective about what he/she thought was wrong or right? If we’re talking about radical inclusion – which can be translated into radical tolerance/acceptance, then taking a shit on someone is just a matter of perspective. Interesting. I like this. Nothing is ever right or wrong. It’s all just shades of gray…

    Obi-Wan: “So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view.”
    Luke: “A certain point of view?”
    Obi-Wan: “Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

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  • @Warwick

    At the very least, the person who took a shit on your lumber didn’t Leave No Trace.

    I wouldn’t say that there is no such thing as a right or wrong answer – what I am saying is that the 10 Principles aren’t designed to provide clear and unambiguous answers to questions of how we express our humanity. They are designed to encourage us to get off our asses and do it, wholeheartedly.

    I quite like what Pooh Bear said above: there’s no one way to get it right. That’s not the same as saying there are no wrong or right answers, just that there is likely more than one right answer.

    A lot of things people do are, frankly, sheer jackassery and wrong. But that usually has nothing to do with whether or not they violate the 10 Principles.

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  • I am a 9 year veteran to the burn and I’m very concerned about ticket sales! I wonder why tickets are sold to people who don’t understand the burn and what it’s all about and the original burners and those who’ve been going for more than 5 years are expected to understand when they don’t get one? Why can there not be a grandfather clause? Are u trying to turn it into a commercialized event? I thought that was something that burning man would never do. I’m very saddened by all this

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  • Black or white,gray,pink,cock.
    #11 each one teach one
    Things are as we see them – our perspective. What the desert does is it takes us out of our comfort zone. Allows us to see/perceive differently and grow/change our perspective . Ask that carpenter guy – that was 40 days. Shared experiences adds weight and may bring along change. See P #11 Changing our perspective effects the past, creates the moment and allows a different future to materialize.
    At the burn and in life we always get exactly what we need.

    ‘If you can see the illusion then you are part of the solution ‘

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  • Perhaps people need to pass a test before being allowed to buy tickets, then one can prove they are worthy in Kimberly’s eyes. She must think she is a better Burner than the newbies since she has 9 years experience…did she not read this article?

    “Leave No Trace” is also not really measured by quantifiable means. How much unmeasured green house gasses do you supposed are released into the atmosphere to pollute the lungs of others down wind by every vehicle, generator, piece of construction equipment and the burning of the man as well as everything else. It’s probably the biggest and most “ambiguous” principle of them all.

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  • the language i like to use when describing what i think “makes someone a good burner” is simple and as follows: a good burner is participating. part of the rapid growth and influx of “fresh meat” has brought many fantastic new participants, but seemingly more spectators than ever before. however, the burning culture is so strong that it tends toward two possible effects on a virgin: either they don’t come again, or they are reborn that following year as a participant. there, this conversion, this lifting of the veil that is possible, makes the trade off well worth it.

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  • @ Kimberly. I understand the pain of wanting to go home and being unable to because of lack of tickets. That being said, there is no better experience for a seasoned Burner than to go with a newbie. Once you become jaded by the 40 foot chicken driving by, you need someone to give you renewed perspective. That gobsmacked look on a newbies face is plenty participation for me their first year (not to say that’s all most do). Many are just so overwhelmed, they don’t know where to put their efforts and they want to see everything. By the end of the Burn they get it. It’s much for fun to be involved in something, even if it means missing something else. To see it all is impossible, to participate is the thing that really changes you. By the next year they’ve made choices about how they want to participate. A grandfather clause which gave priority to more seasoned Burners would lead eventually to stagnation.

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  • simon of the playa Says: “If you see Larry walking down the Esplanade, Kill Him.”

    Simon, you think you’re making a sly joke, equating Larry with the Buddha. But the joke is on you…. you’ll never see Larry walking down the Esplanade because he’s always IN A GOLF CART!!

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  • The author writes that we are all united by the burn, then adds that a certain class of argument is easy to fall into – the one, specifically, regarding whether or not we are all lining up to a certain standard. Are we selling out? .. That kind of argument.

    In general, and I should add that I am a n00b – I feel the basis of the essay is a contradiction in terms. A group that is divided and arguing amongst itself is not by its nature united – under any flag.

    So, basically – I’m going to go with “being an asshole” for this one – because anyone who laughs for ten solid minutes at someone’s paranoid delusion is just laughing at someone else. It’s easier to see the splinter in someone else’s eye, than the stick in your own. I’ll reserve my laughter for any cartoon by Roz Chast and refrain from ridiculing half understood reason. Seek to console rather than be consoled.

    And all that St. Francis stuff. It’s good stuff! Try it, man. I am giving it to you free..

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  • Good article , people love absolutes. I would agree the 10 principles are more guide lines meant to provoke thought , than absolutes. The comments about radical inclusion are much like other debates, your personal rights end some where around where they trample mine. If you doubt that , trample some one’s , it’s a new world. The rest of the conversation in the comments about barriers , tests, what constitutes a burner are mostly ghafla, based on worry about ticket accessibility etc. It’s not a cool kids club, or should not be in my personal experience . I think there is a mathematical equation for upset about any kind of ticket issues at most events. The level of outrage at being denied tickets is in direct proportion to your level of entitlement. Bring on the newbies , bring on the chaos . The new rule for Burn events , should not be safety 3rd , but liability 3rd , because as they get successful they try to limit risk which is really a huge part of the draw and limits innovation , envelope pushing art ,and fun . (think of the children)

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  • Noob here,
    The 10 principles plainly appear valuable to me, but they too are arbitrary.
    Some group of people probably thought long and hard to come up with them and their work seems to have yielded great results.

    but…

    Are they the best possible principles?
    (hell I don’t know)
    Would any refinement of the the principles be worthwhile?
    (maybe, maybe not)

    In any case- good article.
    Gave me some perspective.

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  • Kimberly,
    During the last three years of ticket ‘scarcity’, I don’t know one vet who couldn’t find a ticket; wanna-be newbies, sure … but all of the (many, many)burners I know are resourceful enough to follow every possible avenue to acquire a ticket.

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