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Burning Man Embraces the Paradoxes of Life

Burning Man culture is a much healthier alternative to New Age puritanism.

Photo Credit: Jesse Clark


My first Burning Man was eight years ago. I arrived at the gate late on the second night with my then-girlfriend. We were ready for almost anything, but not for the manic clown-police at the entrance gate who, with a deft hand and an inch-wide white marker drew a giant ejaculating penis on our windshield and demanded (tongue-in-cheek) all our drugs.

My girlfriend left the gate in tears, but quickly recovered, falling in love with the scene and especially hula-hooping, which she’s done ever since.

I took the gate as a bit of social engineering, as if to say, “Welcome. Be audacious. Shine as weird as you want, but know that we can out-weird you, so don’t get too full of yourself. We’ve got you covered.”

I too fell in love with the scene, and have been back twice since, just last week with my 23-year-old daughter. I love the invitation to audacity but also the easy, reliable benevolence toward everyone, including me, a middle-aged duff, no longer as audacious as I once was.

Every time I’m back, that uplifting humbling line from the Beatle’s song "All You Need Is Love” comes back to me: “Nothing you can do that can’t be done.” Burning Man is crawling with talent and ingenuity. It’s a place to stand out in the midst of everyone else standing out, a place to both elevate and get over yourself, and in the process reflect on the tension between aspiring to be more than you are and being OK with what you are.

I know a bit about gate-keeping at freak gatherings. For seven years in my 20s I lived on the Farm, America’s largest and longest-lasting hippie commune. Burning Man is 60,000 freaks living together for about a week. The Farm was 1,400 people who planned to stay forever, and another 20,000 visitors a year streaming through our gate day and night, unscreened and unscheduled, staying a few days for free at what, in the '70s, was something of a hippie mecca.

An elected elder of the Farm at the age of 23, I ran our gate often, meeting and managing whomever arrived. Most of the people came with great intentions and good vibes. Some were lots more trouble.

Running gate gave me lots of time to think about what it takes to invent an alternative bubble society within the larger society and how to handle the bubble’s semi-permeable membrane—a question that now, as an evolutionary philosophy and social psychology professor, still keeps me busy.

To create a new and distinct society you need dedicated focus and a degree of purity lest your vision of a new society get diluted. But to survive you need flexible interaction with the outside community. Getting the permeability right is the challenge: what to tolerate; what not to tolerate.

The semi-permeable membrane challenge runs deeper than creating a bubble society. It's a core issue for all living systems, for example to the earliest life forms with their semi-permeable cell membrane walls, adaptively addressing life's big give and take questions: what to join, what not to join, what to accept, what to reject, what to tolerate, what not to tolerate. Evolutionary biologist Terrence Deacon calls it the "paradox of individuality.” No creature is an island and yet a distinct individual can only survive as a separate being by interacting with the world outside.

Luck of the draw, this time my daughter and I weren’t met by cock-drawing clown police, but my daughter could have handled it. Many in her generation, the generation best represented at Burning Man, is used to a lot of cultural variability, and don’t harbor the purist, dogmatic visions of social change we disdainfully called “being High Brahman” on the Farm.

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