Burning Man Embraces the Paradoxes of Life
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.
The Farm was more pragmatic than dogmatic. We didn't tolerate free love, but we tolerated junk food and for similar pragmatic reasons. We had a lot of work to do and for the most part picked our priority battles with an eye to what would keep us going. Casual sex would cut into our work lives and create more drama than the commune could sustain. And hand-wringing over occasional bags of chips or sodas wasn’t our thing either. We had higher priorities, and chose carefully where to allocate our tolerances and intolerances.
In retrospect, I think our disdain for High Brahman hippies was our unsuccessful bulwark against the New Age puritanism that was already taking root in the 1970s—a moral absolutism that still dominates in Berkeley, where I now live. Moral absolutes, whether from the far right, the far left or far-out New Age, stunt human growth.
I’m astonished at how strong and resilient New Age puritanism remains here in Berkeley, and how many people, especially of my generation, have gotten good at turning up their High Brahman noses through absolutist spiritual correctness.
I call it “yintimidation." The sweeping final-word pontifications of the self-proclaimed "yin" and "spiritual," who counsel hypocritically that you shouldn’t be judgmental (a judgment) that negativity is bad (a negativity) and that you should be closed-minded to closed-mindedness and intolerant of intolerance.
As the hypocritically spiritual demonstrate, you can’t live by these principles. Instead, you just get good at ignoring the places where you're judgmental, negative closed-minded or intolerant. The principles stunt growth by keeping us from life's age-old questions about when to judge, be negative, be closed-minded and intolerant.
No doubt New Age spiritual puritanism is a reaction to prior puritanisms that pointed the opposite direction; for example, the self-glorifying zero-tolerance policies of the far right and far left. All moral absolutes, once they became culturally dominant, can and will be abused in the human race to outshine each other, boss each other around, and act like the pope.
I’m awestruck and humbled by how Burning Man culture extends hippie philosophy in a healthier direction, an alternative to the New Age puritanism that has become just another route to standard-issue human self-certainty.
Burning Man culture doesn't take itself too seriously. There's much more self-effacing irony to it, that strange and wondrous balance between elevating and getting over oneself. It was folk art at its best, everyone gifted and talented at something, often something as majestic in its triviality as hula hooping, a celebration of the expansive possibilitiess of what a body can do.
Not only are there no corporate logos at Burning Man, there are no famous names, no founders or philosophical leaders. The bands, music and camps all have transient names, meaningful and playful, but not really important. Everyone shines and no one is blinded or overshadowed by the shiners' light. Not only is there no commerce, there’s hardly any promotion of anything, no glad-handing, no ideogical campaigning, hippy, progressive or otherwise.
Will Burning Man save the world? Certainly not. Is it sustainable? Not year-round the way the Farm was for 14 years, with a community of 200 still living there today.
And not, perhaps, in the environmental sense. It’s energy intensive—all that driving and burning. Still, though my priority issue is climate change, I’m not a purist about it. While I don’t fly to vacations in far-flung lands because the carbon footprint of such trips is too large, I’ll burn a tank of gas to be part of the Burning Man circus. I’m glad I live just five hours from the best exotic culture-bang-for-the-carbon-footprint buck.
And as an annual mecca, Burning Man is sustainable. Its resilience stems from its low ideological aspirations. It has longer legs than the Occupy movement in part because it’s not tilting at the towering windmills of commerce, but also because it doesn’t aspire to ideological or spiritual purity and so has some built-in resilience—just like many people of my daughter’s generation.
As a mecca, Burning Man has got something substantial to offer. It reminds us of the vast possibilities available to humankind. I love its harmonious dissonance and its sweet cacophony that comes from the collision of life's two opposing truths: 1) We are all one; and 2) just do your thing. The paradox of individuality lived large for a week in the Nevada desert.