Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Burning Man and the Default World

What's the deal with Burning Man? What motivates so many people to give so much time, money, and energy for the opportunity to suffer through ten days in a harsh environment? After its first year, attendance quadrupled from 20 to 80. Within a space of ten years it grew to 2,000. Less than five years later, it was up to 20,000. These days 60-70,000 people gather in the desert once a year for the 30 year old festival.

If you've been around Burners or done any research on the event you've probably come across the term "Default World," used to describe the general, non-Burning-Man-world of commerce, communities, and human relations. The term may sound strange or cultish at first, but it illuminates a way of seeing the world which holds vast potential for positive change.

The sort of patchwork, conventional wisdom, the unspoken story of the world, goes something like this: if the powerful forces of nature, god, markets, social Darwinism, and brute competition couldn't overcome the individual sins of greed, dishonesty, and hatred, nothing can. It springs from a deeply inconsistent and self-contradictory mishmash of Puritanism, evolutionary theory, fatalism, and the old "might equals right" paradigm, and falls apart under the slightest scrutiny, yet I would venture to say that a majority of the world holds this view subconsciously. By default, if you will.

Here's why Burning Man caught on like wildfire: it's all in the design. By setting clear and strategic expectations for participants, a new generation of event organizers is finding ways to facilitate more loving, authentic, and fearless interactions between strangers. These intentional communities offer both a critique and an alternative to the previously described "this is the best it gets" view of the world. 

We've learned a lot about power structures, human nature, and love from the vast array of mistakes, evils, and various forms of manipulation people have exercised over one another over the centuries. It stands to reason that this knowledge would enable us to keep abreast of the more threatening aspects of human nature.

Here are the expectations at Burning Man, the roots of the culture:

Radical Inclusion
Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community.

Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.

In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience.

Radical Self-reliance
Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.

Radical Self-expression
Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.

Communal Effort
Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction.

Civic Responsibility
We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws.

Leaving No Trace
Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.

Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart.

Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience.

Each of the principles is designed to facilitate the pursuit of happiness as much as possible for as many people as possible. Dissolving hierarchies, discouraging cliquishness, setting the expectation of being fully present with one another, taking accountability for our own behavior, interacting respectfully with ourselves and our environment--these preclude many of the most negative aspects of society, pre-empting the need for a punitive attitude towards wrongdoers. Why is Burning Man so popular? Because it WORKS.

People treat each other with more trust and goodwill, feel safe being more open and honest versions of themselves, feel safe pushing back against the limitations they've internalized or accepted over the course of their lives. They make themselves vulnerable to others and to truth, stepping up to face their own excuses and shortcomings and discovering new things about themselves. People change their lives after coming to Burning Man. They change the way they do business. They change the way they interact with their families. It's healing, transformative, and it all communicates something very, very different than the default world's message about human nature and what humans are capable of.

Burning Man is fertile ground to examine the question of individual morality vis-a-vis civilized society in terms of creating a bright and loving world vs. a dark and hateful one, because so-called "vice laws" are effectively (if not officially) suspended at the festival. Nudity, anarchy, drug use, and sexual openness, often portrayed as the most dangerous threats to society, are all highly prevalent (though also largely possible to avoid) in Black Rock City. The crime statistics during the event, even when compared to other festivals (let alone cities of comparable size) contradict the idea that these sorts of activities go hand-in-hand with actual, physical threats to human beings. As for anecdotal evidence of the level of joy, harmony and peace experienced by attendees, here are some pictures of people at the event. (Pay attention especially to the close-ups of faces. Feel free to seek out your own as well).

In theory, people of every persuasion are welcome to come and see what kind of world these festivals could create, but that doesn't happen in practice, which brings up another interesting point. Self-ostracization is the only kind that takes place at Burning Man, and self-ostracization from intentional communities tells us important things about the obstacles to utopia (and peaceful, harmonious society in general). There are two types of people who don't find a welcome for themselves at these kinds of festivals.

The first, who certainly attend but may not encounter such a welcoming spirit, are those determined to behave in whatever manner they see fit, with no regard to the experience of others. Aggressive solipsists, people who imagine themselves to be the only, or most important being in the universe and think it's a good shortcut to spend their energy avoiding the consequences of disharmonious behavior rather than learning harmony.  These are the most obvious threat to both the concept and execution of a utopian society, but luckily they are few and far between, and natural consequences are constantly inspiring to reform them. Even people who can manage to live this way due to their influence or affluence pay the heavy price of being tolerated rather than loved, since meaningful, intimate relationships are impossible to maintain without some level of personal accountability.

The second group, an unfortunately large and thriving subgroup of the former, and unfortunately unlikely to ever attend Burning Man at least, comes in the form of people who consider it a virtue to eliminate all sanctuary for contradictory views on morality, spirituality, and self-expression. Moving well beyond the realm of defending their personal safety and well-being, they demand that their entire horizon be consistent with their ideas of how the world should be. They see nothing inconsistent with demanding freedom of expression and worship even as they sacrifice their opponents'  chosen forms of expression on the altar of their own personal ideals, in the name of their own personal gods. 

Our default, half-formed, internally inconsistent world of collective morality fully supports this insane idea--that a particular group of humans, based on nothing other than conviction, should be able to impose their idiosyncratic set of behavioral restrictions on their ideological opponents, divorced from any evidence that this leads to less conflict rather than more conflict; as though the fact that we believe different things is the root of all irreconcilable conflict, rather than this basic, unapologetic disrespect for the agency of others.

The truth is, people like this would do well to spend some time in a space like Burning Man, if only they could be convinced. Plenty of attendees hold contradictory beliefs when it comes to being naked in public, the benefit vs. harm of drug usage, the existence and shape and will of God(ess)(e)(s), the benefit vs. harm of guns, the appeal vs. not of certain styles/outfits/lifestyles/modes of being/diets, etc. Very few of these people engage in destructive conflict with one another over these things while at Burning Man. Everyone accepts. Everyone loves. Everyone listens. Everyone connects. Everyone is completely free to be themselves, and it becomes crystal clear that we have nothing to fear from one another's differences.

In the default world, oppositional perspectives inspire distance, guardedness, and often personal animosity. All of this makes us miss out on the beauty of other people, the love they have to offer, and the kinds of wisdom built up around lifestyles that are different than ours. We have so much to offer one another, and particularly those who think about the world very differently than we do. At Burning Man, with barriers lowered, we have unique access to truths about others, humanity, and ourselves, and we gain access to a deep and universal sense of community, we immerse ourselves in the vast love that connects us all as human beings and living things.

Burning Man can feel a bit cultish, from the evangelism of Burners to the phrase "Welcome Home!" you hear everywhere you go, particularly during your first year. If it is a cult, I think we've finally learned how to cult right: full inclusion and acceptance of every damned aspect of our fellow human beings outside of violence, commerce, or manipulative behaviors. 

The festival may be unsustainable in practical terms, but the culture of camaraderie is far more emotionally sustainable than anything I've encountered. Each new year I attend, I wonder how I've survived an entire year in the default world, where you're nearly forced to adopt a wary stance and/or guard your intentions from the people you encounter, where attempts at emotional honesty and intimacy can be met with a range of responses other than reciprocation, from discomfort to fear to disdain. I, for one, believe we could create a whole city around this lifestyle, and the sooner, the better.

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