Burning Man Is Not About Being “Nice”

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there.” – Rumi

Burning Man may seem like all rainbows, hugs, and candy-canes….but it’s much more textured than that.

Little Spoon

My good friend Little Spoon (Micah Daigle), tells a story about sitting at Center Camp at the Burn with 20-30 people watching a woman with a guitar singing a very touching, vulnerable song.  As the audience sips their bought coffee; on the edge of their seats and touched by her vulnerability, a guy on stilts with megaphone walks in and starts berating the audience.

“Look at you saps, sitting there, spectating!  Get off your asses and go experience the burn!  You look like you are at a shopping mall sipping your lattes.  Bullshit!  And you, poor girl doing your cute thing with the guitar.  So your heart was broken and you wrote a song a bout it. Big fucking deal!”

Then he disappears and the audience is left totally shell-shocked as the woman walks off stage. At first, Micah felt really uncomfortable and tense. He felt sorry for her and wished he could do something about the injustice.

But then, the MC returns and says, “How about a hand for that guy!  That was awesome!  Where did he go? Get him back here.”  He comes back and the host puts him on stage to berate the audience for another 20 minutes.

As Micah describes it, “It was in that moment that I truly got Burning Man. I realized that if that guy was free to express himself as a dick, then I was free to express myself however I want. There aren’t any ‘polite police’ going to enforce their rules on me. And as bad as I still felt for the performer, I realized that her and my embarrassment was a small toll to pay for us all to be here in one of the freest places on Earth. The secret to the desert’s beauty is often found in her harshness.”

All good art makes you uncomfortable in certain moments. It rides the edge of OK.  This could be called social art.

We could all use a week without our mental filters that keep us from saying inappropriate things.  Face your fear of hurting people’s feelings.  It’s getting in the way of discovering yourself.

Of course, touching someone without permission, stealing and vandalism clearly crosses the line.  Also, continuing to bother someone after they have asked you not to or for an extended period of time I also think clearly crosses the line.

There is an immense sense of freedom that overcomes you when you are no longer held hostage by your fear that people will be offended by who you really are in a given moment. The playa is big and it can handle whatever you’ve got inside….good or bad.  Let it out.  Rock the boat.  Let out the primal scream.

And let others have their primal scream, too. Don’t take yourself too seriously if someone hurts your feelings.  It’s all grist for the mill. Everybody is expressing their inner demons and inner gods.

This way, when someone comes with smiles, candies and rainbows…it’s more likely to be genuine.  You can’t fully appreciate and honor the light, if you don’t offer the same gift to the dark.

UPDATE 7/18/12:  What I’m gleaning from the numerous negative responses to this post is that some people are really upset that I would validate such outrageous behavior by sharing the story of the mega-phone guy as an example of radical self-expression.   In varying ways, I hear them saying “No! That kind of behavior is not OK at Burning Man.”  Some of the comments don’t seem relevant…like making the 10 seconds that the guy yelled things in the bullhorn equivalent to vandalism or physical assault. Or suggesting that his 10 seconds on the megaphone justify them physically assaulting him for being mean.  Hyperbole and irrationality aside, I can read between the lines to see that this is some people’s way of responding to a very real sense of injustice.

I can now see, that by choosing such an extreme example, it took reader’s focus off the larger point I was making about radical honesty, primal screams, and honoring the shadow, and instead people tended to focus on the far less interesting debate (IMHO) about whether the particular example I chose crosses the line or not.  I’ve toned down the example a bit to make it less extreme while still being near the edge.

Also there is a difference between not liking something and disallowing it.  I don’t like the KKK and I would not want them hosting a demonstration in my city, but I would allow it because I believe in free expression. I would allow it because someday I might have a viewpoint that others don’t like and I’d want to be able to express that.   The same idea is at play with the mega-phone guy. Yes, he is being a jerk.  That’s exactly the kind of expression we most need to protect because it is exactly the expression that is most at risk.

Some people have said the mega-phone guy should not be allowed because he is keeping someone else from expressing themselves; in this case, the woman playing the guitar on stage.  But we are talking about less then 10 seconds of interruption in a crowded Center Camp where there are lots of other competing noise and activities going on.  I think that’s a small price to pay to live in a setting for a week where the full range of expression reigns supreme.


Burn So Happy

“Burn So Happy” is brought to you by Troy Dayton a.k.a “T. Dazzl” who is going on his 13th burn, and is a co-founder of BurnerMap.


This entry was posted in 2012, Burn So Happy, Burning Man and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to Burning Man Is Not About Being “Nice”

  1. Boston says:

    Great post, Troy! In the absence of “polite police” we have the opportunity to express ourselves truly by our own inner compass. And that compass gets to be calibrated through messy, sometimes misaligned expression so that we can really show up authentically, and not because it is culturally prescribed.

    And that word “nice”, it does not imply sincerity or authenticity or Love. Sometimes the kindest and most loving thing we can do (because that is what I value) is to forego “nice”.

  2. Rishi says:

    People are still people, whether they are at Burning Man or anywhere else. They have a whole variety of emotions and feelings that they want to express when they get out there. Some people have a view of Burning Man as a sort of hippy-dippy place (which it can be in certain circles) but there is also an anarchistic, aggro, Mad Max aspect to it (Thunderdome anyone?) that some people choose to embrace instead. People aren’t necessarily going to treat you well and nice just because you are at Burning Man, just like anywhere else – though they do more often than not.

  3. Blues Bob says:

    Then it’s perfectly OK for everyone of us to fuck up the attempts of others to participate. Awesome! I’m going to start with stilt walkers and kick all the stilts out from under them!

  4. PDR says:

    Is a broken nose fair compensation for being a dick? I think so.

    Seriously. If that’s who you really are inside: Fuck you. Dickitude takes an infinite variety of forms, and I embrace mine being intolerant of certain others’. And in the absence of basic manners here implied, I win, because I can kick your ass.

    • Troy says:

      See my update that addresses some of the issues you and others have raised.

      • PDR says:

        Thank you for clarifying. I completely agree. I was reacting more to my own extrapolation to behavior even ruder than your initial example. In truth I would never punch someone who hadn’t first punched me or a close friend. In anger, I might, of course, seek to inspire him to do so … 🙂

  5. sam says:

    The guy with the bullhorn was a dick. People who are dicks are assholes. Somebody should take his batteries.

    • tomcat says:

      “The guy with the bullhorn was a dick. People who are dicks are assholes. Somebody should take his batteries.”

      That “someone” can be you. Just ask. S/He may be game for your game. It is at that point that you move from spectator in the scene to participant.

      Also- expando foam (Great Stuff: http://greatstuff.dow.com/) neutralizes megaphones at short distances without necessarily interacting with the person on the other side….

  6. Melanie says:

    My favorite thing/s about Burning Man are Radical Self Expression + Radical Self Reliance = Authentic Self Realization, Expression, and Experience in multifaceted ways! And I am always quick to remind and attempt to explain this to Virgin Burners and those contemplating their first Burn…and is why I love my week in BRC so very much! Thanks, great post/blog…very well stated.

  7. Mossface says:

    One of the most liberating moments I’ve had on-playa involved being honest and dickish to some people who I thought deserved it. During Exodus 2010, two guys came up to me and began telling me about their great friend’s awesome startup company. They were saying the company had the best business practices, was doing awesome stuff, really great, etc., and wouldn’t I please put on one of their VIP passes and have my picture taken for his company’s promo materials. I looked at the guys and told them “No, this is exactly what Burning Man *isn’t* about. Decommodification, guys, get your advertising bullshit out of my face.” They tried again, backpedaling but still trying to convince me. I stood my ground, being incredibly blunt and just a little bit rude. The two guys tucked their tails between their legs and left, still whimpering about how great their friend is. Afterwards, my nearby friends told me they agreed with me, but wasn’t I being just a little rude? I didn’t care. I spoke my mind, radical self expression at its best. I’d never felt so free before in my life, free to be a dick, free to speak my mind and tell it like it is without worrying about hurting their feelings. To hell with politeness; I was right, and I spoke truth to stupid.

  8. jessca says:

    I totally got kicked out of a neighbor’s camp for chasing a bunny that threw a carrot at me. Did I chase him while yelling into a megaphone? Absolutely. Was it one of my favorite memories from last year’s burn. Definitely 🙂 Thank you for posting this!

    • Mateusz says:

      Posted on incredible, that was a very good read. In cosclunion, someone who actually thinks and understands what they are blogging about. Quite difficult to find of late, especially on the web . I bookmarked your web blog and will make sure to keep coming back here if this is how you always write. thank you, keep it up! .

  9. magenta says:

    What utter bullshit. That space is for sharing and listening to each other. I’m always happy to have people come up and be assholes, but not by stepping on other people’s ability to express themselves. That bit of cruelty was inexcusable. Come up afterwards, rant and rave about how stupid it is to get up in front of people and share your opinions. My stage is a free speech stage, but that’s not free speech – that’s just a hateful, hurtful, self-indulgent prick petting his own ego.

  10. magenta says:

    Rereading that comment, I have to emphasize something: I love loud-mouthed, opinionated bastards. I love them a lot. But you don’t have to take your shit out on bystanders to do it. The chick that was singing got caught in this guy’s attack, and that can be pretty fucking devastating.

  11. I can agree with the sentiment that BM is not about being nice. Too much hippification is a bad thing on the playa. Too much of anything is bad on the playa. I respect the callback to the more “wild west” days of Burning Man.

    That being said, the guy who interrupted the girl’s song was a total asshole. Like someone mentioned on the FB post, there was no reason to vandalize the art she was creating that others were enjoying.

    I’m also tired of the whole anti-spectator self-righteousness of some burners. Quiet moments away from the jack-offery are always necessary. And plenty of “participants” need to sit their manic asses down and chill the fuck out every once in a while.

    But great post, though!

    • Troy says:

      Thanks for the input Damian. See my update above that addresses some of the issues you and others have raised.

  12. Quentin says:

    I absolutely agree and would go even farther to say that heckling and rumor mongering are actually necessary components to civic life at BM. Heckling done right is actually a fun way teach how our community operates. This is a place for radical self expression and that also requires radical honesty and forthrightness. This is not a place for gullible little sheep. Heckling is a softer way of beating the naivete out of your fellow participants for their own good. I think of it as giving them a little cracks to stumble on before they blindly charge off the cliff of ill conceived notions.

    • Troy says:

      Love it, Quentin. Well said.

    • Ember says:

      I hated the hecklers when I first went to BM 9 years ago. In recent years I’ve found myself sorely missing them and what they teach. In reference to the first appearance of roads at BM, a wise person named Quentin once told me he would stand in the road forcing people and vehicles to go around him, exclaiming, “This is not a road! It’s a desert!” Little cracks indeed…

  13. mandapie says:

    Megaphones are the new shirtcocking…

    as in “yeah, great, you are loud. Now STFU.”

    Seriously. :/

  14. Damien G says:

    “You can’t fully appreciate and honor the light, if you don’t offer the same gift to the dark.”

    amen to that, brotha. best quote all month!

    I have also encountered similar responses about being too harsh with the mental exercise “imagine that not only does the murderer want to experience committing a murder, but the victim also wants to experience being murdered.” Boy, does that rile some feathers (cut to the moral of the story, it’s all about suspending judgement and learning to look at a situation without our default filters). thank you for posting the example you gave. it illustrates your point perfectly.

    • Troy says:

      I’d have to say that your example riles my feathers. I’m not sure our two statements are comparable. I have a number of thoughts as to why i feel that way but don’t have the time to explain right now. Thanks for the kudos, tho.

  15. squicked by a fucking jerk says:

    Thanks for adding the bit about needing permission to touch someone. I went to volunteer for breaking down some things (at the invite of the artist) and the person who would not let me do without a pass decided that the best thing he could do at that moment was nicely ask for my hand and then slap it as hard as possible. What a fucking jerk with a need to feel like an authority figure. He crossed the line and I let him know it. To which he responded that I was a poor sport for not playing along and that I’d never be allowed to help. Whut?

    • Troy says:

      Sorry to hear. Good for you for standing up. Also, the part about needing permission to touch someone was in the original post (and in bold). Being willing to be self-expressed even if it means not being nice also means that more care needs to be taken at the edges of that expression. There is the saying that your right to swing your fist ends at anothers’ nose.

  16. Mega says:

    One of my biggest problems with “Hippy” culture has always been the feeling that if you have “negative” feelings, then you’re the one with the problem. And though I don’t believe in being pessimistic necessarily, I do think that people need to be honest.

    I’m one of those megaphone people. And being one of those megaphone people has been one of the biggest changes in my life. It has allowed me to truly feel comfortable being myself and sharing that with others. You said, “There is an immense sense of freedom that overcomes you when you are no longer held hostage by your fear that people will be offended by who you really are in a given moment.” I agree with that completely! I’ve gotten over many of my biggest fears that way. And that’s what I tell people when they come up to me and ask why I have to so loud and annoying all the time.

    We all have different ways of finding and expressing ourselves out there. I’m happy that there aren’t requirements about how “nice” they have to be. Thanks for the great article!

    • Mega says:

      I also wanted to say that vandalizing other people’s property isn’t the way to handle things if you just don’t like us rude folk. Come up to, tell me you think I’m an asshole and you think what I’m doing is wrong. That’s fine. Destroying my personal property, that’s crossing a line.

  17. Gizmo says:

    I think somebody has been fooled by a performance artist. The musician and some of the audience were in on it. The tell is the MC inviting the heckler on stage for 20 minutes.

  18. Janimal says:

    This is a fun thing to explore because there is never a “right” or “wrong” behavior, every thing depends on the situation, intention and perspective. As soon as we start making a list of things that are “right” or “wrong” we fall into dogmatic thinking and step out of the present moment and what is actually happening and how we actually feel about it. The classic example: a man sticks a knife into another man who dies. Is it “right” or “wrong” behavior? If the first man was a surgeon, it’s probably “right” behavior, if he was a mugger, probably “wrong” behavior. Getting back to T’s example, most people would immediately become uncomfortable and say the “rude” stilt walker was “wrong”, but clearly that would be born out of previous thinking and ingrained ideas rather than what was actually going on. All of us spend the majority of our lives in this place and it leads to suffering and the inability to see things as they are. Am I saying we should all go around pushing each others buttons, hell no. This is actually the flip side of this issue. “It’s Burning Man, I can do whatever I want!” No, you can’t. Free expression doesn’t mean you can go in my tent or in my camps kitchen. But if it feels alright, or you’re cracking me up, maybe I won’t mind watching you brazenly storm my dinner table. It depends.

  19. Gloriane says:

    Way to go on this essay, hpeled a ton.

  20. Zhalmia says:

    Natasha Posted on Thank you for sharing your story. I’m sorry you are in pain, it’s very very dfuficilt. Try to stay positive and move forward. Peace and blessings, Natasha

  21. anna be says:

    i went to burning man and found out i am an asshole. normally a polite, friendly girl, after a few days on the playa, I found myself bursting bubbles left and right. At first I just couldn’t help myself, but then i noticed how my behavior pulled people back into the moment. Antagonizing others serves a purpose – it destroys expectations and makes people react to the reality now. how much were you really appreciating that music performance/conversation/photo op/etc i just ruined? you are free to continue doing it, if it’s that important to you. but maybe i just helped you get out of your own head and realize value of the moment! thanks for the post

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