Radical Self Expression, Meet “No DickHeads”

2015 burning seed

Baron de Merxhausen just posted this on the Burning SEED Australia Facebook group. It’s interesting to see the Regionals struggling to get to grips with the Tin Principles That Are Just Guidelines, and very real issues like Consent and Decent Standards of Behavior to each other that don’t even appear in the principles. There were also some serious health concerns at this year’s event, which I will discuss at the end of the post.


by Baron de Merxhausen

I’ve noticed that the Radical Self-Expression principle has been getting a lot of air time, and as someone who likes to talk about anarchy, I thought I’d drop in my two cents about ideas of freedom and liberty and how they relate to RSE.

I’ll try to keep it as succinct as I can, but I’m a very flawed person so it will probably be very long and there may be some ranty bits. You might enjoy reading this if you ever find yourself wondering about what any of this hippy nonsense actually means.
* Feel free to interrogate any and all assertions made.

My feeling is that Burns tend to adopt a ‘liberal’ model of operation – people enjoy both positive liberties (I can fulfil my own potential aka freedom TO) and negative liberties (I won’t be interfered with aka freedom FROM). Liberties are like freedoms, except freedoms do not imply a limit, obligation or boundary while liberties acknowledge that we are social and therefore have to reconcile our obligations within a community. In other words, liberties have implied *potential* limitations. RSE would be positive liberty- the freedom to express yourself in whatever way you please. That it is a liberty and not a true freedom, the implication that it has boundaries remains.

Image: Nomakim Photography

Image: Nomakim Photography

There seems to be some tension where RSE is unclear on how much it is restrained by other people’s negative liberties – what exactly are we entitled to be free from? Which is another way of asking what non-interference actually means. How safe are we when people can express their inner psychopath?

There seems to be some consensus on consent being key, but where is the line drawn?
Consent was a really big focus this year, because consent is essentially about establishing where we are placing the boundary between what we don’t have to put up with and everything else.

There’s an added complication on this boundary when we take into account the tension between what is ‘offensive’ and what is ‘harmful’. That’s a really big discussion, and it varies from person to person, though for the sake of our community (principles 6+7) we need to try and do our best to make these lines consistent.

My personal feeling is that although there seems to be a strong call-out culture, emotional resilience is a trait we should try and cultivate so that the world isn’t quite as big and bad. I think many of you will agree that letting kids build cubbies and play in the dirt is a good thing for their development, despite it containing elements of risk. The same is true of our psychology; a little bit of muck, confrontation, repair and tolerance builds a versatile character.

So we have to ask ourselves when something is happening to/around us – is this thing *really* harming anyone? Is what I am doing going to hurt someone? We do these kinds of little calculations all the time, but there are times when we’ve got to dig a little deeper because of some nagging doubt, or someone shoots us a certain kind of look or gesture.

I do not subscribe to the position that a sense of a trigger alone is harm, and I think part of fulfilling our negative liberty is to allow others their space if we can see it’s not going to do any real or significant harm to ourselves or others, in which case our communal obligation might be to just walk away. With that said, I think the fundamental rule should be that if someone tells you to leave them alone, you should do just that.

This kind of discussion is especially relevant to issues such as ‘inappropriate’ jokes, cultural appropriation, et al. For example, a rape joke does not make you a rapist, they are seriously and qualitatively different things, and despite the cultural impact of such utterances (normalising, victim-blaming, etc) are bad, they are not in-and-of themselves particularly harmful. Does that mean the person should be treated like a rapist? No. Does that mean they’re good? No. Can you talk to them about it? Of course.

So in the context of a Burn, Radical Self Expression is there to try and say in a fun way, ‘do whatever the fuck you want so long as you don’t hurt anyone/thing**’.

This can be a double-edged sword because people have a fair degree of liberty to be dickheads within this framework. Of course this can be a bad thing, but it has a tendency to favour those who are positively expressing and cause those who are negatively expressing to both lose cred and see better examples. Compare this to the Meredith Music Festival’s model of ‘No Dickheads’, which, when someone is officially called out, will see them booted from the festival after a single warning. Not much opportunity for the kind of rehabilitative learning we’d like, but then, there’s also less dickheads (relative term).

I think the most experienced failure of RSE is where people aren’t (what others might think) just being jerks, but when they’re genuine creeps. That seems to me to be an intentional misinterpretation of RSE made by creepers, and why consent became such a big issue after last year’s Burn.

It’s a hard argument to make when your Expression, Gift or Effort harms someone, that it’s really coming from a positive place. We’ve heard stories of people given drugged food, without consent, and we’ve heard stories of people aggressively ‘sharing’ their personality with others-that did a lot more than offend someone.

In my view, Civic Responsibility is about acting on a considered and communicated negotiation between how we let people be their fullest selves and how we get together as a community to prevent ourselves from harm. This negotiation is an ongoing thing that changes along with the needs and desires of the community… but what do I really mean by this?

Is this is a Tree Wizard with a magical pied piper flute? Image: Nomakim Photography

Is this is a Tree Wizard with a magical pied piper flute? Image: Nomakim Photography

One of my serious peeves is with fucking *Tree Wizards*.
I apologise to those wonderful Tree Wizards out there for using this as my pejorative term for people (usually men) who espouse an esoteric way of life full of peace and love, but do little to critically analyse, engage with, or otherwise act upon the stuff they are talking about. Further, they act in ways that are fundamentally opposed to what they’re talking about.

In a vacuum, this problem of mine should be for me to grow up and deal with, but in my experience (and I’ve said this before) all the people I’ve met who’ve claimed to be gurus or shaman I’ve found to be not just charlatans, but genuine creeps.

There’s something both deluded and dangerous tied to the solipsistic belief that your word is the most profound around. It’s why they avoid any real critical evaluation within any proper or even basic philosophical or scientific framework – because it would expose them for what they really are: the hollow sophists and politicians of the hippy community, caught up in a massive ego trip, and using a few flowery tricks to snaffle sparkle ponies. It’s like the Game for Confest dudebros.

We allow these wolves-in-sheep’s clothing far more passes within our community because they don’t speak like, or look like, your serial Stereosonic fare, but my feeling is they are much more dangerous because they are insidious.

In my opinion, Civic Responsibility is helping both giving people tools to see if people are full of shit, and also responding appropriately to behaviour that is fucked.

What do you think that would look like?
If people can come up with responses, that is the community negotiating.

Soz for the long post.


Thanks to the Baron for that thought-provoking piece, and for giving us the term Tree Wizards. You can follow the discussion on Facebook, there are some great comments.

Burning Seed, one of two Australian official Regional events, opened this year with a deadly disease scare. Many people are reported sick after the event. Some attribute this to swimming in a dam, which apparently was prohibited in the Survival Guide. The organizers are emphasizing on Facebook that swimming in the dam is explicitly against the rules in their use of the property.

BMOrg, with their nearly three decades of experience in throwing events at remote locations, could offer a lot to their Regional Network in helping them deal with biohazard and consent issues. More established doofs in Australia like Rainbow Serpent and Earthcore don’t seem to have these problems, but they have little incentive to help an emerging competitor.

Screenshot 2015-10-11 11.48.09 Screenshot 2015-10-11 11.50.09

Screenshot 2015-10-11 11.52.27

moat interesting man burning seed

20 comments on “Radical Self Expression, Meet “No DickHeads”

  1. Is this some parallel universe where dickheads don’t have all the liberty in the world to be dickheads?

    I see absolutely NO ONE trying NOT to be a dick. On playa or off.

    The world is full of dicks, douchebags, assholes – people who don’t give a shit about others. We are in no danger. They are not oppressed or silenced. They are literally all around us all day every day on playa and off.

    Nothing “radical” about their “self” expression…. a reactionary shitbag isn’t any less so because he’s got a tutu on and his dick out.

    Fuck yer burn.

  2. The call out culture among veteran burners was out of control this past year at BRC. A lot of people walking around aggressively criticising others for not fitting in to their personal definitions of what a burner should be. It was overtly nasty (as opposed to educational and empathetic) and the complete antithesis of what Burning Man should stand for.

    My friend had a knee injury with a cast on her leg, having had surgery a month before. Rather than give up on her burn having already bought tickets, materials for the camp and putting in so much preparation, in the spirit of self reliance she decided to rent a Segway to help her get around for a few hours a day – it was very expensive but it was her first burn and she didn’t want to miss out on going with this group of friends. She spent a full day decorating it beautifully to look like a horse. The level of abuse this poor girl had to endure over the first few days was shocking. In spite of her limp and her cast, multiple times a day she would have people calling her an asshole, or a lazy bitch, for riding around on a segway. One drunk middle aged woman came up to her, tried to slap her, and told her “I hate you, it is people like you that are ruining burning man”. Bear in mind that due to charging constraints she probably only used the thing for two hours a day, yet it upset her enough that she stopped using it by the fifth day and then spent most of her time in the camp.

    My friend had a medical reason for needing a segway, but even if she didn’t who cares? She’s a tough cookie and she did her best not to let it ruin her burn, but this place is supposed to be free of this kind of judgement, focus on yourself and don’t ruin other people’s experiences with such negativity.

    • You are seeing a natural if uninformed reaction to the defaultification of the NV burn. The demise of the original supportive burner community is what happens when the Borg decides who comes rather than the burners who created Burning Man. To expect the daily BRC culture to remain unchanged is unreasonable; instead, it is an unnatural contrasting mix with many seasoned veterans hypersensitive to any evidence of the loss of the old culture, often thinking of their friends who did not get tickets. Actually, quite an interesting sociological study – hope someone is doing that. In fact, I would bet that those who were overtly bitter about evidence of defaultification knew friends who did not get tickets whom they wished were there instead of your friend on the Segway.

      But don’t blame the veterans – it was not their choice to change how people were invited – it was the Borg. The days when everyone who wanted to could freely chose to be there are gone. It’s now a private party by invitation only – blame those who put together the guest list.

  3. This year was my third burn at Matong. If you care to read it all you will find me in the FB thread this article is based on.
    Over this time I have watched this event more than double in size. I’ve been a devotee of Rainbow Serpent Festival for over a decade, most years in a working role. What I like about Seed is that WE are the event. At RSF I was a worker for a profit making machine. Sure, I felt part of it, but as a tool not owning the event.
    I have a Kissing Booth that has toured the Seed event every Friday afternoon for three years. It’s a gift that I enjoy giving. It’s also a space that probably contributed to the spread of disease at the event. The thing is that we take risks every day in our lives and as self responsible entities we are expected by society to manage that.
    I personally came home with Influenza A and have spent a number of days in hospital since returning.
    Was it worth it? Sure. I have so many joyous memories of the people I interacted with at the event!
    Tree Wizards, yeah, sure they exist. They exist outside the event as well. Consider them to be a known obstacle for those they target, but don’t imagine you can close them out from the event. They are part of our culture.
    I am grateful to the people who said to me “I would like to kiss but I think I have a cold coming on” and I am totally forgiving of the person who I assume did not know they had flu when we interacted, just as I may have unknowingly passed it on.
    The event was amazing. If I could attend just one event every year this would be the one.

  4. Could we also please exclude Bearded Old Blokes who Know Everything (BOBKEs), Burnier Than Thou Twatcocks (BTTTs) and Righter On Than Yous (ROTUs).

    Fortunately, most of those are FOBs (Facebook Only Burners) or we’d have an empty paddock/playa.

  5. In total agreement with the sentiment towards with ‘shamans’ and tree wizards. Two very fine examples of why some of the regionals should be able to exclude creepy, parasitic poseurs from events. Radical inclusivity should NOT be an absolute acceptance of predatory behaviors such as what is often associated with these blathering pussy chasing pretenders.

    Also, an altogether good piece. I can certainly sympathize with the writer’s frustrations. The main event in Nevada as well as some of the local/regional events seems to have decayed into this lighthouse that sort of acts as a beacon to attract the pervies to home in on. To be fair, I don’e think a reasonable person can assign all blame for this and lay it at the feet of the ORG. I do however believe that the ORG needs to step up to the plate and get a conversation going about the Social Contract that we all live under but that everyone seems to want to pretend doesn’t exist outside of the default world.

    So yeah, thanks for maybe getting the ball rolling a little.

    • Great comment. I agree that the Org can’t fully be blamed, but both the statistics and their public statements over recent years have shown that they are motivated to bring new people to Burns, more so than on developing the community of Burners who have made it what it is over the years. If “Burning Man was for the Burners” then we would have to be more exclusionary; Regional events would then shift to more of a recruiting role for Virgins, who would need to prove their value to the community before being fully accepted. This is more of a “membership” model than an “open to anyone”; right now though it is run with a combination “night club guest list/lottery” model, they just pretend that it’s “open to anyone”. I think Burning Man should be special and unique, something for Burners; rather than a mainstream experience just like the Default world.

      • The pre-qualification would only make things worse, and give the Borg more hand in the “regionals.” And what about burners from Figment, Night Market and other such non-sanctioned events? Are they to be excluded for not following the assigned path to the NV gate.

        The solution is simple: empower the burners again by letting them decide who gets tickets. Start with those with the longest pre-sellout participation, and work your way down the list until all the tickets are gone. Each burner gets to either buy a ticket, designate it to a recognized group (with a ticket number wishlist*), or assign it to someone new. After that, have tickets be non-transferrable. STOP giving a load of DS tix to camps that then re-sell them. If that is to happen, it should be by the choice of the burners to designate their tickets. (* Groups could also explain why and how they would use their “wishlist” tickets, possibly accounting for the tickets they used last year. Let them say that they want 20 tickets to sell and see how many burners want their tickets to go that way.)

      • ” Regional events would then shift to more of a recruiting role for Virgins, who would need to prove their value to the community before being fully accepted. This is more of a “membership” model than an “open to anyone”; right now though it is run with a combination “night club guest list/lottery” model, they just pretend that it’s “open to anyone”.

        In total agreement. A great (and ongoing) example of how this idea has been successfully implemented is the Flipside event held outside of Austin each year. One of the oldest regional it excels at having a vibrant, responsible community which brings in new blood even with pretty severe population limitations for the event.

        The one thing the BORG has been absolutely adamant about considering has been, and continues to be, population limits for the event. Through multiple face-to-face conversations I’ve personally had with Michael Michael (aka ‘Danger Ranger’) his take has *always* been about growing the event to the maximum extent possible without real consideration to the multiple issues discussed to date (assaults, theft, police thuggery, IPO camps/exclusion zones, etc.). Until the BM non-profit entity can sit with themselves and see beyond their own self-congratulatory bullshit athat the event is driving down the path to that special hell known as Coachella absolutely NOTHING is going to change.

        • Awesome post, and awesome comments. One report on social media was most disturbing, during build week, a man was halted attempting to enter the tent of a woman whom was wasted, and sleeping, but he was not booted from the playa.

          Mr Poopy, awesome comment. What manners might Flipside utilize to maintain, and build, their vibrant, responsible community, how might they distribute the tickets to do so? My belief is there are many manners to do so, purposed to utilize the ticket distribution to build the Burner community, in the place of utilizing ticket distribution to replace the community. The 2015 Gate census stated of there were near to 25,000 newbies, near to 25,000 people of solely one, or two prior burns, and solely near to 25,000 Burners of more than two prior burns. It is most difficult to maintain, and build, a vibrant community of participants in due of these numbers.

    • First, I take exception to referral to “regionals.” In doing so you leave out some great burner events like Figment and Night Market, which are included if you just say “other burns.” The implied subordinate relationship greatly pleases the NPD Borg, but also implies power and control that has yet to be demonstrated as helpful. (After all, why do the Regionals have to supply a detailed financial accounting that the Borg itself does not?)

      “To be fair, I don’e think a reasonable person can assign all blame for this and lay it at the feet of the ORG.” > Understand that the NV burn is by invitation only. The Borg is ENTIRELY responsible for who is showing up, either directly or through the DS. Rather than continuing the pre-sellout empowerment of the burners to decide who to invite (as was my invitation), the Borg has preempted that and gone commercial and private, with byzantine ticketing systems and Borg contacts/approval to get tickets.

      “Radical inclusivity should NOT be an absolute acceptance of predatory behaviors such as what is often associated with these blathering pussy chasing pretenders.” >
      Given the Borg’s explicit selection of who comes, it should be no surprise that the current attendance mix has little to do with the pre-sellout mix of burners.

      “I do however believe that the ORG needs to step up to the plate and get a conversation going about the Social Contract that we all live under but that everyone seems to want to pretend doesn’t exist outside of the default world.” > And just what precedent is there for the Borg ever taking action or even soliciting “a conversation” on anything? All I have seen is PR eyewash under the guise of conversation, or reaction to complaints. But if you can cite where the Borg behavior has been modified based on a dialog with the burner community, please cite it. It could provide insight into how changes could be made.

      I see it as their party, built on Burning Man created by the burners in years past, but that now has little to do with what created Burning Man from years ago. Some Burning Man aspects persist due to natural inertia and hysteresis, but this is in spite of what the Borg has done to commodify, commercialize, profit, defaultify, and generally screw it up.

  6. love the closing statement “both giving people tools to see if people are full of shit, and also responding appropriately to behaviour that is fucked” Some people just want to see peace, love and mung beans and loose their ability for critical (or sensible) thinking when it comes to matters seed related.

    • The problem with taking you seriously Nomad – and Dog knows I try – is that you speak in absolutes. Your opinions are absolutist, you proposed remedies to most – if not all – the issues being brought up are absolutist. In short, only *your* proposals, your ideas or your opinions have validity all others are essentially not worthy of consideration. The below is a fine example of your (seemingly) entrenched lock-step view of things. In spite of you very public contemp of all things BORG It is absolutely absurd state that ” The Borg is ENTIRELY responsible for who is showing up, either directly or through the DS.” That anyone could possibly control all 60+ thousand people who show up for the event. I mean really. Your agenda to blame the BORG for everything wears thin after a while.

      Suffice it to say that instead of continually reacting to your absurdist view of things I’m just gonna elect to just ignore them as I’m at looking to really pick a cat fight here or see who can piss the most in the snow. It’s just that I suspect you’re incapable of hearing criticism even from people who are likely in your corner a fair amount of the time. And that’s unfortunate.

  7. Hi – Latest update says only one person sick and it would appear not from the dam. The rest appears to be usual bit of flu and other illnesses from partying too hard.
    Happy to see the self expression balance ‘issue’ getting some airplay – would like to mention that from my first burn it puzzled me that somehow loud sound expression trumped all other considerations.

  8. Yes, thank you, I am* sick of dickheads gliding along under the guise of “radical self-expression, man”.
    People need to draw the line and say, no, you are just being a selfish asshole.
    Included are headress-wearing hipsters. When I point out to these folks that there are Paiutes down the road, and both whites non-whites find cultural appropriation uncool/unpleasant… Most tell me to “Fuck Off, it’s radical self-expression.”. (IE, not giving a fuck if you offend people and their culture.). Also I was told this when I said something to a woman who dressed like that on her way to event, stopping in the towns on 447! I saw it on instagram, not sure if it was on Paiute land.
    Maybe some headless-wearing hipsters are just ignorant, but when they respond with “Fuck you, I don’t care”, they are just being dickheads. Radical self expression my butt.

  9. Thanks for bringing this to a wider audience! I loved Baron’s post and the use of the term “tree wizards”- how many of us knew EXACTLY what he was talking about as soon as he said that!? I know I did.

    Btw, I feel I should mention that Earthcore has tonnes of issues around consent, not just sexual but other personal space/physical boundaries. That event has its fair share of muzzas and there are plenty of actual fights there! Much closer to a Stereosonic vibe than a Rainbow Serpent vibe in terms of crowd.

    Also, the dam at Earthcore last year was also full of people, also out of bounds and though I didn’t get sick from swimming in it I would not be surprised to learn that others did.

    Finally, I don’t think even Rainbow have cracked the code on consent – sexual assualts are reported there every year, leading last year to at least one arrest. If anything I think Seed actually does better, and the difference is in reporting, and the fact that Seed has a very involved and vocal community with a strong FB presence.

    The same conversation isn’t even happening wrt Rainbow or Earthcore, so you simply don;t hear about these incidents, of which I have no doubt there were many.

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