by Whatsblem the Pro
Burning Manson – Image by Whatsblem the Pro
“Is Burning Man some kind of cult?” seems like an uninformed question that would only – could only – be seriously posed by a total outsider with little to no clue as to what it is we actually do in Black Rock City and beyond, or why. It’s natural and appropriate to scoff at the blatherings and jibba-jabba of fairytale-addled fools who think the event is some kind of week-long ritualistic orgy designed to call Satan Himself up from the brimstone-choked depths of Hades. . . but once you set aside the obviously absurd elements of such accusations, is it possible that we ourselves are failing to see the proverbial forest for the trees?
Clearly, the mere act of building large art and then burning it for kicks has very little to do with religion, and it’s absurd to claim that it does, no matter how you dress it up with similarities and parallels from actual religions. Just as clearly, it’s dead common for older veteran burners to openly mock and deride anything that might resemble cult dogma or cult leadership at Burning Man. That mockery and derision is often friendly and good-natured, but just as often contains some measure of genuine hostility against the for-profit company that runs Burning Man, for various – and often perfectly valid – reasons, historical or otherwise. . . the point being that it’s wildly out of character for cult members to behave that way, unless their ‘cult’ is a consciously self-mocking institution like the Church of the SubGenius.
On the other hand, some Burning Man attendees and enthusiasts do, at times, display behaviors that make you wonder. . . and since the dose makes the poison, it might be the shrewd move for our community to be cognizant of those behaviors, and actively examine them.
For instance: A distressingly large segment of our community seems to have a real hard-on for making up rules for other people to burn by instead of just regulating their own actions. . . even when the ‘rules’ they’re pushing on the people around them are actually just their personal preferences or traditions, and lack any connection with any of the actual rules we are unfortunately burdened with on the playa. This isn’t a problem as long as those people remain ignorable; when they get strident enough to go beyond talking and start genuinely interfering with other people over it, though, they’re crossing a line. . . and applying strong peer-pressure to adhere to unwritten dogma regarding sacred cows is an example of some pretty cultish behavior.
But what is “interfering with other people” and what isn’t? It seems simple to me: if someone does or says something that doesn’t violate the personal boundaries that every human born has a right to, and doesn’t impede you from doing and saying what you want in response within the same boundaries, then you have not been interfered with no matter how offended you might feel. You don’t like seeing Gay Pride parades in your city? Sorry, but Gay Pride parades are a legal form of free expression. You’ll just have to put up with them, or move, or stay home on those days, or leave town, or go blind, or kill yourself. . . your choice! It doesn’t matter how icky you feel about gay sex; any queasy, obtrusive prejudices that might squirm within your tiny soul are thoroughly trumped by other peoples’ rights. Feel free to bitch and whine openly about it, though, so we all know who not to invite to parties. It’s your right!
Similarly, you may want silence during Temple burn. If so, be responsible for yourself and don’t falsely claim that the free expression of others is violating your rights, because it doesn’t matter how much you want silence or how much Lynyrd Skynyrd makes your skin crawl (did you know that the band’s original name was Gay Sex? It’s true!) You demanding the silence (or invisibility) of others is marginalizing them and is an attempt at violating their rights, not the other way around, and it doesn’t matter at all how very much you wish they were silent, or respectful, or invisible, or dead, or impossible. Find the silence within yourself, wear earplugs, or move your ass someplace where it’s silent. To insist that others cater to your desire for quiet is nothing less than an attempt to assert your dominance while you appropriate and violate the rights of others. The fact that you’re using a quasi-religious dogmatic doctrine of “silence is mandatory because the Temple is sacred” to do it pushes you over the line from control freak jerk to a creepy unofficial member of a nebulous, godless, leaderless cult.
While the Temple provides us with the most obvious and dramatic example of burners acting like brainwashed cultists pushing dogmatic rules on each other, the much-vaunted Ten Principles of Burning Man are the big wellspring of burner-on-burner control freakism. You can’t swing a flaming ball of paraffin on the Internet without hitting five or six armchair lawyer-burners. One of the hallmarks is when someone interprets “Radical Acceptance” to mean that nobody has a right to openly dislike or even disagree with anyone else in the community. That’s a false interpretation; it’s a Drainbow interpretation rooted in quintessentially phony-baloney-mahoney-malarkey concepts of blinkered positivity and universal love, and it encourages entitled asshats to think they’ve been wronged when someone else takes a turn and expresses their own opinions.
We see a lot of people get upset in the Burning Man Facebook group because they think they should be able to say anything they want without it being criticized. This is the same wrong thinking that the Temple-shushers (and the Pride parade haters) employ; people expressing themselves by disagreeing with you, criticizing you, or even openly mocking you do nothing to take away your ability to express yourself; your right to say what you want to say has not been restricted in any way. You might allow your emotions to restrict your own freedom if you’re thin-skinned, but that’s entirely your fault and your responsibility. . . so by trying to throw the big Burning Man law book at people for not being unquestioningly respectful of your words, you’re being the bad guy. You’re piggishly objecting to their right to express themselves. Just like the stereotypical hyper-Christian Right-wing conservatives who cry ‘foul’ over same-sex marriage and Gay Pride parades, you’re being a gigantic, hypocritical Tartuffe about it, and exceeding the boundaries of your own rights in a big whiny crybaby attempt to limit the rights of others.
If you take things so far as to make a credible threat of violence, or if you actually assault someone, then you’ve really crossed the line and it’s you who should be punished, not the people who offended you. . . and there are many eyewitnesses who will tell you that this did happen at the 2012 Temple burn, with the debut of “Free Bird.”
Credible (but mostly not-so-credible) threats have been popping up frequently, all year, in Internet forums like Facebook groups, whenever people talk about Temple burn and silence. People who feel that the Temple is sacred and who are ostensibly among that subset of burners devoted to peace-‘n’-love values express an inner desire — and sometimes an eager willingness — to do violence to those who break the sacred silence; they vent by making suggestions to each other as to how to use aggressive action to enforce that silence. . . a punch in the face, or a thrown object, or (less credibly) tar and feathers; if the transgressor is a sound car, vandalism. It’s almost unbelievable that the supposedly profound high-minded feelings that people claim to get by watching a building burn in silence can inspire them to abandon the veneer of universal love in favor of thinking and acting in such a low, base fashion just because the silence is broken. If you’re prepared to set aside your commitment to peace and love in order to use threats and violence to enforce your dogma regarding something sacred to you, what the hell else are you but a cult member? It may not be much of a cult, but you’re sure playing your role as a hypnotized dogma addict to the hilt.
A lot of the most common examples of what I’ve been talking about are disconnected from anything that can reasonably be called a sense of the sacred, and probably shouldn’t count at all towards Burning Man’s cult quotient; still, they’re obnoxious and constitute a minor threat to those who would prefer to burn their own way. All you have to do is read some of the comments people have made in response to things that our own Burnersxxx has written about “plug ‘n’ play camping” to see what I’m talking about; a lot of burners are vocal about their belief that you’re doin’ it wrong if you’re not roughing it in a tent. To those folks I would like to point out something that should be obvious: the expectations you have of others are like your personal deluxe recreational vehicle. You sit there inside the artificial construct of your expectations and your us-versus-them mentality, soothed by your perception of yourself as a superior being, while you rather radically exclude anyone you deem too wealthy or too comfortable to possibly be burning correctly.
Other quasi-cultish behavior that burners typically indulge in concerns ticket scalpers. “What’s the best way to harass people on Craigslist and eBay who are selling $700-$800 tickets?” asks someone in the Burning Man group on Facebook, and the answers come flying in: make appointments with them and don’t show up; report them to the Org; get the seller’s phone number and use it to post fake ads for a dozen other festivals. One person even suggested an elaborate scheme involving public wi-fi, fake names, fake accounts, and a hearty helping of skullduggery. The whole thing is peppered with mostly non-credible threats of violence against hypothetical scalpers, rather than real threats against real scalpers, but one has to wonder what kind of e-mail is being sent to the people who get called out on Facebook for posting tickets for sale on Craigslist. Never mind that scalping makes up a truly tiny percentage of Burning Man ticket sales, or that a lot of scalpers end up getting hoist by their own petard anyway when ticket prices plummet as the burn approaches; some people feel that they just have to be the Anointed Hand of Holy Burnerdom and go on a full-blown crusade against the ticket-Saracens. That’s not the behavior of people trying to protect their festival; it’s the behavior of zealots who are foaming at the mouth about their sacred cow being milked, not because it deprives them of milk, but because the cow is sacred.
If you feel, as I do, that our core tenet and most precious asset as burners is PERSONAL FREEDOM, and that entering our culture is in part a process of learning to be free of even your own hangups and assumptions, then what we’re talking about here is people who think they need to burn down our metaphorical village in order to save it, right along with Black Rock City. It’s another manifestation of what Americans have been busy at for the last few decades: shredding their own constitutional rights in order to combat terrorism. The conflict itself is false and what’s really going on is a takeover by corporate oligarchs, but if you accept it at face value, what you’ve got is a War on Terror that the terrorists are winning. Why? Because “they hate our freedom” and have successfully forced us to give that freedom up in order to fight them.
Enough hyperbole and analogy. How serious is all this, really? Am I just trumping things up to make it sound worse than it really is? People accuse us of that kind of yellow journalism all the time, and I find the accusations insultingly inaccurate. You want to know how serious these things can get? Let me tell you a story:
Less than two weeks ago, in a conversation about a short dramatic film that was made on-playa, a Temple-shusher took such great offense at people expressing the idea that maybe there’s nothing particularly sacred about the Temple that he blew a fuse. His name was Juan Antonio, and he entered the fray by asking why anyone was allowed to make a short dramatic film using the Temple as part of their set:
“So they chose to use a sacred space as a free filming location. Why doesn’t the BMORG squash this video like the insect it is?”
A lot of trivial online dick-measuring contests begin with such posts. I’m no fan of sacred cows, and firmly believe that humanity will never be free until the last king is hung with the guts of the last priest, so in typical fashion I invited Juan Antonio to instead squash his inappropriate, intrusive sense of the sacred like the hippie bullshit it is. That’s a pretty typical exchange for an Internet forum and signifies nothing; what was unusual was what came next: Juan Antonio almost immediately suggested a meeting in the flesh, making dark insinuations of violence to be meted out. Not a credible threat, to be sure, and sillier than almost any other response could have been. . . except that his menacing rhetoric included an allusion to some personal information about me that he got from Google. I noticed it, but let it pass. . . and when I made fun of him for being an Internet tough guy, he tried to save face by changing his tack to suggesting a bout in the Thunderdome, which made for a less absurd-sounding, more socially acceptable threat.
A little creepy, no? But only a little.
It gets worse: not satisfied with having made a creepy jackass of himself by being an anonymous online tough guy demonstrating his access to Google and his willingness to invest time and effort into stalking the person with whom he was having a dumb, meaningless online brawl about the sacredness of a Temple with no gods in it, Juan Antonio actually paid a website to get my home phone number, and spent some serious time scouring the web for information about me. That night, with his number blocked, he called me up and tried to intimidate me by reciting factoids about me, like my home address, my date of birth, my former occupation, etc. He was saying things like “So, what’s it like over there at [home address]? Maybe I should come over and check it out.”
A short time after that phone call, Juan Antonio posted a picture of my house to Facebook.
Well hey, I’m not that easily intimidated, and two can play that game. I’ve always heard that turnabout is fair play anyway. I didn’t have any proof that the phone call really did come from the rabid-sounding cult-gimp jousting with me on Facebook over the supposedly inviolable sacredness of the Temple, but it took me almost no time at all to find Juan Antonio’s phone number, posted for all to see in an open group devoted to the theme camp he’s with. I called that number, and sure enough: same voice. He wasn’t expecting to hear back from me, and it took him long enough to figure out who was on the other end of the line that I was able to get him to admit that he was indeed Juan Antonio. . . and then, after I identified myself, that he was in fact the person who had called me earlier, and who had posted that picture. He sounded rattled, the little dope, that I had found him so easily.
How many Juan Antonios do we have, exactly? Examples of quasi-cultish behavior abound among us, but the example most likely to lead to open violence – the controversy over how to behave at Temple burn – is still very new. While there were indeed some isolated violent incidents that very first time the strains of “Free Bird” shook the hush out of the ember-laden air, we have yet to see how the schism between Temple-shushers and sacred cow snipers will play itself out at future Temple burns. I predict there will be at least a little bit of high-profile violence at Black Rock this year over it, if burners can’t communicate with each other about it effectively enough to head that off at the pass.
Ultimately, I am really not sure how to answer the question of whether or not Burning Man is a cult, but I think it’s non-insane to take that question seriously. In general, burners are a very diverse group of people, and the truth is likely to be that while the very question “is Burning Man a cult?” is just eye-rollingly dumb in many ways, there really are those among us who might qualify as members of an almost unique variety of cult: an inverted cult of people pulling the wool over their own eyes; a cult whose dogma is strong but whose actual religious aspects are so vague and fuzzy as to be mostly undetectable, and certainly not central to the workings of the cult. A self-organizing burner semi-pseudo-cult, if you will.
Let’s take a look at the common characteristics of cults, and see how it all stacks up.
Cults, almost by definition, use techniques of undue influence to reform the thought processes of followers. What are those thought reform techniques, typically? According to the International Cultic Studies Association, this is a list of elements that in one combination or another might constitute the “mind control regime” of a cult:
GROUP PRESSURE and “LOVE BOMBING” discourages doubts and reinforces the need to belong through the use of childlike games, singing, hugging, touching, or flattery.
ISOLATION/SEPARATION creates inability or lack of desire to verify information provided by the group with reality.
THOUGHT-STOPPING TECHNIQUES introduce the recruit to meditating, chanting, and repetitious activities which, when used excessively, induce a state of high suggestibility and dependency on the group.
FEAR and GUILT induced by eliciting confessions to produce intimacy and to reveal fears and secrets, to create emotional vulnerability by overt and covert threats, as well as alternation of punishment and reward.
SLEEP DEPRIVATION encouraged under the guise of spiritual exercises, necessary training, or urgent projects.
INADEQUATE NUTRITION sometimes disguised as special diet to improve health or advance spirituality, or as rituals requiring fasting.
SENSORY OVERLOAD forces acceptance of complex new doctrine, goals, and definitions to replace old values by expecting recruit to assimilate masses of information quickly with little opportunity for critical examination.
NOTE: Not all of these features need to be present simultaneously for a mind control regime to be operative.
What I’m struck by in reading that list is that while an awful lot of those shoes do seem to fit in a weird way that is mostly suited for comedy, it’s only seriously compelling in the context of a ‘cult’ that people perpetrate upon themselves, rather than something that is being forced or foisted off on them. “Love Bombing,” “Sleep Deprivation,” and “Sensory Overload” are things we’ve got in spades, but even if Larry Harvey and his fiscal human centipede of old frienemies really are the leaders of this alleged cult in any way, shape, or form, they probably aren’t even aware of it. It’s hard to concoct any kind of scenario in which the Org actually has any deliberate hand in this at all, even though a certain amount of the cultish behavior centers around things they have actively promoted within the community, like the Ten Principles. Sometimes the role of “hippie cult leader” is thrust upon you even if you’re not Charles Manson. Sometimes by your followers.
The same insights – which I get a good laugh out of – hit me when I look at lists of the things that cults have in common, according to those who study such things.
Michael D. Langone is an American counseling psychologist who specializes in research about “cultic” groups and psychological manipulation. He is Executive Director of the International Cultic Studies Association, and the editor of a journal called Cultic Studies Review. Dr. Langone is also the author of a reasonably authoritative list of signs and characteristics of cults and cultic activities. . . and even if you scoff mightily at the idea of any whiff of cultishness in burner culture, you’ll probably find applying Dr. Langone’s analytical prowess to Burning Man at least a little bit entertaining. I know I did.
Dr. Langone writes:
Concerted efforts at influence and control lie at the core of cultic groups, programs, and relationships. Many members, former members, and supporters of cults are not fully aware of the extent to which members may have been manipulated, exploited, even abused. The following list of social-structural, social-psychological, and interpersonal behavioral patterns commonly found in cultic environments may be helpful in assessing a particular group or relationship.
Compare these patterns to the situation you were in (or in which you, a family member, or friend is currently involved). This list may help you determine if there is cause for concern. Bear in mind that this list is not meant to be a “cult scale” or a definitive checklist to determine if a specific group is a cult. This is not so much a diagnostic instrument as it is an analytical tool.
- The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.
- Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
- Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).
- The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).
- The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).
- The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
- The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).
- The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).
- The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt iinorder to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.
- Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.
- The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
- The group is preoccupied with making money.
- Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.
- Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.
- The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.