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A Burner Lexicon: Radical Self-Expression

Posted in A Burner Lexicon, Burning Man, and Guest Bloggers

Firefighter Woman with Bullhon, Photo by Tristan Savatier
A Burner with a bullhorn. Black Rock City, 2009. Photo by Tristan Savatier, used with permission.

Radical Self-Expression, –noun, In the psychedelic atmosphere of the playa, it becomes easier to speak freely, even bluntly. Direct communication is greatly valued both for its honesty and for its clarity in the chaotic atmosphere of a Burn event. Radical Self-expression is our art, whether in the form of a performance, a sculpture, or just a deep conversation.

Burning Man’s official description of this principle encourages responsible communication, urging one to consider speech a gift and therefore to “respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.” However, when the post-apocalyptic punk and free-love hippie aspects of the culture collide it often happens via some especially radical form of self-expression (Brian Doherty observed this clash in his book This Is Burning Man).

Radical Self-expression is used to justify rock operas, rave camps blasting music at all hours, a wildly creative fashion aesthetic, mutant vehicles equipped with flame throwers and loud arguments over bull horns at 4am. Over the years this has made Burner culture home to confrontational groups like the riot-gear wearing Chupacabra Policia while simultaneously welcoming loving groups like the hippie massage gurus of HeeBeeGeeBee Healers and exuberant expressions of human sexuality like Comfort & Joy (many of whom were formerly known as the queer camp Jiffy Lube).

The limits of this self-expression, especially where it may come into conflict with the other nine Burner principles, is an ongoing source of debate.

The lexicographer attended a tiny regional event where some participants decided that they’d create “Middle of the Road Camp” as their personal form of expression. The community tolerated this offense against civic responsibility for the duration of the weekend before making it clear that such things should never happen again.

The Lexicographer has been soliciting the opinion of other thoughtful Burners on the Ten Principles. Below you will find other opinions, but more are still welcomed. Use the contact information at the top to submit your thoughts.

Other entries in A Burner Lexicon can be found at

Will is a member of the Burning Flipside Web Content Team and a newer addition to the Texas Burn community. In a previous comment on the lexicon, he questioned:

The page on the Ten Principles finishes the entry on “Radical Self-expression” by saying “It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient.” Just where is the line between performance art and unethical harassment, anyway? When and how should you or I or the rangers try to intervene if some jerks decide to set up a theme camp that interacts with bystanders in a way that we think is harassing, like enticing a bunch of half-delirious trippers into their camp and then cranking up the Faces of Death video after they’re inside? What are some examples of times when that line between self-expression and disrespect has been pushed or crossed at burn events?

Ranger Beauty, a long time Black Rock Ranger offers this thought: Just don’t be an ASS HAT!