Civic Responsibility

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Civic Responsibility. A pictogram by James Wickham

Civic Responsibility is one of the original 10 Principles of Burning Man. The 10 Principles were originally written by Larry Harvey in 2004 as a guide to the organization of Burning Man, and later adopted as a model of thinking and behaviour for participants to follow at the event, and in their lives generally.


"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."

The actual meaning of 'civil society' in the opening statement in this Principle is not explained. It is clearly associated with the two statements that follow on from this initial one. Whether these two following statements are meant to encompass the entirety of what is meant by 'civil society' is not clear. Taking them at face value we might observe:

A. This principle contains a clear reference to three distinct groups:

  • Group1. Community members who organize and/or conduct events..,
  • Group2. participants, and
  • Group3. (those who make, enforce and interpret) local, state and federal laws.

B. Out of these groups, Group1 is given three specific directives with - apparently - varying force:

  • Directive 1. Group1 'should assume responsibility for public welfare',
  • Directive 2. Group1 'endeavor to communicate Civic Responsibility' to participants, and
  • Directive 3. Group1 'must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance (with the laws).

Each directive is laid upon Group1 with varying force. The words, 'should', 'endeavor', and 'must' are not equivalent. 'Should' implies a moral, but not a legal obligation. 'Endeavor' implies that the an attempt should be made, but the there is no set measure of how much effort should be attached to that attempt. Only the word, 'Must' carries an unambiguous meaning - this directive is absolute and unavoidable.

In the case of Directive1 it might be surmised that the word 'must' was avoided due to the difficulty in defining what 'public welfare' is. Even so, the expression, "must take reasonable steps to ensure public welfare" could have been used. It may be that the author wished to use an encouraging rather than imperative command at this point.

The second directive gives a useful insight into the authors view of the scope of 'Civic Responsibility'. While Directive1 and Directive3 are clearly only applicable to people who 'organize' or 'conduct' events, Directive2 enjoins these people to communicate the Civic Responsibility principle to 'participants'. If the Civic Responsibility principle was no more than the sum of Directives 1 to 3, then there would be nothing to convey to them, as these Directives do not apply to general participants, and Directive2 only relates to the process of communication. Clearly more is meant by 'Civic Responsibility' than just that which is conveyed in Directives 1 and 3.

As a Burning 'Principle' and its relation to other Burning Principles

In some ways comparing the Civic Responsibility Principle with another Burn Principle, Communal Effort, yields a better understanding of both. If we accept that Communal Effort enjoins the Burner community to work together in order to achieve beneficial results for the Community (and particularly in the field of creativity and communication), then Civic Responsibility is left with the task of defining roles and frameworks which would maximise the enduring power and effectiveness of those efforts, and harmonise those structures and efforts with each other.

There is a danger in 'Civic Responsibility' where the effort to 'harmonise' overrides the impulse to and the benefits of divergent attitudes and approaches. Without checks and balances, Civic Responsibility can become a rallying call to excesses which suppress individual liberty and creativity. Writing at the time of the struggle of the colonial settlers of North America to free themselves of tyranny, and at a time when his thoughts were turning towards preventing future tyranny, de Tocqueville imagined a society where intelligent citizens participated to the fullest in the organization of their communities:

(The citizen) develops a taste for order, understands the harmony of powers, and in the end accumulates clear, practical ideas about the nature of (their) duties and the extent of (their) rights.

It is important to understand that all principles apply equally and concurrently. The principles were designed to all work, and to all work together. No principle can be used to justify an act of commission or omission that violates any other principle. Principles do not 'conflict' with each other or 'contradict' each other because no principle is intended to be considered or applied in isolation from all the remaining principles. No principle takes away from any other principle, there is an additive effect.

Neither the Principles or the Burning Man community have ever provided any sure guidance about what how to find the balance between different principles, or in their application and conflict with 'norms of society. A useful (but not universally useful) tool in such circumstances is to apply the party-goers 'general ethical guidance', "Don't be the dick." In the language of the Principles this would be known as an injunction against 'Radical Self Entitlement'.

Interactions between this principle and real world circumstances in the context of Burns

The principle commences with a statement that clearly sets up 'civil society as a playa virtue. But there is no clarity in this initial statement as to whether 'civil society' in this instance has a wider context beyond the playa. And, beyond some vague notion that it involves 'politeness', the term has been used at times to describe, by those who benefit from it, societies that disadvantage, oppress and commit State sanctioned murder and genocide. De Tocqueville wrote about civil society in the context of colonial North America, and although he did not favor posterity with a simple expression of the concept, this quote come close:

"The New Englander is attached to his township because it is strong and independent; he has an interest in it because he shares in its management; he loves it because he has no reason to complain of his lot; he invests his ambition and his future in it; in the restricted sphere within his scope, he learns to rule society; he gets to know those formalities without which freedom can advance only through revolutions, and becoming imbued with their spirit, develops a taste for order, understands the harmony of powers, and in the end accumulates clear, practical ideas about the nature of his duties and the extent of his rights."

Let's also be clear though that in de Tocqueville's world 'civil society' was the product and privilege of a select few. He also said:

"Among these widely differing families of men, the first that attracts attention, the superior in intelligence, in power, and in enjoyment, is the white, or European, the MAN pre-eminently so called, below him appear the Negro and the Indian."

Modern interpretations of 'civil society' still frequently fail the test of inclusiveness and objectivity. Most frequently it is a term used to assert the superiority of one's own culture in relation to others, ignoring the faults of one's own and misunderstanding the complexity of the other. Anyone asserting that the Burn culture is a more civil society than any other should be very careful not to fall into hubris. Burn culture might include a genuine ambition to 'do more' and 'be more', but it is never 'done', and it will never be, 'the only'. And those who would see some lessons that might be carried from the Playa into the wider world in order to make the latter more 'civil' should be wary of those who promote the idea of the Burn as an escape from the default world. In reality there is no separation, but believing it's so is asserting that the lessons of the playa have no place in the wider world.

Activating Civic Responsibility

A Burn Principle is not intended as a description of 'what is', but rather a guide to taking active steps - and not just within the Burn community. Examples of 'Civic Responsibility' include:

  • Research and provide guidance on what 'Civic Responsibility' is in the context of the playa and the Burn location.
  • For those that create or conduct events on-playa, to do everything to ensure public safety, including manage fire safety on their site, first aid provision on their site, to reduce and where possible eliminate hazards on their site and to ensure co-ordination with people and organisations tasked with maintaining safety at the event.
  • For those that create or conduct events on-playa, to absolutely conform with local, State and National Laws, including familiarizing themselves with relevant rules and regulations, submitting plans and proposals as required and conforming with the forementioned rules and regulations and co-operating with relevant enforcement agents and agencies.
  • For participants, to do all of the above 'as if' they were also creating and conducting events in respect of their own environment and their own conduct.

There is a case for a re-write of this principle to make it clearer that it applies to participants as well as event organizers.

This principle in wider historic and philosophical contexts

The Ten Principles of Burning Man are in class known as 'Moral Systems' All attempts at creating a universal 'Moral System' have failed, and they have at times incorporated elements that we would reject, and have been championed and fought over at the expense of lives and nations.

Danny Usery makes the point that although sets of moral principles ideally should not contain inherent contradictions, in practice they often do. He suggests that in resolving those conflicts - which is necessary in order to follow those moral principles in 'real life', a person should apply a set of theory rules (or ethical principles) which will guide you in your application of those moral principles. He acknowledges the existence of multiple examples of ethical principles (such as Utilitarian or Kantian) and further acknowledges that the a person attempting to choose amongst these various ethical principles might seek further guidance, using some criteria to do so, and some ethical principles to understand which criteria to use, and so on ad infinitum.

The Burning Man Principles and Community provide no specific guidance on what 'ethical principles' should guide a Burners (or a Burn Organizer's) view towards and application of the Ten Principles. The 'purist' might hold that Burns should not charge money, and in fact should not be organized by anyone - but in fact organized by everyone. This viewpoint finds its nearest expression in the Rainbow Gathering movement. Others would hold that the Burn is an opportunity to showcase 'ideals', but the showcase has to exist in the 'real world' and comply with the economic and legal constraints of the real world as it stands now while we work to bring the 'real world' into line with our 'showcased world'. Some will hold that 'the pure is the enemy of the good', and others will say that 'If you want to do anything, do it now, without compromise or concession, because you have only one life. Gao Xingjian

Expressions and Artwork

On and off-playa installations have been created to express this principle. Perth graphic designer James Wickham created a set of pictographs in 2015 to illustrate the Ten Principles, and these have been widely praised and adopted.

See Also