Gifting 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 organisation 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.
"Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value."
This is a aspirational principle in part, and in part a 'definition'. The aspiration is evident in the expression 'Devoted'. It is clear that 'gift giving' will be encouraged and an association between the Burn and 'Gift Giving' will be promoted. However, this principle does not absolutely require that a participant give or even receive gifts. The remainder of the principle is a definition, and one that uses the 'negative' sense to give it shape - the value is not conditional, it is not done with contemplation of return of something of equal value. The final element contains an ambiguity, however. Depending how the sentence is read it has two different meanings:
- Gifting does not contemplate a return / Gifting does not contemplate an exchange for something of equal value
- Gifting does not contemplate a (return or an exchange) of something of equal value.
The first interpretation lays emphasis that a gift is given without contemplation of any reciprocation. The second interpretation suggests that some reciprocation may or may not be be expected, but this expectation shouldn't encompass a judgment about the value of the reciprocation. So which interpretation best reflects the intention of the original author? The middle sentence of the principle, '..The value of the gift is unconditional.' suggests the second interpretation is the one originally intended. If the first interpretation was the original intention then one might expect that middle sentence to read, 'The ACT of gifting is unconditional.'
Some Burns have picked up on this, unconsciously or not. For example the Blazing Swan Gifting principle encompasses the concept of the ACT of gifting being unconditional, rather than just the value of the gift (my emphasis added): "Blazing Swan is devoted to acts of gifting: giving freely, without expectations of return or exchange. The value of a gift is unconditional. A gift is anything given in this spirit, whether it is a physical item, a service or performance, or something less tangible, such as friendship or companionship. Everyone has gifts to give."
It can be seen that some Burns have - as the Blazing Swan example above shows - gone on to explain that a gift does not need to be something physical or substantial.
As a Burning 'Principle' and its relation to other Burning Principles
Gifting is one of the core burn principles. This must be included in any Burn in order for it to be officially associated in the Burning Man community. Some Burns have modified or adapted the definition of this principle, including:
- Blazing Swan "Blazing Swan is devoted to acts of gifting: giving freely, without expectations of return or exchange. The value of a gift is unconditional. A gift is anything given in this spirit, whether it is a physical item, a service or performance, or something less tangible, such as friendship or companionship. Everyone has gifts to give."
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. The principles are additive.
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
- Participants may take the intended 'encouragement towards gifting' as an obligation to gift, and specifically to bring gifts to the Burn. Attendees who have limited resources, or skill, or opportunity may arrive at the Burn feeling that they have not done 'well enough'.
- People who are already 'withdrawn' or isolated may feel even more so because they feel they have nothing to 'gift' except their troubles to other, and enter a spiral of negativity.
- People may feel that, knowing they don't have enough gifts for all Burners, feel that they need to apply criteria to who is 'worthy' of receiving a gift. The principle does not address this issue. The principle talks about the act of gifting being unconditional, but is that the way the gifting is done, or does it also (or not) apply to the decision to make the gift in the first place.
- Gifts may end up as Moop, such as the Penis sticker which blighted Blazing Swan in 2017.
A Blaze 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 'activating gifting' include:
- 'Explaining the process pre-Burn
- 'Reinforcing the process at the Greeters Gate, especially that gifts don't have to be 'physical'.
- 'Give off-playa examples and analogies to counter the 'christmas gift' sensibility. Eg 'Pay it forward'
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.