Radical Self Expression

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The Radical Self Expression Pictogram by James Wickham

Radical Self Expression is one of the original 10 Principles of Burning Man. The Ten 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.


"Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient."

The wording of this Principle suggests that Radical Self Expression is a transactional quality. Rather than being a statement of rights or privileges of the individual, it describes the way in which the individual relates with others. In this transaction, the rights and liberties of the other parties should be respected. It is also a call to the individual to honestly and openly give of, and express themselves - to search and find in themselves their own authentic and unique gifts.

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

Radical Self Expression 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.

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 event-goers general ethical guidance: "Don't be the dick."

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

This Principle may sometimes be mistaken as a license to disregard the interests of others in the pursuit of one's own expressiveness. The wording of the principle makes it clear that radical self expression is a transaction rather than a entitlement, and the transaction should be conducted with respect towards the rights and liberties of the other parties. This does not mean that Self Expression should be constrained to the extent that it accords with the sensibilities of every other person on the playa. The principle, however, does call upon the individual to consider the rights and liberties of others - especially those expressed by them - in the course of that transaction. There is no absolute guide as to how that consideration should be conducted or concluded, and to a large degree it is contextual, taking into account some of the following factors:

  • Radical Self Expression does not over-ride consent. Remembering that RSE is a transaction that respects the rights and liberties of others, there is no difference between the two principles. Consent is the essence of RSE.
  • Am I conducting my radical self expression in my Camping area or someone else's? If someone else's, consideration of their rights and liberties might include things such as introducing myself and ensuring I am welcome and acceding to any requests verbally given and to follow any signage - for example relating to smoking or the wearing of shoes in that vicinity etc.
  • To what extent does my radical self expression conform with the expectations of the community - particularly giving regard to the conditions of the ticket as an expression of community expectations. The ticket advises that there WILL be nudity. The ticket also advises that State Law applies. This gives clear guidance to behavior in common areas. Rules on the location and timing of amplified music are also published as part of the event guidelines.
  • In the case of confusion about the application of this principle, again the guidance, "Don't be the dick" is a useful template. Beyond that, advice might be sought from the Event Rangers or organizers.

This principle, in calling upon an individual to search for and express their unique gifts, can be confronting. It can be a challenge to one's own equilibrium that is built upon the creation of different personas which we (nearly) all use to operate in the default world. When faced with the opportunity to truly express ourselves, we also face the question, "Who am I?" The power of the Burn is in how it effects us. It is not unusual for people to find this challenge unsettling, particularly when they return to the so-called default world where they realize how at odds some of those 'operational personalities' might be with their own 'true' spirit. This is often a large part of what is known as the 'Post-Burn blues.'

Burn participants should know that spiritual/psychological support is available on-playa, and post-playa through the Burn community. One of the best ways for preparing for these mental challenges is to understand that they are normal and shared by many others. Another good way to deal with, and to some extent avoid, this mental dislocation is to not see the playa and the so-called default world as separate existences. It is all 'the real world', and you are a 'real person' in both places. Fracturing the playa and the so called default world into two worlds only helps to exacerbate the sense of dislocation, and to perpetuate the notion that one is right and one is wrong. In truth the Burn exists in the 'real world' and shares many imperfections with it. If we believe that the playa is a place and an opportunity to model some better behaviors, then we do ourselves and the world no favor if we maintain that the playa has, 'no connection with the real world'. Nothing would more strongly say that the playa, and the lessons of the playa, have no relevance to the 'real world'. And that would negate the real power of the Burn to do good in the world.

Activating Radical Self Expression

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 activating radical self expression include:

  • 'Burners guides and 'how to' information
  • Theme Camp dress-up items and venues
  • Group events at the the Burn.

One might ask, if radical self expression is a call to express one's own authentic nature, is it appropriate to use culturally significant costumes and body decoration that aren't the wearers natural culture? This isn't a question about whether someone might be offended, but about whether a person is being authentic in their self expression, that is to say, whether they are really being true to themselves and following the principle, rather than simply following 'fashion'. On the other hand, to choose 'fashion' is a legitimate expression of individual choice, and many fashions simply reflect many of the aspects of ourselves. Cultural identity and personal identity are completely intertwined. And there is always the opportunity to express individuality in 'how' we wear a piece of fashion. One can - at best - invite people to think about these things.

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 10 Principles, and these have been widely praised and adopted.

See Also


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