In a place that values Radical Inclusion, one has to wonder how sarcasm has so much oxygen to burn. My virgin year, I thought it was jaded folks who wished Burning Man would could just go back to being a former version of itself. My third year, I thought it was a coarse but potent way to socialize. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate snark more as a self-regulating characteristic in Black Rock City culture, like the weather in the ecosystem of ideas.
Candy-coating a critical suggestion in thick delicious jest is probably one of the best ways to have it heard. In fact, snark is a great way to share ideas and hold each other accountable, but when we use playa names and megaphones, it’s also kinda how we make friends. With the stage always set for exchanges that are both sophisticated and sophomoric, the conditions for careful contemplation and democratic discussion are set.
While snark often serves as a potent conveyor of constructive criticism, it also is a double-edged sword. Snark-laden truth can raise hackles in the same way that criticism from a family member can sometimes be too much to bear. It can also cause drama and harm when wielded carelessly or solely as an act of social aggression.
But when implemented with care, snark brings about the potential for better conversations that unlock the power for two people to disagree, grow and change.
Impolite, But Necessary
One study from Herbert Colston (2009) found that even though someone wielding snark generally will come off as impolite, often “salt in the wound is more effective than sugar in a pill.”
Snark might help in a disagreement over a yellow bike or minimize the friction of addressing a campmate’s MOOP. Next time your campmate forgets to bag up the excess zip-ties strewn about on the ground after a build, perhaps a few words like, “Hey buddy, you really know how to leave no trace,” will be more effective than, “Dude, you suck at leaving no trace.”
A Creativity Stimulator
Beyond being instrumental in the constant pursuit to do better, snark is also a way to encourage creativity. Indeed, the road to any vision of utopia is paved by constant efforts to go a little further.
The great beauty of snark is that it wraps truth in humor so that it can encourage and challenge at the same time. As a midpoint somewhere between distaste and detest, snark drives thinking back to the drawing board where decisions are refined and improved. In 2005 a study from the University of Illinois explained the essential nature of snark:
“To either create or understand sarcasm, tone must overcome the contradiction between the literal and actual meanings of the sarcastic expressions. This is a process that activates, and is facilitated by, abstraction, which in turn promotes creative thinking.”
A Defense Against Charlatans
Like the fabled traveling snake oil salesman, there are those who care more about the show than the medicine being offered. Those who would peddle pseudoscience over actionable knowledge may find an ear to influence, but in snark there is hope that the community can course-correct itself.
Whether it’s an outdated concept like flat earth theory or antiquated techniques like bloodletting, snark holds the power to strike down a moot conversation. This is important in cultures because the progress of human history has always depended on vigilant efforts by many. It’s more than an alarm masked in subtlety. Like a battle cry in the war for hearts and minds, snark is the first line of defense against charlatans and a natural resistant to any social negligence inflicted by the (Simpsons-esque) Dr. Nicks of our time.
A Cautionary Tale
But packaging an opinion in sarcasm requires a little tact, too. When we’re dehydrated and breathing dust — in an environment that places us in a state of war with the elements — social kindness is one of the first casualties. Our environment affects our capacity to withstand the harshness of others, just as friction with those around us can weigh on our ability to endure stressful situations like whiteouts, dust tornados and being lost in the dark. This headspace stokes creativity in some while it easily evokes tempers in others.
Here you’ll find the often fine line between snark as creativity stimulator and destructive force: when it’s used to just blow off steam or to bully, or when it rubs someone the wrong way and elicits a knee-jerk response where the recipient instinctively puts up their guard and no longer listens to anything, be it truths or otherwise.
That response may seem counterintuitive, but the aforementioned study says too much sarcasm can also erode trust in relationships, so one has to wonder whether cultural collaboration will suffer if snark is too frequently employed.
Ultimately, snark is not the only tool in the social toolbox, but when cultures need a little course correction, snark may be the most appropriate way to call attention to it. Perhaps that’s why Oscar Wilde said, “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence.”
Disagreeing is also healthy. Where snark brings friction to the surface, it doesn’t necessarily instigate violence. Instead, laughs are chosen over fists and (hopefully) discussion is selected in lieu of alienation. Safe to say, further research is probably needed to learn how snark can be wielded as a shield against the ideological distractions of our community’s Dr Nicks or as call to arms for those in search of something to believe in.
If Burning Man is a looking glass into a possible future or an experiment in potential community, then perhaps a potent brand of ethos-aligned sarcasm, like that of Black Rock City, is the key to triggering a wide, hard heckle beyond the playa in the places where it’s needed most.
Top photo: Rouge poses with a megaphone (Photo by Jamen Percy)