(Don’t) Be the Gray man

The is a guest post by Patrick Steadman

A few days after Trump was elected, one of my friends tweeted that he was going to buy a gun. Six months later, another friend quoted the tweet, gently dragging him for not actually buying the gun.

While such virtue signaling is a bit cringeworthy, I think it’s a type of behavior we should expect and encourage in a functioning democracy in which people have healthy feelings of belonging and connection.

It would’ve been much worse if my friend had bought the gun, learned how to use it, and told no one, blending in with his creative professional peers among whom gun ownership is uncommon.

That would have made him a gray man, which is like normcore for preppers, except in the ways that it isn’t.

The Gray Man Directive

According to SurvivialThinkTank.com, a “gray man” is “an individual who possesses the skills, ability and intent to blend into any situation or surrounding without standing out, concealing his or her true skills, ability, and intent from others.” The term “gray man” is currently used by survivalists who believe that dressing and acting “gray” will improve their chances if shit hits the fan (SHTF).

Promoters of gray man style believe that overt tactical gear is a “shoot-me-first” signal, and instead prefer multi-modal dress that will help them avoid attention until it’s time to use force. For example, a gray man wouldn’t carry one of the “bug out bags” recommended in this recent NYT Style article, because the recommended bags include obvious military features like MOLLE panels, hydration bladders, and camouflage. The gray man prefers to carry his weapons and supplies in a dorky messenger bag like the Vertex EDC Satchel, designed to “blend into everyday life” while still holding ballistic inserts and allowing for rapid firearm draws.

Over the past few months, I’ve also come to see “gray” as an emergent (but unspoken) political identity. The gray man tries to seem politically normal while secretly harboring visions of a wide range of apocalyptic political scenarios, from leftist cultural revolution to technocratic feudal separatism. Gray politics are distinct from crypto-fascism or other crypto-politics in that gray politics don’t require belief in any one particular system: the gray man has no agenda beyond his secret preparation. Even if he has nothing to say about the policy debates of the present, he can feel important and enlightened as he prepares for the politics of a future world.

Survivalist Hate

Survival bloggers developed the gray man concept in reaction to a perceived threat of “survivalist hate.” The survivalist blogger Selco, of SHTF School, uses his experiences during the Balkan War to motivate his gray man theory.

Selco writes that he saw some of his more prepared neighbors give away supplies during the first few weeks of the conflict. Just weeks later, many of these generous individuals were robbed or even murdered. Selco says that thieves often justified their actions with the charge that the well-prepared individuals were somehow guilty of anticipating or catalyzing the chaos. A reviewer of Selco’s survival course urges readers to think back to high school, where “those who were prepared for the test were hated and called nerds”.

Selco explicitly calls for his readers to practice being gray, and emphasizes that being gray is a lifestyle that begins before shit hits the fan. He goes so far as to recommend that parents keep supplies and weapons hidden from their children, so that the children don’t discuss it with their neighborhood friends.

The idea of gray man as a lifestyle seems to have originated with the term itself.

The earliest writing I could find about gray man is a post on the “Western Rifle Shooters Association” blogspot, alongside posts about firearms and anti-government politics. This piece, written in a Goofus and Gallant style, presents gray man as an identity. Example: “The Young Grey Man is dismissed as a wimp, the Older as a doddering old fool.”

This quote begs the question: why be a survivalist if it’s such a social liability? Wouldn’t it be better to accept the idea that survival is socially determined?

For American libertarian, anti-government survivalists, being gray is in tension with their desire to share and promote their political beliefs. Perhaps as a way to ease this tension, the Western Rifle Shooters Association post presents gray man as something that can be practiced with a group: “[The Gray Man] practices with his weaponry in private, or only with his fellow Grey Men, always in a secluded location.”

Gray as Profession, Gray as Fantasy

In more recent articles about gray man, mostly found on survivalist content farms, gray man is presented as situational strategy for use in a fantasy urban survival scenario. For many younger survivalists, survivalism is less of a political identity and more of a hobby.

Undercover agents and military professionals also make tactical use of gray man, especially in POW situations. To get an idea of what professional gray man looks like, consider the man photographed in this tweet thread from Chelsea Manning:

Manning claims that this man’s heavily rubberized business casual shoes leak the fact that he’s an undercover agent, prepared for violence.

But even if you can spot the gray man in a crowd, it can be hard to tell the professionals apart from the fantasy players.

Balenciaga F/W 2022

When I talk about the gray man concept with my friends, many immediately say something like: “so this is normcore for preppers?” And this makes sense: the concept of gray man is similar to the concept of normcore as it was originally defined by K-HOLE in 2013.

Normcore though, differs from gray man in one key respect: motivation. K-HOLE says that normcore is “a path to a more peaceful life”, through the realization that “adaptability leads to belonging and connection”.

Some stated motivations behind gray man include “keeping your preps”, “avoiding kinetic confrontation”, and “[staving off] the impending onslaught of self-appointed have-nots”.

The concept of normcore as proposed by K-HOLE is quite different from normcore as it has been implemented in culture. Normcore has become an immediately recognizable look that makes cool people look even cooler. The same sort of process will likely happen with gray man. Apparel companies will capture the power of the gray man idea and distill it into a “look”.

This might seem like a stretch, but there’s already some evidence. In the fashion industry, there’s the emergence of camping chic and gorpcore.

Camping chic was visible in the collections of Prada, Balenciaga and Vetements last winter, and has reemerged in Spring/Summer 2018 looks, most notably the multi-modal utility pieces in Rick Owens’ DIRT collection.  (Think large holster-like leather pouches around the thigh).

Concurrently, the term gorpcore was coined by NYMag journalist Jason Chen. According to Chen, gorpcore has the same appeal of normcore, but instead of idealizing the Mall, gorpcore idealizes the Woods. In practice, gorpcore seems to mean that Patagonia is cool again. (DeRay McKesson famously wears a blue Patagonia vest because it’s practical and he broadly approves of the company’s environmental consciousness.) Chen argues that gorpcore, like just about anything else, can be attributed to the post-election malaise.

It has become normal for people everywhere on the political spectrum to talk of impending collapse. The NYT and New Yorker have written tongue-in-cheek profiles of survivalists, but these ironic profiles will still serve as gateways into the culture.

As these trends slough into the mainstream and interact with cypherpunk and anarcho-primitivism, people will begin to restrain themselves, going gray more subtly. They will want to just barely hint at their hidden skills and intent, and be ready to move.

In the Skin of a Sheep

Articles about gray man style usually make the assumption that the reader is innately capable of being a gray man. The two factors often discussed as obstacles to being gray are: 1) being unusually short or tall, and 2) being a woman who attracts sexual attention. Here’s an example of advice given to women on being gray:

“Be cognizant of any smells such as food, soap or gunpowder that someone would relate to something they’d want. Try to think about what you do, say or wear that may cause a connection to some kind of desire. This is especially important for females. When SHTF, there will be very few gentlemen and those in power will take what they want, without regard to repercussions. Be cognizant of innuendo or movements such as arching your back or physical contact. They may put you in a situation that you may not be able to get out of.”

From How to Be the Gray Man When SHTF

One comment on a YouTube video about gray man points out that as a black man, “trying to be a gray man will be difficult in far too many places in this country.” Another commenter responds with advice that echoes advice sometimes given to black men in everyday life: try to be dismissed. The commenter links to a Vice article where two British men discover that wearing neon hi-vis vests allows them to escape attention and access restricted areas.

For minorities in America, the acts necessary to survive disaster are often criminalized or demonized. Many dramatic examples of this phenomenon occurred during hurricane Katrina, when black families wading through the water with supplies were infamously described as “looting” while white families were described as “finding”. Police from the wealthy community of Gretna fired shots over the heads of families trying to flee over a bridge into their community, a stark example of how borders can suddenly form in disaster. In another case, police killed an unarmed child and a mentally disabled man who were attempting to make their way over a bridge to a family friend’s home. The officers were only prosecuted in 2012, after a cover-up that spanned years.

Gray man theorists often note that in a disaster, it’s usually best to stay at home. Being gray is a response to situations where one has to “traverse areas outside your home for various reasons”, such as “supply runs” and “information gathering”.

In a post-SHTF world, wouldn’t an armed person with survival skills on a “supply run” be a dangerous predator?

In the United States, being a white gray man is convenient, because it allows a white person to hoard his or her weapons and supplies, but still be considered a victim worthy of assistance.

Just as affecting a folksy down-to-earthness helps people like George Bush and Warren Buffet retain power and goodwill, affecting a dorky harmlessness while keeping one’s assets hidden will be a powerful strategy for the 21st century.

L/ACC

Some aspects of left accelerationism (or “l/acc”) are reminiscent of the gray man ethos. For example, here’s a quote from the Accelerationist Manifesto:

“The fetishisation of openness, horizontality, and inclusion of much of today’s ‘radical’ left set the stage for ineffectiveness. Secrecy, verticality, and exclusion all have their place as well in effective political action (though not, of course, an exclusive one).”

If the left attempts to adopt the gray man concept and use it for progressive activism, the effort may backfire. Attempts to move away from endless dialogue towards secret organizing and direct action can be destabilizing.

It’s not particularly unusual for someone to profess a political alignment (ex: socialist) that is inconsistent with the future they’re preparing for (ex: anarcho-capitalist). Usually, this inconsistency is the result of everyday expediencies and limitations, and is only experienced as cognitive dissonance.

But when a person begins to feel like they have a secret “edge” because of their hedging and dissembling, they are becoming the gray man, even if they don’t realize it. And that can be a problem.

Ways to Be Gray

I’ve touched on three different ways to be the gray man.

The first is tactical use of gray man, useful for someone who wants to stalk Chelsea Manning, forage for food post-SHTF, or fit in at school.

The second way is grayness as conscious part of one’s identity, useful for survivalists who want to hoard without facing the social consequences of their hoarding.

The third way is grayness as an unconscious part of one’s identity, especially one’s political identity.

Each is problematic in its own way, and carries with it a cost in terms of belonging and connection.

While it’s fun to make fun of the dynamics of virtue signaling on social media, a society where many people have ‘gray’ identities and belief systems is quietly primed for chaos. And chaos and disaster will most likely lead to a very regressive distribution of suffering.

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Comments

  1. Bunch of random thoughts in response.

    Cory Doctorow has this concept of a “bug in bag” as opposed to “bug out bag”, a prepping motif for those who plan for apocalyptic scenarios by thinking about how they’ll dive into the community and help rather than look out for themselves and head for the exits.

    I think there’s an archetype to be constructed and promoted there, in contrast to Gray Man. Like clearly making it known in your neighborhood that you’re prepared, willing to help, but also (unlike the Balkan example) prepared to not be taken advantage of. Combine the pragmatism and caution of the Gray Man with the prosocial instincts of the open survivalist, but without the idealism or naivete of the openly “tactical” types.

    Speaking of naivete and openly tactical types, I am reminded of course of the world of mall ninjas.

    And on the fashion front, this twitter thread by pookleblinky on the everyday carry subculture is both hilarious and informative.

    Another interesting connection that occurred to me is to the doctrine of taqiya in Islam (basically, Muslims going grey in non-Muslim societies to avoid oppression and/or enable covert action in the case of active jihad intentions). Gray Man is basically American Prepper taqiya.

    I do think the gray man crowd does one valuable thing: normalize the idea of extreme political futures being a non-trivial possibility, against the pervasive “of course it can’t happen here” thinking everywhere which treats such scenarios as unthinkable and even contemplation of such scenarios an act of treason of sorts.

    What they lack is a prosocial angle to their preparation. The grey lifestyles are only a problem insofar they are a symptom of the fundamental antisocial attitudes. Attitudes which might turn into self-fulfiling prophecies by eroding the base of belonging and connection. As purely tactical skills, in the situational sense you’ve described, I think graymanning (is that the right verb?) is not just fine, but something to be actively encouraged. You don’t have to be either a uniformed boy scout OR a skulking gray prepper all the time or make it a lifestyle. Depending on what the situation calls for, you might play the role of a visible authority figure who contains the SHTF, or you can go gray and do your supply runs etc.

    I forget who it was who said this (archdruid perhaps?), but something like there’s a certain type of survivalist/prepper for whom collapse is almost something they eagerly wait for, having concluded it is inevitable. It may be dystopian in their imaginings and the way they describe it, but it is also a utopian promised land in which they’ll finally find redemption and take their rightful places in society. There is something disturbing about this psyche.

    • Chris Anderson says:

      As far as pro-social prepping goes, the Portland way is to plan to stay and help (by bike) https://disasterrelieftrials.com/

    • In “Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life”, Neil Strauss becomes a hard-core prepper – but by the end of the book he’s contributing his new-found expertise as a paramedic to his local CERT (Community Emergency Response Team). In the book, the fire chief who taught the CERT course emphasizes that in a large-scale emergency, because help doesn’t start flowing until it’s all coordinated, help might not come for 5 days.

      In other words, the preppers are right to a degree, but Strauss makes the journey to a prosocial response.

    • Another avenue of connection to taqiya, though to an extent the gray men are more components or symptoms than practitioners of it:
      “The Militarization of Peace: Absence of Terror or Terror of Absence?”
      https://ciudadtecnicolor.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/the-militarization-of-peace.pdf

  2. May be superficial connections, but this brought to mind:

    (1) The Grey Tribe, a libertarian/gamergate/rationalist nexus of people who think they are above or outside the usual political axes
    (2) William Burroughs, the original gray man

    Also note that in your main linked article, they are very fearful of being beaten to death by Occupy Wall Street protestors…that hasn’t aged well. But thanks for the glimpse into the survivalist subcultures which unsurprisingly have gotten more baroque and networked and differentiated.

  3. Re L/Acc: Isn’t that also what Gramsci advocated with the “March through the institutions”?
    (Which was arguably going on in the universities but has now blown the cover and is facing heavy backlash.)

  4. Neoreaction also has links to the notion of the grey man because nRxers can hide their beliefs about the future in public, only revealing them “with other grey men” in hidden settings like this author (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markshea/2014/02/a-reader-writes-of-his-experience-among-the-dark-enlightenment-types.html) mentions. Despite the publicity surrounding NRX, people who seriously take it as an ideology will have a grey mindset because of the desire to conceal their true beliefs.

    Re: antisociality of grey man
    The nrx movement is a key example of asociality because they assume they will rule over masses. The dissemination of nrx memes and grey increasesis the real issue with the spread of nrx, not just open conflict.

  5. Joe Fallica says:

    WOW! People who go through life in opposition of what they believe and what drives them. Rather, I should say- People who go through death before they die.

    Then there those who attach labels to whole groups of people who behave, or appear to behave, or say they behave in one way or another. This all strikes me as the empirical method run amok, investigating every miniscule performance or event to be described and labeled so it can be talked about among the cognoscenti it high-brow words with labels, which meaning only the writer knows, showing how absurdly stupid intelligence is masquerading as a “Grey” wise person.

    So I have one question: What’s so preposterously important about life that being “Grey” is acceptable and “Lying” is rejected? They’re the same! What will you do if you managed to earn ALL the money in the world? Buy a better coffin? What will you gain if you have all the power in the world? Have a larger “Following”? What will you do if the SHTF and you’re the only person who survives? Have a party of one?

    “Greying” is a prime example of death while you’re still alive. That’s what the story about “Grey-maning” should have been about.

    OH! Look a riff-raff pointing to how the cognoscenti could do better.
    Have a good smug laugh at your expense.
    Also- Keep on keepin’ on!

  6. MichItaly says:

    This is by a sociologist quoted (in disagreement) by Z. Bauman in a book of his I feel is linked with what Selco “perceived” (but people who don’t have the vice of doing good deeds, thus haven’t experienced the validity of No Good Deed Goes Unpunished enjoy the luxury of not “perceiving”).

    I don’t accept the idea that who has been the victim should combat the temptation to become the victimizer.
    You shouldn’t ask too much of common folk. It is normal for the victim to turn into the victimizer.
    The poor man, as well as the poor, ends up by hating you […] for he wants to forget the past, the humiliation, sorrow and the fact of having achieved something through the help of someone, thanks to the pity of someone, and not by himself […]
    How to escape the sorrow and humiliation? The most natural thing is to kill, or humiliate your benefactor, or to find someone still weaker to triumph over/on him.

    Of course, you may help your neighbor, if you are socially skilled enough to make it not appear as help, and never come close to their vanity and pride, you are likely to incur no penalties.

  7. In the fantasy series “The Wheel of Time”, which was very popular for a while, Gray Men were unnoticeable assassins. They sacrificed everything for their superpowers, but as far as I can remember, in none of the twelve books did any Gray Man actually kill anyone or accomplish anything. Just saying.

    http://wot.wikia.com/wiki/Gray_Man

    • Joe Fallica says:

      “The Wheel Of Time” is/was a fantasy series. We, all (You and I, that guy over there, the woman standing behind that kid) have managed to reference fantasy as reality allowing us to call those who can sing a note or chase a ball as a “Genius” and it has become worse as we cite FAKE reality, “The Wheel Of Time” a comic-like series to comment on reality??
      But I suppose it’s better than not commenting at all. Keep On Keepen’ On

  8. LOL as opposed to a progressive distribution of suffering?

    #wow, talk about a shit ending line

  9. It’s nice to think you’re part of a special group who will be delivered into maximum utility and power after the arrival of some extreme event. SHTF, Christ’s rebirth, whatever. It doesn’t seem novel, more like a constant testament to the gap between where certain people are and where they’d rather be. Survivalists escape their present drudgery into a romantic heroes journey of the time to come. They become self important. It’s pathetic.

    There is nothing novel in hiding your wealth (see: Old Money), or your ideas, especially when they are treated as taboo by society (see: Soviet Russia), or even your ethnic identity (see: WW2). There is nothing particularly novel about survivalism, at least not since I read “Dancing at Armageddon,” which was published in 2002.

    I don’t see any evidence that the fashion industry is surfacing this as part of a general zeitgeist—you can probably find apocalyptic collections, camping collections, garbage collections, throughout the history of style.com. If “camping chic” is anything more than a fashion journo’s overeager seasonal proclamation, it’s still a stretch to get from there to “pervasive feeling of doom which is turning everyone into secret mercenaries (women?)” Having worked “in the fashion industry” for almost a decade, I’d discourage sociologists from reading anything it produces as tea leaves, or a cultural barometer.

    Because it does not describe any impulse or passion that is truly novel in our present moment, Gray Man is not like normcore. I don’t mean it is qualitatively different along a similar axis, I mean that it remains specific, and not useful as an overarching allegory for (anything beyond itself).

    Nor can I see why any of these things are “problematic,” but that’s another conversation.

  10. Bu Jiao Ning says:

    I’m thinking that thinking more gray is a (perhaps sensible) response to the “doxxing” and anti-virtue-shaming of the last few years of the internet.

    Is keeping private domains “going gray?” What about putting some of your businesses in the bahamas and directing your .coms to .com.(something else) in case someone decides to demonetize or otherwise attack your money-stream or (probably okay) speech? You don’t have to be alt-right to be conscious of this.

    I heard it said (by Ken Wilber) that Louis C.K., Jerry Seinfeld, and Chris Rock have all said they will not do shows at universities now because they’re afraid of basically political backlash.

    So, if you’re going to be an artist, and make real commentary about some of the important stuff of 2018, but you might want to ever have a job, it might be intelligent to go gray.

    Is this incorrect?

  11. I’ve been fascinated by preppers for awhile. I know a few people who fit that description and found their distorted perception of reality fascinating. I guess it’s natural that their subculture evolved. I want to make a distinction between Gray Man and Gray Mask. I think we all wear a gray mask at one point or another, withholding our true identity to avoid social martyrdom. Think taboo topics at Thanksgiving dinner: We all go gray to avoid conflict. But when the mask becomes inexorably linked to ones true identity and loses the ability to jettison the gray mask it becomes part of his identity. The troubling part is that gray man theory goes all in from the start. MAN instead of MASK implies an immediate identity shift. An open prepper is a dissident, but a Gray Man is a guerilla. It is as much about self preservation as it is about preserving the element of surprise. It is troubling because it makes it much harder for an honest man to navigate (and survive) in a world where everyone else’s intentions are hidden. If the SHTF and enough honest men are betrayed by Gray men, the only options are to die honest or live Gray. Luckily, I don’t think the S will hit the F anytime soon, but if it does Gray men are sabotaging the future civilization they seem to care about so much. It becomes a future where no one is who he says he is and no one cares.

  12. michael ryan says:

    not bothering to go beyond three paragraphs you’re an utter worthless pajama soyboy faggot and need to immediately kill yourself so as not to infect the genepool though god knows who the fuck would sleep with you however with your worthless faggot generation anythings fucking possible so please go now and jump off the nearest tall building

  13. Sean Kennedy’s Patrolling is an example of this.

  14. I think you ended up getting too deep in your own perceived thoughts/beliefs. So you ended up labeling a group or person based on your bias toward people you don’t agree with. But, that’s par for the course in today’s society. The grey man theory is a template for skills that may assist one in an adverse situation….. ultimately. Sure, you could bring it all the way to the extreme and say that this is just nutjob tin foil hat prepper people’s version of Dungeons and Dragons(which is pretty much what you did) and then attach it to a political label(everyone wants to politicize everything today)……..or you could do what a normal person would do which is read the info and adapt what works for you individually. Not to mention you even weaseled the race card into your rant. The grey man theory is nothing more than skills, ideals, information that has worked for covert operatives and the like for years. It’s about being prepared and not drawing attention to yourself…….in whatever situation you may need those skills. It actually is useful and works for people of all races, religions, and political affiliations. It is not just for tin foil hat “preppers” as you insinuate. On that point, everybody is a prepper to a certain extent. Do you have life insurance? Do you have 6 months of your living budget in savings, or a decent savings plan? Do you have a retirement fund? Do you carry a concealed handgun? Do you have an open equity line on your home? If you answered yes to any of these very few examples then you’re a prepper. Just because you prepare for something different then someone else doesn’t make either of you right or wrong. But, back to main theme, grey man people are preparing for something they choose to be prepared for. A SHTF situation can come in many forms. You brought up hurricanes, I bet many people affected by hurricanes wished they were more prepared. Will your fellow man help you? Maybe, sure……..but why rely on that if you don’t want to. Will some people do bad things like looting, stealing? Maybe, sure……..so why not try to prepare to avoid that. As I read your article it just helps prove my personal beliefs. That is that the average person is hypocritical without realizing it and that people don’t like others that don’t fit their ideals. And we also love to put labels on everything that isn’t us. In other words……….people are, at the core, opportunists and selfish when push comes to shove……….so I personally don’t mind reading and utilizing pieces of the gray man theory that best suits my situation. And I personally get the idea that you’re a hypocritical, racist, opportunist that drives a yuppy car and votes for the same political party regardless of anything(as unfortunately most do). In other words(my turn to label hypocritically), your a sheep.

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