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The Grey Man is always invisible in plain sight.... The Grey Man NEVER draws attention to himself by word, dress, action, or mannerism. The Young Grey Man is dismissed as a wimp, the Older as a doddering old fool. The Grey Man derives great inner satisfaction from having this portrayal of himself accepted by all he meets, for it means he is succeeding in his disguise of his actual persona. -Habcan of the Western Rifle Shooters Association blog, 2007, earliest known use of the term

In the language of American survivalist bloggers, doomsday preppers, social engineers, and aficionados of all things "tactical," the grey man is a person who is expected to have unhampered mobility in mass emergency scenarios (known as "when shit hits the fan," SHTF for short), due to their emergency-preparedness being undetectable to observers. Conspicuous preparedness, or the hallmarks of "tactical culture," such as wearing camo everywhere and having CCW, Molon Labe, and Don't Tread On Me stickers on one's truck, make one appear both a target for those hoping to loot food and weapons in an emergency, and a threat toward those who are demographically or ideologically at odds with groups who often make use of these same symbols.

Selco, the survivalist author of the blog SHTF School, explains "gray man theory" through his experiences during the Balkan War. He describes how his neighbours had well-stocked larders and supplies of weapons and ammunition, before the conflict began, which they generously shared and gave away to unprepared community members during the first few weeks of conflict. Soon after, Selco states, most of his prepared neighbours were murdered by members of the very community they had aided, their remaining resources looted. Selco observed that thieves justified their actions through the claim that well-prepared individuals were opportunists, surely guilty of catalysing the chaos, if they had anticipated it. Readers of Selco's survival instruction course are encouraged to recall their experiences in high school, when “those who were prepared for the test were hated and called nerds.” An excess of obvious preparedness is not simply attention-grabbing; it is incriminating.

The idea of the grey man is often contrasted against "the woman in red," a reference taken from the 1999 film The Matrix, in which the protagonist is distracted within a simulation by a woman in a red dress, and fails to notice an inconspicuous man holding a gun. A survivalist grey man is able to capitalise on the inattentional blindness of other people in order to keep himself safe from those who would either see him as a threat (as Selco notes, being prepared for an emergency can be misinterpreted as opportunistically capitalising on an emergency) or strive to steal his well-prepared resources.

Grey man theory is subject to several key flaws, depending on one's context in an emergency.

First, grey man theory is only viable in urban centers. Blending into a crowd requires the existence of a crowd. Remote rural areas not only lack the requisite crowd, but they carry an inherent implication of every household being prepared to fend for itself. A woman living alone in the Montana wilderness is likely to have several firearms and abundant ammunition, in order to deal with bears and other large animals that walk up into her yard routinely. A homesteader family probably has several years worth of non-perishable food and potable water, along with first-aid equipment and cheap veterinary antibiotics, because emergency services may take several hours to reach them if they call for an ambulance, and the nearest grocery store may be prohibitively far away, especially during winter when roads become impassable with ice and snow. The necessity of rural preparedness means that all rural homes are plausible targets for looters, in a SHTF scenario, and no amount of relative inconspicuousness will prevent this. Despite this, the overwhelming majority of doomsday preppers are inhabitants of rural areas: rarely are rural areas a target of major violent crises or epidemics, and they are virtually never the sites of rioting and large-scale looting. People raised in rural areas tend to be encouraged toward stronger self-reliance and distrust toward anybody who hasn't been known by one's family on a first-name basis for generations. Consequently, most people who would find grey man theory most agreeable, are those with the least real use for it.

Second, a grey man is easier to kidnap or mug than a "red woman," because his presence - and consequently, his absence - will not be noticed by nearby third parties who might otherwise be helpful rather than neutral. A forgettable person can disappear without eyewitnesses, but a noticeable person has a much better chance of being remembered and found, or even of being assisted by benevolent strangers, and thereby avoiding kidnapping and mugging. The "bystander effect" has been conclusively debunked since January 2019; in 91% of the 219 CCTV footage clips collected by Lancaster University psychology researcher Richard Philpot, at least one bystander assisted strangers who were being attacked, and if there were several bystanders, usually more than one would assist, rather than stand watching and doing nothing. Even in cases when bystanders only watched an assault, they often gave eyewitness reports to authorities afterward. While being a grey man may help one avoid violence in a SHTF scenario, this identity requires continuous long-term cultivation of habitual inconspicuous appearance and behaviour. One is far more likely to encounter personal violence, than to live through a SHTF scenario, which means being a grey man can work against one's immediate survival in one-on-one violent encounters. Being a red woman can be an excellent way not only to survive such encounters, but to avoid ever finding oneself in such a position: criminals are largely aware that a conspicuous victim will present greater risk of police involvement, than a victim whose absence will go unnoticed, and who witnesses do not remember at all. Between the odds of the respective scenarios, and the fact that a few "red woman" instances can undo years of "grey man" habits, being a grey man can be impractical, bordering on irrational.

Third, being a grey man goes beyond one's surface appearance in public. A successful grey man must opt out of social authenticity: he keeps his political views to himself, conceals his doomsday prepping hobby (as well as any other hobbies, such as marksmanship, hunting, and orienteering, which would suggest to his peers that he might be a prepper), and refrains from giving any identifying information on social media where he might interact with other preppers and survival hobbyists. Selco recommends even keeping this information from one's children, because they might gossip with their peers, who might carry the information back to other parents, who then in an emergency might appear at one's door, hoping for access to one's larder and arsenal. Doomsday prepping, whether by accident or design, has become associated with a number of violent extremist political and religious ideologies that tend to run contrary to the interests of government and polite society, so being outed as a prepper can - regardless one's actual views - get one labeled an extremist, which inherently makes one conspicuous and a likely target for retaliatory ideological violence during an emergency. Concealing such an effort-intensive hobby can be both logistically difficult and socially punishing, and any close friends who learn about the hobby may either assume they are part of one's intended "survival team," or assume one is an extremist who is willing to throw them under the bus in order to survive. Doomsday preppers are often also regarded with the same disdain as tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracy theorists: the more public preppers have open acrimony toward the US federal government, even assuming the government is "out to get them" to a degree that renders them ridiculous to the rest of the population. Either one undermines the sanctity and authenticity of one's social relationships by fully upholding grey man habits, or one undermines the potential benefit of those habits by being communicative about them, and putting a target (and substantial ridicule) on one's own back.

Iron Noder 2019, 10/30

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