This article examines survivalists in online communities and how they manage the stigma assigned to their culture. It explores who survivalists are and then discusses the fringe groups commonly associated with survivalists by the mainstream, set against the backdrop of American apocalyptic belief. Ethnographic examples illustrate survivalists’ conception of their stereotypes, their awareness of unregistered guests observing their online activity, and their methods of stigma management in this context.
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“What if the America you knew was about to change?” These words spanned the tattered flag, spelled out in capital letters the same dim gray as the background. The flag itself was recognizable as American, but within its faded blue square was a diamond of twenty-one stars, not the familiar fifty. The red and white stripes were arranged vertically instead of horizontally. They had browned and deteriorated through exposure to time or smoke or both. The edges were frayed, and in the dead center of the flag was a gaping hole with ragged edges. For some reason, its shape reminded me of the Grinch’s head.
This image of a transformed American flag was part of the header graphic for one of my field sites: an online forum dedicated to the discussion of survivalism. Survivalism, or survival and preparation (S&P), is a set of practices intended to ready individuals for disasters, life-threatening situations, and progressive degrees of social collapse. The beliefs underlying these practices are varied. Generally, the idea is to be able to live through anything, regardless of the environment or circumstances life generates. Survivalists form communities online to share their stories, build a knowledge base, and network with like-minded individuals.
As I was browsing through S&P websites, I was immediately attracted to the site with the tattered and transformed American flag, and the hole torn from its center that reminded me of the Grinch’s head. My mental image of Dr. Seuss’s hateful, green iconoclast may have reflected my own unconscious bias against survivalist culture. The realization that survivalism is stigmatized by the American mainstream propelled me toward the research question I address in this article: What are the stigma management strategies used by survivalists in these online communities?
To answer this question, I will describe who survivalists are generally, and then characterize the specific populations I chose to study. I approach the literature with an emphasis on why survivalists are stigmatized, and how mainstream culture views disasters and apocalypse. As my research was conducted entirely through web forums, I then discuss virtual ethnography as my method, followed by my findings. I conclude by discussing this study’s impact on my perspective and by raising questions for future research.
The Survivors and TEOTWAWKI
In his book, Dancing at Armageddon, Richard Mitchell notes that survivalism “is centered on the continuing task of constructing ‘what if’ scenarios in which survival preparations will be at once necessary and sufficient” (2002, p. 13). The particulars of these imagined futures vary from group to group and individual to individual. By and large, there are two main types of disaster as described by survivalists: WTSHTF and TEOTWAWKI. WTSHTF (or just SHTF) stands for “When the S*** Hits the Fan” and is used to describe any kind of localized emergency, such as blackouts or riots, including those that develop into more serious circumstances. TEOTWAWKI means “The End of the World As We Know It” and refers to an utter and complete change in the social landscape, an apocalypse. These two concepts are not mutually exclusive; a disaster can exhibit characteristics of both. For example, riots may spread and spark a civil war.
In addition to these two levels of intensity, there are other ways to categorize survivalist scenarios. According to Captain Dave’s Survival Guide (an informational website my subjects referred me to) there are four categories of phenomena: natural, man-made, other, and personal emergencies. Natural disasters are events such as hurricanes and earthquakes, volcanoes and tornados. Man-made disasters are those related to terrorism and war, crime, and the collapse of social infrastructure. “Other” disasters include disease epidemics and alien attacks. Robberies, fires, unemployment, and random acts of violence fall under personal emergencies (“Captain Dave’s Survival Guide,” 2009).
The skills, knowledge, and equipment that survivalists accrue often coincide with the disaster scenarios they foresee as most likely or realistic. The potential number of practices involved is immense. Those generally regarded as most important are the ones centered around food, water, and shelter. Among many other things, these include developing rotation systems to successfully store food, learning to identify edible plants, finding and purifying water, using vehicles as shelter, and surviving outside in the cold. First aid is a high priority, as is self-defense using either hand-to-hand combat or weaponry such as guns or Molotov cocktails (“Captain Dave’s Survival Guide,” 2009).
A Question of Stigma
A wide variety of individuals fall under the umbrella of survivalism. Members of citizens’ militias, for example. White supremacists. Millennial cultists and apocalyptic fanatics. Tax protestors. All these can represent themselves as survivalists, but so can the parent who stocks up on groceries for a harsh winter, or the hobbyist who collects communication equipment and becomes an amateur radio operator to aid in emergency broadcasts. Mitchell states that “one sort of survival, the creative transcendence of calamitous cultural change” is what binds these people together (Mitchell, 2002, p. 3).
Practitioners of survivalism exist at many points on the political and religious spectrum. This does not stop the mainstream media from identifying “unrepresentative but accessible confrontations, shootings, bombings, standoffs … by the name survivalism” (Mitchell, 2002, pp. 15-16). The profound impact of domestic terrorism forges a link between survivalists and the right-wing extremists they are commonly associated with, such as the neo-Nazi, racist organizations of the Order and the CSA (the Covenant, Sword, and Arm of the Lord), whose members planned to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. This plan, inspired by a novel called The Turner Diaries, was never carried out by these groups. Unfortunately, it provided a blueprint which Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols elaborated on and executed (Hamm, 1997).
Similarly, millennial groups are often paired with or defined as survivalists, a prominent example being the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. Before the tragic raid on their compound in 1993 that resulted in the deaths of David Koresh and nearly all of his followers, they stockpiled guns and ammunition and illegally modified their weaponry. They also supported their operations through participation in gun shows (Hamm, 1997, pp. 103-117). Organizations such as the Church Universal and Triumphant and the Aum Shinrikyo also combine survivalist practices with apocalypticism (Lamy, 1996, p. 23).
These groups are not representative of the survivalist majority, but in the minds of many, a wide constellation of individuals forms a single lunatic fringe. Mitchell notes that through association with extremist organizations, “other survivalists acquire stigma and perhaps prurient allure unjustified by their own mundane action” (Mitchell 2002, p. 16). As I will detail below, this sentiment was later expressed by several of my subjects.
Survivalists are not solely antigovernment extremists. In Neil Strauss’s popular account of his entry into and exploration of survivalist culture, Emergency, he interacts with billionaires (“B people”) who prepare for economic and social collapse by tying their assets up in complicated financial structures, and purchasing foreign real estate to acquire multiple citizenships and passports. Their plan is to use these in the event of social collapse to escape the United States and retreat to a “bug out location.” In testament to the variety of survivalists, Strauss also learns from environmentalists and naturalists, hunters, FEMA officials, and first responders in his investigation of the culture (Strauss, 2009).
The idea of impending disaster or apocalypse is not actually a deviant ideology at all. Rather, it is embedded deeply in American mainstream culture. Kathleen Stewart and Susan Harding emphasize this point through their broad survey of United States history and the millennial groups and apocalyptic militias that have popped up throughout. In a discussion of pervasive eschatological thought, Stewart and Harding consider how apocalypse transcends the boundary between the religious and secular, and has the potential to unite the general public (Stewart, 1999). In his work, Mitchell recalls how millennialism has played a “dominant role in American sectarian Christianity for more than two centuries,” and declares that “anticipating cataclysmic transformations of society is a venerable American tradition” (Mitchell, 2002, p. 12).
A recent example of this mainstream millennialism can be found in the Y2K event leading up to New Year’s Eve of 1999, and the non-event that followed. As Patkin explains, “Computer programmers, facing machines that were tight on memory, simply identified the year by the last two digits, setting the stage for confusion as computers would read ‘00’ as the year 1900, not 2000” (Patkin, 2009, 3). Although the ultimate result was underwhelming, the fear that widespread disaster was imminent resulted in a third of all Americans planning to “stockpile food, water, and other supplies” according to Lacayo using information from a July 1999 Associated Press poll (as cited in Patkin, 2009, p. 6).
Accompanying the repeated formation of millennial groups and mainstream events like Y2K, popular entertainment constantly delves into apocalypticism. Films such as The Matrix, The Terminator, and 12 Monkeys all envision a post-apocalyptic world from a secular perspective (Ahrens, 2009). Elements of pop culture as diverse as Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (Holba, 2009) and the folk music of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan (Baines, 2009) help create this American eschatology: Buffy through direct reference, Guthrie and Dylan through Dust Bowl ballads and Cold War anxiety. In literature, the Left Behind series is an example of “the increasingly prominent genre of end-times fiction” (Lundberg, 2009, p. 97).
Perhaps the clearest modern example of a cultural fixation on Armageddon is the “war on terror.” John Hall interprets this admirably in his essay, “Apocalypse 9/11.” He discusses how Islamic fundamentalists have consistently approached their acts of aggression from an apocalyptic perspective, portraying their war with the West as the definitive war between Good and Evil. Hall argues that the United States government has adopted that interpretation as well, accepting that it is indeed a holy war and, thus, apocalyptic. Evidence of this is found in the language of public policy, including such phrases as “axis of evil” and “crusade.” Using the war on terror as a defining aspect of an American generation, and comparing it to events such as the Cold War, Hall expresses the idea that apocalypticism has become an increasingly important part of the American way of life (Hall, 2004).
The literature thoroughly establishes that apocalyptic thinking is a normative aspect of American culture. In essence, this recasts most survivalist practices as a rational response, and suggests that the primary reason for stigmatization is association with fringe groups and cultural outliers. Within this contextual framework, I sought to explain how survivalists cope with this stigma, and I used their online forums to do just that.
Virtual Ethnography (and a Dead Man)
During Bronislaw Malinowski’s famed two-year ethnographic immersion in the Trobriand Islands in the early 1900s, he interacted daily with the indigenous peoples, becoming extremely proficient in their language and familiar with their customs. He talked with them face-to-face and he developed relationships. He came to know the people by name, know their families, their likes and dislikes, maybe even their hopes and fears. His fieldwork would set a precedent in anthropology, a high standard for years to come (McGee, 2008, p. 161).
Nearly a century later, I sat in my air-conditioned home office, looking at my flat-screen LCD monitor, drinking a decaf coffee with just the right amount of cream. My pajama pants were exceptionally comfortable that afternoon, or maybe it was the cushion on my blue roller chair. Probably both. Something was bugging me though: I could not decide just how, just the perfect way, to introduce myself to the subjects I had been observing on the internet for the past couple of weeks.
Somewhere, a famous anthropologist was rolling in his grave.
The work I had been doing was called “virtual ethnography.” An emerging realization among ethnographers is that the line between the real and the virtual is blurring. We may be moving away from fieldwork that is bounded in a single place, or even multi-sited. As more and more of our interactions are mediated by technology, ethnographers begin to derive meaning from the interactions between sites or individuals as they are managed through the medium (Jordan, 2009, p.186).
Jordan distinguishes between virtual and hybrid ethnographies by saying that “virtual ethnographies are based on fieldwork carried out exclusively in the virtual world, while hybrid ethnographies explore how people design, encounter, and use the Internet in their physical, real-world lives” (Jordan, 2009, p.184). I had decided to exclusively observe and participate in these online forums without interacting with my subjects in the “real” world.
According to Mitchell, survivalists “for the most part do none of the things that make for easy writing or research. They do not meet or recruit regularly in public, ally with established associations, respond to focused leadership, or recognize a shared agenda” (Mitchell, 2002, p. 15). The internet provided a convenient place to interact with large numbers of the population at once. One of the first websites I studied had approximately 770 members at the time of my research, with varying degrees of activity. Another website I explored had about 180 members, while two other sites recorded over 17,000 members apiece, although the numbers were likely inflated by spam-bots and fake user registrations.
Despite the convenience and accessibility of virtual ethnography, there were some ethical considerations. At first, I found myself just “watching” the survivalists, reading their conversations without announcing who I was or what I was doing. I had not yet created a login name, so I existed to them only as an anonymous guest, what they would call a “lurker.”
The situation created by online discussion boards is difficult to analogize to the real world. Imagine a room full of people all wearing masks, most of them shirtless, but some of them wearing shirts with printed names they have chosen for themselves. Everyone is staring at a wall. On this wall, the Shirts post letters and notes and questions and answers, and the Skins just come in and read them. There I was, a Skin in a mask, turning from the wall to the people and back to the wall, trying to see what the Shirts were doing and why.
On the one hand, I was doing participant observation by being a “lurker.” But I was not there to study the lurkers. In his definitive virtual ethnography, Coming of Age in Second Life, Tom Boellstorff discusses the usage of an unidentifiable persona. He notes that “ethnography is predicated on participant observation, not abstracted observation,” and goes on to say that conducting incognito research “would not allow the tension between participating and observing to produce the kinds of complicity and failure that are necessary for ethnographic knowledge” (Boellstorff, 2009, p.80).
So I started participating. I put on a shirt with the name “rebelsaint” and accepted the forum rules, signed in with my password, and typed out my first post. In total, I submitted 24 posts over three websites during a week-long period. Given the limited window for research, I attempted to blend rapport building with very focused questions. The ability to think carefully before submitting helped immensely. Some of my posts were created specifically to address questions from the users about my work and who I was. A few posts were probing questions in direct response to a specific user’s comments, and others were intended to discuss what I was thinking as a way to test for validity against the population itself.
By the end of the week I had received approximately a hundred replies from various users. I analyzed these discussion threads through open coding to develop workable categories, and gradually refined these categories as my research progressed. This coding and categorization system elucidated certain themes in how survivalists saw their own stigma, their perception of the ever-present lurker, and their various impression management techniques.
A Militant, Racist Cultist Wearing a Tinfoil Hat
If I was to explore how survivalists coped with their stigma, I would need to see certain cultural elements from their perspective. My initial point of focus was the survivalists’ understanding of how they were stereotyped by others. This was more important than how others actually stereotyped them, if there was even a disparity, because their perspective would convey exactly what they felt defensive about and what impressions they tried to manage.
The stereotypes they conceived of were as I expected. One poster gave a detailed list of eighteen attributes that described the stereotypical survivalist as white, Christian, heterosexual, male, independent, self-sufficient, rural, and mechanically minded, among other things. Aside from these demographic type associations, there were four other areas of stereotype consistently mentioned and managed.
The first of these was the militant, anti-government, “guns and bullets crowd” type. It is undeniable that the community expresses a high degree of interest in guns and weaponry, and a generally critical attitude toward the federal government. Frequent associations with domestic terrorism and militias in the literature have already been discussed. The structures of the forums themselves all included a section devoted to firearms, and these categories were within the top two or three most active on the sites (expressed in the number of current viewers or post/thread count).
The second stereotype was the racist, neo-Nazi, White Power type. The connection in the literature is present for this as well; in fact, heavily studied militant groups such as the CSA and the Order were organized around racist ideologies. A poster in one of the forums noted that “more than a couple neo-Nazi and/or white power groups have described themselves as survivalists and people who think of themselves as survivalists have gravitated towards them in the past” (personal communication, July-August 2009).
The third type was the religious cult fanatic, the “doomsdayer” or “doom and gloom types.” According to one poster, there are “always religious groups for which the end of days has ‘obviously’ just begun” (personal communication, July-August 2009). As with the militant and racist types, associations in the literature are evident, including the aforementioned Branch Davidians and other millennial organizations.
The final type was the paranoid, loner, hermit, “tinfoil hat” type. This is the conspiracy theorist who interprets every news event as part of a grand scheme to maintain control over the masses, or the individual who believes that everything they do or say is being recorded and catalogued (neither of which is necessarily impossible, though improbable). Another example of this stereotype was eloquently put by a poster in the forums: “People who are dissatisfied with the world and can’t adapt to living comfortably within it often have a desperate wish that the world really would fall apart” (personal communication, July-August 2009).
That these stereotypes exist in the minds of survivalists creates an environment for community members to define themselves in relation (and generally, opposition) to them. As Goffman has shown, they must negotiate the territory between an imputed virtual social identity and their actual social identity (1963, p. 3). It was my belief that this necessity was exacerbated by the ever-present lurker, the unregistered guests who frequented the forums.
Who’s Behind the Curtain?
On every forum there was a sidebar or footer with stats on it, and it indicated how many people were logged on and observing. This included the number of unregistered guests, and an awareness of the lurker’s existence was made apparent in several threads in the community. Some threads were directed at lurkers specifically, written to be read by them. My belief that the lurker would encourage a need for stigma management was predicated on the idea that the lurker was conceived of by survivalists as an outsider. This turned out to be largely false.
The survivalists’ conception of the lurker was fourfold. The first type of lurker was an obvious one that I had overlooked: a registered or openly affiliated member of the community that simply had not logged in but was still browsing the forums. When asked directly about who they thought the lurkers were, survivalists submitted replies such as, “I’m betting a fair number are us. I clear my cookies about once a day and am not always logged in when I’m reading” (personal communication, July-August 2009). Other examples of this were simply “people who don’t want to join in conversations, but enjoy reading about what other people have to say” (personal communication, July-August 2009). The assumption widely expressed was that this was a very common type of lurker.
A second type was the stigmatizing masses, or members of the mainstream culture that cast survivalists as deviant. This type was referred to as “the enemy,” “the nay-sayers,” “those that think survivalists are extremists/terrorists,” and “anti-gunners who are trying to figure out new insights into what makes pro-gun people tick and how to defeat them” (personal communication, July-August 2009). Although this theme was mentioned several times, the level of concern for them appeared to be minimal. One poster noted that they “probably get bored quickly and move on” (personal communication, July-August 2009).
The third type of lurker envisioned by the community was a member of law enforcement or one of the three-letter governmental agencies: CIA, DHS, FBI, NSA, or ATF. Referred to as “LE people,” they were portrayed as “government snoops trying to pick out any tips to identify who’s who” (personal communication, July-August 2009). The conception of the authority type as lurker elicits the stigma of paranoia and may seem to express the fourth stereotype mentioned above, the “tinfoil hat.” However, the survivalists’ concern that they are being watched by the government may not be entirely unfounded given the historical relationship between law enforcement and survivalist groups. Another obvious validation of this lurker type is that there were registered members of the forums that work in law enforcement (one of the sites even has a private section dedicated specifically to police officers).
The final type of lurker conceived of by the community is the survivalist (or aspiring survivalist) who chooses not to register or log in because they want to avoid association with the culture or because they are paranoid themselves. As stated by a forum member, these are “people who feel as if what they’re doing isn’t normal, or is something to be embarrassed about” (personal communication, July-August 2009). This lurker type creates an interesting dynamic: the very act of trying to avoid association with the culture can itself be an expression of the paranoid stigma and is, thus, identification with the “tinfoil hat” stereotype. The other possibility is that it is a direct attempt to avoid the stigmatization that accompanies the culture.
Impression Management in the Face of Apocalypse
The survivalists’ conception of stereotypes and their awareness of being watched by lurkers combine to create an atmosphere that requires impression management (Goffman, 1963). Although the lurker appears to play a less significant role in creating the need to manage stigma than originally hypothesized, it does seem to operate as a management strategy. Lurking can keep ashamed or paranoid survivalists from being revealed as participants in the culture. This concealment strategy is viewed as mostly short-term by other survivalists, and, once the lurker’s experience of stigma is lessened by other factors, he may elect to begin posting and participating directly. This is not to imply that lurking is primarily a stigma management technique. Almost all fully-fledged members begin by lurking the sites and only post when they are comfortable enough to do so.
An interesting point to note is that although the existence of the lurker probably has a limited effect on the need for stigma management, the community is indeed aware of the lurker’s existence. When someone uses the strategy of lurking to avoid stigma, they increase the pool of lurkers, and, thus, may increase the “lurker effect” on the stigmatized population (including themselves). This could potentially operate as a feedback loop. Further research would need to be conducted to determine the validity and extent of this phenomenon.
Beyond concealing their identity through lurking, survivalists use other impression management techniques online. I noted two primary alternative mechanisms: legitimization and redirection. Legitimization techniques include associating survivalism with authority figures or governmental institutions, and rationalizing survivalism by negatively describing the mainstream culture. Redirection techniques recognize that survivalist stereotypes are partially valid, but insist that they apply only to other survivalists. This is accomplished through humor and direct labeling.
Affiliating survivalism with authority figures, such as police officers or military personnel, can potentially reduce the “guilt by association” effect that repeated links to domestic terrorists and millennial groups have fostered. This strategy seeks to legitimize the culture in the eyes of the mainstream. Entire sections of the websites are dedicated to members who are firefighters, law enforcement, or military. The rules and regulations generally include a ban on discussing illegal activity (including the modification of firearms), and one site declares that “Moderators are free to give cop and military haters 5 day bans at will” (personal communication, July-August 2009). Another site’s rules include recommendations by the Department of Homeland Security for what is tolerable discussion and what is not. Although these could simply be protective measures conducted by administrators of the forums, associating with authority to reformat the survivalist image has its own logic. The majority of survivalists want to be represented for what they really are: law-abiding citizens.
Legitimizing the culture can be approached from a different angle, however. Rather than making positive associations with survivalism directly, it can be done indirectly by attacking and negatively labeling the mainstream culture. This strategy strikes at perceived flaws in the dominant hegemony and argues that survivalists do not exhibit these flaws. The masses are referred to as “sheeple,” “gimme-people,” or “sheep that won’t wake up” (personal communication, July-August 2009) to see the potentially disastrous future before them. One member states, “…of course we have academia, the media, and the left in general who sneer at self reliance, prudence in finance, the right to keep and bear arms and so on which are hallmarks of the survivalist movement” (personal communication, July-August 2009).
This strategy is effective because it aggressively asserts the rational elements of survivalism, and places them in contrast with irrational elements of modern culture. Why would people not train to survive instead of “being brainwashed by mass media nonsense” as one respondent suggested (personal communication, July-August 2009)? Some interesting variations on this strategy occur when members actively blur survivalism with a larger cultural group, such as conservatism or the Libertarian party. This functions to place the survivalist on relatively equal footing with the stigmatizing others of the opposition, and makes counter-stigmatization easier.
Strategies that redirect the application of stigma require an awareness of stereotypes and a partial validation of them, but only as applied to other survivalists. This is accomplished through humor and simple labeling. Joking about stereotypes usually occurs through adopting the persona of a survivalist caricature, and playing the role of the “tinfoil hat,” militant, or “doomsdayer.”
I encountered this immediately after I announced myself on the forums. Although members did express legitimate concern about whether I was actually a student researcher, some mocked this concern playfully. One member’s comment: “Are you with the BATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms]? ARE YOU GOING TO SHOOT MY DOG????!?” (personal communication, July-August 2009). And another: “By the way ‘Mr. Undergrad from North Texas’ (wink, wink) tell the BATFE [the ‘E’ is ‘Explosives’] I’ve sold all of my guns and ammo. There is no need to send the Brownshirts to my house. Thanks and good luck with your ‘project’” (personal communication, July-August 2009).
These examples of humor indirectly identify survivalist culture with common stereotypes and potentially take ownership of them. Alternatively, direct labeling of other survivalists not only alleviates the effects of stigma but also places blame for the cause of stigma. An example (here a forum participant is critiquing a different survivalist website): “…they got too far away from serious discussion, and let the ‘reynolds-wrap[sic]’ crew run amok in every forum” (personal communication, July-August 2009). Or a member’s critique of their own site: “…we sure do have our share of the tin foil hat crowd” (personal communication, July-August 2009).
These management techniques reject stigma by assigning it to others, attempting to reduce it, or by concealing the mark. Perhaps the most crucial management strategy is not a strategy at all, but a phenomenon linked to the core values of survivalism. At the center of survivalism is an intense drive toward personal security through self-reliance and independence. The realization of these values can translate into independence from other’s opinions as well. As an individual moves closer to the core of survivalist philosophy, the need to manage stigma at all is diminished through expression of this self-reliance. From a member of the forums:
Once you’ve decided “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” stigma ceases to exist. It is replaced by resolution and acceptance of obstacles to be overcome. You step beyond the victimization cult promulgated by those who gain by your weakness to become an actualized human being (personal communication, July-August 2009).
Other members echoed this sentiment in different ways. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn, so I don’t have to ‘deal’ with it” (personal communication, July-August 2009). Statements similar to this were often expressed. A common attitude was that if you are getting ready for disaster, cataclysm, or potentially the most significant destructive event in human history, what do you care about how people are looking at you? The awareness among survivalists that their non-actualized members do experience the emotional impact of stereotyping was leavened by this perspective: “Maybe this site helps them move beyond stigma management to where stigma no longer exists” (personal communication, July-August 2009).
Against the backdrop of American apocalypse, some people reject the glut of imagined dystopian futures. Some prepare feverishly for the worst while praying for the best. Some secretly wish for the end of modern society, and a few violently encourage it. Survivalists are burdened by the actions of these few, by the stigma that comes with their affiliations in the public eye. My findings indicate that their methods of dealing with this stigma are varied within their own online communities, but that the most powerful of these is a celebration of the cultural core itself: to be deeply free from everyone else and determined to survive against all odds. The opinions and stigma assigned to them by others are ultimately insignificant in the face of tremendous cataclysm. In this light, survivalism becomes an identity-building process rather than just a preparatory practice. It becomes a creative art of self-definition, a craft. The world may crash around them, but the survivalist seeks nothing less than absolute freedom from the circumstances of history.
On a personal note, I do not consider myself a millennialist, and I do not adhere to any doctrine that proclaims an impending end to the world. I am not inclined to think that if we make contact with alien life it will trigger human extinction. I do not believe in a zombie apocalypse, and I think a “gray goo” scenario is unlikely. I do, however, recognize that nations rise and fall, civil wars erupt, and revolutions occur. Riots, crime, and terrorism are real. Power-hungry megalomaniacs can seize control of governments. Tornadoes and hurricanes can destroy entire cities. I have been without power. I have gone without work. I have slept in the cold. Maybe apocalyptic ideas are embedded in our social consciousness because we know that some day our culture will transform to be unrecognizable to us, whether it is violently or gradually, in the near or distant future. In spending my days actively engaged with survivalist culture, I became more and more aware of the destructive and transformative potential in the present moment. In the final analysis, this seems to be a function of survivalism: to combat feelings of despair and free floating anxiety in an uncertain world. To create the future in a dangerous, dramatic world. To live, survive, and thrive in a world where the s*** could hit the fan at any moment.
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