I was scrolling through Twitter the other day and noticed a phrase I’d never seen before but perfectly encapsulates where I think a lot has gone wrong. Weapon Outfitters, a shop I recommend a lot of the time and a killer photographer to boot, mentioned the phrase “Flex Culture” in the context of night vision and Instagram. The phrase has apparently been around for a while, but this was my first time seeing it and it’s stuck with me every since.
While there I noted that I’ve been in the NODs space ever since BE Meyers was kind enough to lease us space for a bit back in 2014-15, and it’s been nuts seeing the night vision market explode.— WeaponOutfitters.com (@WeaponOutfitter) January 21, 2023
We believe it was driven by Instagram and flex culture
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this phrase touches on the very problem affecting shooting community and many others- especially fitness. The “flex” is showing off equipment or activities to make someone look more impressive, especially when compared to “the poors.”
The issue of flex culture shows up in two ways that I think are directly harming us, and I want to talk about that and what we can do to combat it.
FOMO and Gatekeepers
The flex culture coin has two sides here. The first is marketing personalities who for whatever reason have amassed enough wealth that they can buy (or receive as samples) nearly anything they want. I call these the FOMO types. The others are a group of enthusiasts who try to establish themselves high in the hierarchy through the application of money rather than performance.
Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)
This first group is your classic internet influencer. They go about showing off their toys on social media, particularly Instagram and YouTube, and start telling everyone else that they need to buy the “thing” or else you’re going to be ineffective (at best) or die (at worst).
It’s not just the gun world, but also fitness, amateur radio, survival, or really anywhere there is money to be made from presenting a particular image.
For folks who are relatively inexperienced, this drives a huge fear of missing out (FOMO). They don’t know what they don’t know, but the person they’ve come to trust is telling them they need something. So they make bad financial decisions and go into huge amounts of debt or put off investing in actual training that would serve them better than the latest “thing.”
Even worse is the influencers who lie about it. I see this a lot in the fitness space where shredded looking dudes make you think they got to where they are by doing silly exercises and eating a copious amount of broccoli, rice, and chicken. If you knew that they also took steady doses of steroids, then it ruins the image and message that “hard work and discipline are all you need to be like me.”
Whereas I think many FOMO influencer types range from disingenuous to downright malicious, the other side of the coin is the gatekeepers. I have a real problem with gatekeepers.
In nearly any community, especially online ones with some anonymity, you inevitably form hierarchies. All too often, the people at the top of the pyramid are those who give off the appearance of being the most committed or most talented.
Since this is the internet and you never really get to know people personally, and proper vetting is difficult, it’s easy to appear to be more capable by spending more money on ever more expensive equipment. They aim to be rather than do.
Invariably, the gatekeepers seeking their position higher in the pecking order through the application of money turn around tell tell others something to the effect of, “Well…if you aren’t willing to do what I’ve done, then you aren’t actually serious.”
Eventually, enough of these gatekeepers show up and pump each other up. This makes it look like consensus, and it exerts peer pressure on those “below” them.
This is the mentality that leads you to think that you need a $4,000 night vision monocular, or you aren’t serious. But if you have a single tube PVS-14, then you are still going to die because you should have gotten dual tubes. But even if you spent $10,000 on dual tube white phosphorus, you’re still not serious because you should have spent $30,000 on quad tubes GPNVG. Even then, you’re still going to die because you didn’t also spring for another $9,000 ECOTI thermal clip ons.
All the while, nobody bothered to ask the question of why the average person needed night vision to begin with, the actual probability of ever using it for more than just a toy, and just how far that person could go by practicing some tactical minimalism and becoming extremely skilled in the basics.
What to Do About Flex Culture
I should be clear about something. It’s not a secret that I advocate for a “buy nice or buy twice” attitude. I think there is benefit to spending enough money to get something that reliably serves you for the majority of your shooting needs. That doesn’t mean going to the high end of the market, either. If a $1200 rifle will do 90% of what an $8000 rifle will do, then I’m hard pressed to tell you that you need to spend that $8,000.
I will also never look down upon someone or tell them they aren’t serious because they chose to get the more affordable option. There’s a lot to be said for smart financial decisions, and a lot of people show poor judgement there by going into debt unnecessarily.
I’m not saying that there isn’t room to acquire nice equipment and tell you about it. Sometimes we all want to hear about that thing that might be a once in a lifetime purchase, or we’re just curious. The catch is that they’re honest about benefits and provide suitable alternatives when available.
It’s not a marketing pitch to make anyone feel like they made a mistake.
Remember the Basics
One active military member of the community relayed a story to me recently that I thought was relevant. While on an exercise in the Netherlands, they simulated an insurgency conflict with one “team” equipped with modern night vision, thermal, communications, and all the trappings. The other operated low-tech.
Knowing the technological disadvantage they were at, the low-tech insurgent team leaned hard into the basics of fieldcraft and infantry skills. After a few days of this without resupply, the high-tech team’s batteries started running low and much of their advantage faded away. Since they were relying heavily on their technological advantage rather than hard soldiering skills, the advantage flipped and the insurgent team took the lead.
I relay this story because I think there’s a lesson there. Despite the flexing of the latest and greatest by those who seek to impress you or make you feel inadequate, the real advantage will always go to those who master the fundamentals.