Alarm bells in her head went off when she spotted a car parked in the painted grid that marks the loading area around handicapped parking. It was a jerk parking job for sure, but for her it was a clue that something more sinister might be afoot. She noted the poor parking job as an “anomaly” and her observation skills went into overdrive.
As the car’s driver darted out of his car and into the store she snapped photos of him, the car and made a mental note of what he wore in case it was needed for later.
Exiting her own car, she pulled out her specially made “tactical hair pins” that double as weapons. She made sure her pepper spray was handy.
She entered the store.
She spotted him.
She started with her own errands while keeping her eye on him.
She noted the exits and was ready to spring into action should anything happen.
He bought cigarettes and left.
He wasn’t a crazed killer. Just a smoker who parked like a jerk.
2020 was the year of the Internet Expert. Where hysteria, mistrust of education, science, and of each other fueled emotions over reason. The above story was shared on social media with a detailed account of the poster’s experience – a play-by-play of what they saw with the goal of sharing with her readers, “Because I went through these steps, I had the confidence that IF something happened, I would be prepared and able to take action immediately. That helped me stay relaxed and present.”
All of this was underscored with the typical, “but my actions weren’t paranoid.”
Not only were they paranoid, they were delusional.
If she was so concerned, why follow him into the store with her mall ninja tools?
What was she going to do?
We’ve all seen bullshit advice on social media, but I gave this one the prize in the category of situational awareness for 2020. It perfectly captures the spirit of the Internet Expert with no actual experience with the topic at hand but spouting off half-baked advice anyway. By parroting concepts and phrases read in books or in conversation with other questionable experts and then passing that off as expertise, our world is awash in information – but very little wisdom.
“Don’t let the tame ones tell you how to live”, is a phrase I use a quite a bit around Asphalt Anthropology especially as I buck up against mainstream self-defense.
There is more to that perspective: I never listen advice about being street-smart from people whose primary experience is the suburbs.
There, I said it.
I’ve been fearful of saying that out loud in fear of alienating others.
But I’m saying it now because posts like the ones above are examples of exactly why you shouldn’t either. There are no shortages of books, classes and “experts” putting material out there that then gets repeated through a filter – and often those filters become Internet experts with no real context for what they are saying.
I’ve avoided writing this article for some time as I was afraid of being perceived as bitchy or catty, or whatever words used to shut women up. Yes, I believe in supporting other women – but not at the expense of other women.
This suburban warrior mentality is laughable, but it is not harmless. It plants the seeds of hyper-vigilance and delusion.
I've written before about the direct line between the influx of military style "self-defense" classes that have been popping up in relatively safe places and
all the "empowered bad-ass" suburbanites losing their minds and escalating minor conflicts to assault. While the images from the insurrection in Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021 indicate the mob was primarily men, Ashli Babbitt was shot dead while busting through a window in the Capitol after a lot of tough talk on social media. On lighter note we have Elizabeth from Knoxville as our comedic relief. In both cases, we see the extremes of when fantasy met reality.
Internet bravado has real life consequences.
I’ll admit, I’ve participated in some bullshit myself. I’ve taught self-defense for over 20 years, and much of it was repeating things I had heard from experts. That status of “expert” has usually been reserved for martial artist or men with military or law enforcement background.
But over the last several years I’ve realized how the experiences of those folks have very little relevance to my own life or that of others who are just trying to go about their lives in dense, public spaces.
What began to shift my perspective was my move to Los Angeles in 2011. Prior to that, I had lived in the relatively tame and homogenous city of Austin, Texas. Before that I grew up in a dense, diverse, working class suburb of Philadelphia. It could be a pretty dicey neighborhood, but all-in-all a pretty low-key place.
Moving to Los Angeles changed everything I thought I knew about self-defense (and I had been teaching for many years!).
So what was different?
It’s hard to qualify, but let’s see if we can quantify it a bit:
City population: 4M
County population: 10M
Annual worldwide tourists: 50M (most of them traipsing right through my own hood with their out-of-place hometown views of the world)
Population density of area in Hollywood: 22k/sqmi
Population density of where I worked in downtown LA: 27k/sqmi
Languages spoken: 220+
Homeless population: 59K
LAPD mental health calls per year: 20k
2 out of 10 of the most dangerous pedestrian intersections in the city as part of my daily commute as I walked to the train.
For the last 10 years this chaotic, multi-lingual, multi-cultural and electric community has been my laboratory to observe, test and refine the common wisdom of mainstream self-defense. One of my favorite pre-COVID activities was long walks, getting “lost” in whatever city I was in.
In Los Angeles a favorite weekend stroll was the 7-ish miles between Hollywood and DTLA making stops in between for light nibbles from a wide range of cuisines that the area offers: Thai, Armenian, Korean, Colombian, Guatemalan, Mexican, French, Filipino... on and on it goes, the opportunities are limitless as I soak in the murals, the languages, the cultures and the street life.
Doing this most often alone as a woman has yielded observations and rich experiences as I’ve dodged trouble here and there – but mostly found people either welcoming and friendly or otherwise indifferent to my existence.
And this is how Asphalt Anthropology was born. It grew out of my observations that many people are at the extremes: either naïve to the world or those who were afraid of their environment. And its exposed a number of self-defense myths commonly held as self-defense "truths".
Asphalt grew out of the fact that in larger, more dense spaces, the rules that might get you by in the suburbs don't have a lot of value here. For example, the standard self-defense advice, “keep your head on a swivel”. That might fly in a more low-key place where someone parked incorrectly is a big deal and generates a lot of excitement. But when I practiced that long-engrained habit in my new environment back in 2011, the information overload was too overwhelming – everything in Los Angeles looks like an emergency!
Discernment is the key. And discernment can be hard when we are overwhelmed with information flooding us from so called experts. The Plandemic is an example of this fraud on a wide-scale, but the self-defense world has been swimming in it for a while now. And it is especially hard to discern misinformation because so many folks don’t have firsthand experience so they can’t tell good information from bad.
A big part of the discernment piece is understanding how the brain works. When exploring neuroscience, the key is to learn from primary sources of experts in that field, and not filtered through non-experts, including (and especially!) myself.
Looking at self-defense through the lens of neuroscience has very practical applications for how we go about our day-to-day. It tells us that “keeping your head on a swivel” and hyper-vigilance actually DECREASES your capacity to discern REAL threats, because everything looks like a threat. There are very real and physical effects of hyper-vigilance on one’s brain that enlarge and thicken the amygdala which ultimately desensitizes it and creates a vicious cycle. [i]
Additionally there are hormonal effects of hyper-vigilance that increase and sustain levels of cortisol that have far reaching implications for our health and longevity. [ii]
These outcomes aren’t good in any environment, but are absolutely unsustainable in more dense places – hence, I don’t take self-defense advice from people living in the suburbs.
And neither should you.
Consider the Source - You Might Be a Bigger Expert Than You Realize
A few months back I had a friend, we’ll call her, “E”, reach out to me with and urgent, pressing desire to take a self-defense class. She had seen a post on Instagram - it was one of those scare-tactic videos that showed someone getting assaulted on the street.
The point of the post was along the lines of, “social conventions and norms dictate that most people don’t walk around attacking other people... but you should be prepared because you never know when someone will go off that script!”
I was aghast.
E was convinced she needed to take self-defense after seeing the post. But I knew something of E’s background so I asked her when was the last time she was in the city and something started to go awry. She described walking home late one night on a deserted street when a man began to follow her. I don’t remember all the details, but she was able to handle herself by addressing the man directly and convincing him she was a hard target. She made it home safely.
Now, I’m not against E learning self-defense skills and adding to her arsenal. My goal of that conversation, however, was to talk her out of the fear she was experiencing created by that nonsense social media post.
I happen to know that E is a brilliant woman with an advanced degree, dual citizenship between the U.S. and a European country. She's traveled the world, and has handled herself effectively on more than one occasion when threats arose.
I also know a bit about the person who posted the video with the scare tactic message: she lives in a small midwestern city and has gotten her situational awareness information from books, other social media accounts and Bourne Identity movies.
Once I was on a panel to discuss travel safety where she was included. Her advice boiled down to “blend in”. That's probably not the worst advice in the world if everyone looks and sounds like you where ever you go. In her case she had only traveled from her small mid-western city to Orange County, California and Australia so that might take care of some general safety concerns if that is the size of your world.
But E’s world is bigger than that.
Don’t let the tame ones tell you how to live. And definitely don’t take their self-defense advice.
Notes: [i] Stanley, E. A. 2019. Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma. New York. Avery. [ii] Nagoski, E., Nagoski, A. 2020. Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. New York. Ballantine Books.