Bros Before Everything

I had a bit of a freakout last week. Maybe that’s not the right word. Crisis? That seems to involve decision-making. Breakdown? Nah, I could still function. Normal reaction to the world in all its horror? Yes, that’s it.

I had finally read an article I had set aside for months – about femicide in Mexico. I was too devastated and revolted to sleep after reading the details of the gang rape, mutilation, and murder of a preteen girl when I last picked it up, a few months back. But this was broad daylight, and it seemed important. I topped that off with a piece about the Police unions in Vanity Fair’s Breonna Taylor issue. I can’t even remember the other unmentionables of that day, but let’s throw in a few additions from the last week – another gang rape of a young Dalit woman in India, ICE officers taking children from their fathers in the Immigration Nation documentary, Muslims beaten to death and scapegoated in India, every Trump rally, even college fraternities flagrantly flouting social distancing rules.

It’s all about the Bros.

Groups of guys – especially groups of young, rich White guys – have often scared and disgusted me. I was the the obnoxious, goth freshman girl screaming Fuck the Greeks! on Fraternity Row every alcohol-induced chance I got. I’ve always been ready to stereotype, but despite my aversion, I have underestimated the power and danger of the Bro group. It’s more than toxic masculinity: it’s blind obedience that is the threat. Toxic masculinity may guide the group ethos, but without Bro loyalty, it would have no following.

Fraternities are an obvious example, but they’re just a play-acting version of military brotherhood, which is perhaps an attempt to imitate the group cohesion actually necessary when fighting predators and hunting for food back in the “back when” times. I am utterly ignorant in the ways of military life, so Hedges’ book War is a Force that Gives us Meaning was enlightening not only on the individual addiction to the life-threatening energy of war, but for his widely accepted assertion that soldiers overwhelmingly fight not out of a sense of mission, or nationalism, or ideology, or even fear; but out of love for their brothers in arms, friendships formed out of abuse and stress and isolation and absolute interdependence. One could argue that without that brotherhood, and the psychological tactics that create and enforce it, there would be little war at all. These guys (and women) don’t have time to evaluate the justness of the battle; they’re worried about protecting their buddies. It’s admirable and terrifying. What wouldn’t they do to protect their fellow soldiers? Protection doesn’t stop when the bullets stop: the brain doesn’t work that way. If you are loyal to your bunkmate in battle, you’re also loyal when he drunkenly beats up a civilian in a bar, or rapes someone, unless your attachment to the people or standard under threat is stronger than your attachment to your bro. Bro group masterminds work hard to ensure that doesn’t happen.

It is hard for a person like me to fathom a method to the madness of gang rapes and mutilations in Mexico. I can see some twisted logic in physically demonstrating the price of noncompliance to the enemy, but the gruesomeness of it is still beyond me. A journalist intimate with these monstrosities said in the Harper’s article that bonds are formed through complicity, and criminal groups create complicity through crime. “When it’s a femicide, when corpses are mutilated, it doesn’t have so much to do with her. It’s a message between them, within the band. It’s something symbolic, done to the body of a woman.” The brutality is the point, and the less human, the less sympathetic the “other,” whatever that other is, the easier it is to remain loyal to the group. Toxic masculinity objectifies the women, but again that is just a small part of it. The groups are bonded through their collective horrific acts; they are all complicit and they all share in each other’s blame and unspoken shame. No one is turning on or turning in anyone else.

Unfortunately policing, a career with the stated intent of serving the public, often follows the same rules of soldiers under fire, street gangs, and mafias. Reports from cops released from, or on the margins of, the Blue brotherhood describe a community in which everyone who is not on the team is characterized as an enemy often a deadly enemy, and Backing the Blue takes precedence over everything else, including laws and morality. If that isn’t enough to ensure allegiance, forced participation in illegal activities has sometimes been used to coerce silence as well. This kind of cult mentality is what compels 57 police officers in Buffalo, NY to resign from the emergency response team when 2 members are suspended from policing duties after actively causing a brain injury in an unarmed 75-year-old peace activist. Why exactly they resigned is debatable, but the sequence of events is clear. Brotherhood that blindly swears allegiance to the belief that cops can do no wrong creates a police force that terrorizes cities, particularly poor people and people of color in cities. Again, the racism is just a part of it (given, a seminal part of it). The culture of us against them, and the refusal to point the finger at another brother (who may be a sister, who may be Black) is essential to creating an unjust system.

This brings up another aspect of the Bro cult philosophy: it usually involves victimhood. The idea that you are under threat (true in war; true if you’ve picked a fight with a rival gang) is a weird part of this macho, aggressive psychology. There’s far more incentive to defend your compadres if you are all being attacked. So fraternities say their first amendment rights are threatened if they’re penalized for throwing parties during a quarantine. And police feel the need to proclaim Blue Lives Matter, even though police and related law enforcement jobs are, with fire fighters, the only professions in which the killing of a member automatically generates a capital felony charge. Blue lives clearly matter in our legal system. I’m not opposed to that. But qualified immunity means the lives of those killed by police routinely don’t matter. Bro groups use their power to make themselves appear victimized, thus strengthening group loyalty and empowering themselves further.

The protectorate of Bros exists to provide a united front against anything that questions their power, so that they can do what they want without concern for the consequences. If Bros have power, if they have enough power, the only thing that can take them down is the defection of a Bro.

How do you keep a Bro from defecting? By crafting intimate bonds that are far stronger than any discomfort with any bro’s objectionable action; by making the group esoteric, hard to get into, ultimately fully accepting of each member in all his eccentricities, and an essential part of his life. Even better, by involving him in something so criminal or shameful that he puts himself at risk if he chooses conscience over loyalty and betrays the Bros. Some Bro groups, like cults, encourage or insist upon the detachment of their members from outside friends or family, even sacrificing all their worldly possessions, so that they lose everything if they lose the group. Standing up can be dangerous. There are usually punishments. You may be mocked, you may be called stupid, a traitor, a deserter, a rat. You may even put your life or freedom at risk. Look at Serpico. You will probably be gaslighted; you will be told that what you think is true is actually false; that what you think it moral is actually evil. The people who say this may even believe it, which makes it harder to challenge them. I don’t have an easy answer for avoiding groupthink, but inasmuch as I have succeeded, I can attribute it to independent study, meditation, an obsession with logic, and compassion. We’d probably do well to pay more attention to whistleblowers.

The fact is, we all become Bros at one time or another. We don’t even have to be forced into it. We excuse members of our own political parties for doing things that we would find unforgivable on the other side. We say our friend is just joking when she says something that we would call out as racist in our enemies. The fact is our brains (yes, all brains) work really, really fucking hard and are always looking for ways to make life easier for us. Thinking hard, thinking slow, burns calories. We are wired to conserve energy. If we can ally ourselves with a group that always knows what’s right and what’s wrong, that makes living more efficient and convenient. Your brotherhood may even be right some of the time, or most of the time. It may be an activist organization with the best intentions, but any group can be swept away by its own passions or power. Good groups need their members to keep them current and flexible and compassionate and transparent. Allegiance should never be blind – to our country, our party, our religion, our friends, not even our actual brothers. Trust is nice, but vigilance is essential to democracy.

The one thing Trump rewards is loyalty. For me, that’s reason enough to question its value.

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