Monday, September 5, 2016

Bros are actually good

Finally, Gilgamesh threw the wild man and with his right knee pinned him to the ground. His anger left him. He turned away. The contest was over. Enkidu said, "Gilgamesh, you are unique among humans. Your mother, the goddess Ninsun, made you stronger and braver than any mortal, and rightly has Enlil granted you the kingship, since you are destined to rule over men." They embraced and kissed. They held hands like brothers.
Reflecting on this passage from Gilgamesh, two things stand out to me. First, by the time this - one of our oldest surviving texts - was written, "like brothers" was already a simile the audience would have understood. The notion of brotherhood, not just as a familial relationship, but as a special kind of interpersonal bond, emerges from the mists of prehistory in the third millennium BCE already fully formed; it strikes me as probable that the idea has been with us for nearly as long as we've had language. As Jaynes notes, "In early times, language and its referents climbed up from the concrete to the abstract on the steps of metaphors" - and the biological fact of siblings has always provided a rich, immediate and obvious basis for such abstractions.

Whatever its ultimate origins, the presence of such similes in Gilgamesh reminds us that brotherhood has always been a ubiquitous and honored facet of human culture. Colonialist historian George McCall Theal complained of South Africans that "they claim every other person they meet as a brother or sister." In the Phra Malai Klon Suat, the buddha Maitreya explains that he will not appear until "the people of [the human realm]...love each other as if they were one family - like brothers and sisters". The Proverbs of Solomon praises the "friend who sticks closer than a brother." Plato, in his imagined utopia, insisted that "her citizens they are to regard as...their own brothers." Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed that "the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners [would] be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood"; and Engels praised the belief that "Every one should be a brother to each other" as proof of "a budding revolutionary spirit".

A second feature of the Gilgamesh passage - which happens to emerge repeatedly in the other examples I've noted - is the distinctly progressive cultural character of brotherhood. The relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu has long been understood as a metaphor for both the civilization of humanity (in Enkidu's departure from the steppe) and the humanization of civilization (in Gilgamesh's grappling with the facts of friendship and death). Even the signifiers of their friendship - the physical affection of embracing, kissing, and the holding hands, all in reconciliation after conflict - are in tension, as brotherhood has always been, with what today we would characterize as heteronormative toxic masculinity.

Similarly, the view of brotherhood recounted by Theal is immediately implicated in anti-colonialism in its rejection of Eurocentric norms ("Among the natives of South Africa relationship is viewed differently from what it is by Europeans," Theal complains). Maitreya understands brotherhood as a force of sympathy at odds with reactionary provincialism - it emerges when we are "concerned even about those far away". Solomon understands brotherhood as a form of solidarity and social stability, contrasting those who stand together with "unreliable friends [who] soon come to ruin"; Plato, similarly, points to the solidarity of brotherhood as a basis for citizenship (it is our sympathy with each other that should compel us to "advise [the state] for good, and to defend her against attacks"). MLK recognized brotherhood as a force for antiracism, and Engels, of course, as a motive for revolution.

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It'd be obtuse to insist that the recent political pejoration of the word "bro" expresses some open liberal rejection of brotherhood as such - but the term still begs for an explanation. In the face of a deep and abiding cultural fondness for bros, rooted in both progressive values and one of the most intimate human relationships that exist, a handful of media activists have taken it upon themselves to wield it as a term of abuse. What stake do they have in fighting this uphill battle? Where are these negative connotations of "bro" coming from?

As it so often does, etymology provides us a clue. From Here Comes the Berniebro, widely credited with coining the term:
The Berniebro, now that you think about it, was the kind of person who’d show up to a college party in a toga. You remember it maybe being the Berniebro’s profile picture once.
Obviously, what the author has in mind here is the frat bro - but it's striking, particularly in this article, how utterly vacuous that designation actually is. Consider the standard criticism of fraternities:
  • Frat bros are unserious jocks and partiers. The Berniebro, however, is serious to the point of humorlessness ("His face does not seem to entertain the possibility that [jokes at Sanders' expense] could ever be humorous"); and he is directly politically engaged, as he "always writes with an urgent, anxious seriousness when discussing national politics". 
  • Fraternities are known for their implication in rape culture. There's nothing even approaching that accusation here; at worst, the Berniebro is a feminist, but an allegedly "performative" feminist.
  • Frat bros are elitist and "heritage"-obsessed reactionaries. Berniebros, however, want to "change the country" by "nominating an actual democratic socialist" and advocating "highly principled, pie-in-the-sky progressive policies".
There is, that is to say, little about the "bro" of liberal imagination that corresponds to the usual political criticism we have of people in fraternities. Nor does it even correspond to the general cultural stereotypes. The various activists, media figures, and trolls routinely implicated in "brocialism" are hardly distinguished by their love of beer pong, or the Dave Matthews Band, or any unusual athleticism; they are not guys who wear Eddie Bauer polos or backwards Tapout hats; off the top of my head, I don't know of a single Jacobin writer or reader who was ever involved in an actual fraternity. 

***

So even if we consider its narrower, frat-related sense, we're still no closer to figuring out why the "bro" has come to play such a pejorative role in liberal rhetoric. I suspect this is why, little more than a year after its popularization, the term has already become stale - the province of lazy hacks and out-of-touch pundits - and why others have already begun migrating over to the functionally identical prefix "alt-". The term simply has no connection to the lived experience of most of the population, and no rhetorical resonance outside of exceedingly narrow media circles.

Notably, Here Comes the Berniebros' author has tried to distance his own piece from frat associations - he ridicules the objection "that Berniebros per se aren't canonical PBR-chugging bros," and insists that "Bro long ago took on a way more fluid, more interesting definition", namely
An adult male whose social life revolves around collegiate homosocial bonding and who also presents himself in a way that assimilates to the prevailing aesthetic of men with similar socialization patterns...a bro is a young, usually unmarried, often immature guy who just does what everyone else his age seems to be doing. 
This strikes me as revisionism: the original Berniebro essay says nothing about being unmarried, for example, or conformist, but it does place him in a toga, and confers on him an interest in "jangly bearded bands." What seems more likely is that the author, for the same reason that he wrote his initial essay in the second person, is distancing himself from owning personal specific grievances with fraternities - while still playing on whatever personal grievances his readers might have with them.

Still, if we accept this new definition, I think it explains a lot; set aside the question-begging judgment that Berniebros / brocialists are immature, and what remains are two points of anxiety. First, a bro is "young", and "does what everyone else his age seems to be doing"; and second, he engages in "homosocial bonding" characterized by "similar socialization patterns" (often with "a group of 5 or 6 other" bros).

Put this way, it's perfectly obvious what the "bro" slur is about: utterly banal generational and in-group/out-group conflict. 

On one hand, olds - and conservative young people who've internalized the perspective of their elders - see kids these days as faddish and conformist; this is how the Boomers were seen by their parents, and how Gilgamesh's parents saw him just a few years earlier. That's why the "bro" slur is so "fluid" (read: general); it just devolves into the vague disapproval by reactionaries of modern culture, which can be articulated and taxonomized however you like.

On the other hand, the anxiety about "similar socialization patterns" and the "groups" that "bros" move in suggests that much of this devolves into sheer tribalism. Out-groups look at the bonding that emerges among in-groups, and at the shared culture that emerges among them, and predictably see all of this as artificial and motivated; what matters is not that these Berniebros and brocialists all wear togas or drink PBRs, but that they are all the same in some (shifting and often unspecified) sense. "Bro" is the empty signifier of that sameness - and it's the signifier because what animates their anxiety, whether liberals know it or not, is consciousness of emerging comradery and solidarity among their opponents.

That's why even women, we have learned, can be bros: what is at stake here is not some critique about gender norms, but rather concern about the brotherhood and sisterhood of the opposition. As noted, these have always been progressive forces in human history, mobilizing our empathy, our shared humanity, and our collective power against the forces of oppression; to call someone a "bro" is simply to see her as part of a larger collective, one with shared norms and politics that have brought them together. And that's all it has ever meant - "bro" is nothing more than the sarcastic "comrade" the last generation of capitalists sarcastically hurled at communists, a last-ditch attack on the power of a unified left.