I am not your brother.
I am not your “bro,” your “brah,” your “brohem,” your “brotha” or your “brother kinsman.”
Yes, that’s a thing.
I am also not your “bud,” or your “buddy.” Unless we’re actually buddies. Then that’s fine, though I can’t think of any of my buddies who I actually address as “bud” or “buddy.”
To my ear, “buddy” always sounds a little forced and manipulative, like something some socially awkward, okely-dokely supervisor would call you right before he gave you a menial task.
If you’re actually my buddy, I’ll probably call you something stupid or some insulting nickname that we’ll both think is funny.
Or at least I’ll think it’s funny.
I do call my dog “buddy,” but I also named him Bruder, and since I feel guilty if I leave him alone at the house for more than 5 hours, he probably means a lot more to me than most of the men who call me “brother.”
If you’re a man, I’ll probably call you “man” as a gesture of respect — indicating that I recognize you as a man, and not a boy or woman or one of those damned urban elves.
If you’re a man, then you’re a man, and I’m a man, but being men doesn’t make us brothers any more than it makes us cousins.
If you call me “cuz,” then we will never become buddies, friends, allies or friendly associates.
If you’ve called me brother in the past, I was not “offended.”
Please do not apologize.
I know you meant it in a friendly way. It’s OK. We’re cool. We’re just not brothers.
Unless we are. And if we are, we both know it.
It’s not that I think men who aren’t brothers by blood can’t become brothers, spiritually. I co-authored a book on blood-brotherhood. From the Azande tribesmen of Central Africa to the early American boys characterized in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, men throughout history and on every habitable continent have developed formal or informal rites to make their friends into family. Sworn brotherhoods have always been taken seriously, and in many if not most cases, they were believed to supercede all other human bonds in importance.
So it’s not that I believe friends and allies can’t become brothers. I just don’t take the word “brother” lightly. And if you believe that the word “brother” actually means something — if you believe that brotherhood is important — neither should you.
One feature common to sworn brotherhoods throughout history is that they formalize an understanding of mutual obligation. Blood-brotherhood rites often include the promise of a curse on the brother who betrays his oath or turns his back on his blood-brother. Like brothers by birth, blood-brothers are expected to stand by each other and help each other out.
Even when they don’t want to. Even when they think their brother did something stupid. Even if it’s going to hurt.
Family implies responsibility and interdependence far beyond mere friendship or mutual admiration. It follows that created families should carry a comparable weight and burden of mutual obligation.
When men refer to each other as “brother” casually, they are imposing a fictive kinship to create a sense of unity between relative strangers.
Christians and Muslims alike have long been known to call strangers “brother” when they share the same religion.
American blacks referred to each other as “brothers” and “sisters” for decades. This reached its height in the heydey of the black power movement, as an attempt to create a sense of community and shared fate among American blacks. Blacks were even referred to collectively by other groups as “brothers,” though this is now considered politically incorrect for some fickle reason. Tarantino and others revived the funky blaxploitation vibe of the black power moment in pop culture, and references to “brothas” and “sistahs” continue to be used ironically and unironically on all channels of the mainstream media. The black power movement also inspired a variety of artists during that time who made undeniably good pop and soul music that still influences artists today who want to “‘rage against the machine” or “rise up” against the man.
The black power movement influenced the white power movement, and I’m pretty sure I’ve had guys call me brother because I’m white, or because I’m a heathen.
Richard Holt, writing for the Guardian, made an interesting point about the word “bro,” when it was revealed that Barack Obama occasionally called David Cameron his “bro.” Holt argued that by honoring someone with a name like “chief” or “boss” or even “bro,” a man is essentially saying that he feels comfortable and perceives no threat from the man so-honored. One could hardly imagine Obama referring to Putin as his “bro.”
Broadly speaking, there’s also a kind of feel-good, hippie angle to calling someone “brother” that comes across like one of those guys who ends every message with “PEACE.” You know, the guy who probably smoked a lot of ganja when he was going through his extended Bob Marley or Jamiroquai period. In his terminal chillness, he’s imposing the biggest kinship of all — the brotherhood of all humanity.
Like, one people, one world…brother.
Being one people on one planet hasn’t really ever meant enough to stop people from murdering each other or fucking each other over, so to my ear it comes across either spacey and naive or sleazy and saccharine.
A man who calls every man a brother is a brother to no man.
Like I said, if you’ve called me brother, I was not offended.
But as time goes on, I’ve realized that the majority of my career as a writer has been about zooming in on words and getting men to think about the way we use words as symbols for concepts that shape our personal worlds, identities and communities.
What is “masculinity”…what does it mean to be a “man”…what is “courage”…what is “honor”…what is a “tribe”…who is “we”…who is a “brother?”
All of these questions, all of these “words” matter.
If you say that brotherhood matters to you, why is your brotherhood so cheap? Why is it given so freely? Do you ask nothing in return for your brotherhood? What does your brotherhood offer?
These big-tent, open-flap brotherhoods that seek to unite large groups of people are all political manipulations. The big brotherhood projects the personal obligations of familial relationships impersonally, onto collections of strangers identified by a given trait that supposedly makes them “one.” Black. White. Male. Christian. Muslim. Human. By invoking the familiarity of brotherhood, people can be “guilted” into making personal sacrifices for strangers or people who they barely know — for the common cause. I’m not going to evaluate and dismiss every potential common cause between strangers here. Depending on the times and circumstances, I may be moved to find some more valid than others. I do think it’s important to be aware of the intent of the rhetoric.
I’m not personally comfortable extending my brotherhood to strangers. It’s too much to be on the hook for. There are too many unknown variables. I expect to have to earn the brotherhood of another man and likewise, he will have to earn mine. My brotherhood comes at a cost. I expect loyalty and reciprocity.
The only man who I call brother who I am not formally oathed to has been my friend for about ten years, and I know that he would do anything to help me if I needed it. I would do anything to help him, too. I trust him with my life. However, because I respect the gravity of that commitment, being a good brother also means carrying my own weight and taking enough responsibility for my own actions that I don’t need to call for that lifeline very often. When I call him for help, it’s either because I think he’ll enjoy doing what I need a hand with, or because I really need help.
That’s what brotherhood means to me. My brotherhood comes with strings attached. Actually, they’re more like chains. My brotherhood means that we’re in this together all the way to the end of our lives or our friendship. We only get out dead or dead to each other.
Is that what you meant when you called me “brother?”
I don’t think so.
Photo by Peter Beste.