Maybe we can at least find a more elegant way to proclaim our loyalty without calling women ‘hoes.’
Oscar Wilde once wrote that ‘to be popular one must be a mediocrity.’ It’s a clever quip, a cheeky way of saying that to be popular is to be mainstream, i.e. not unique. One might derive a corollary from this aphorism and say that popularity is a mask behind which an unexamined soul takes refuge. To aspire to popularity is to seek fulfillment in conformity to fads rather than in tending to the content of one’s soul. The éclat of mass appeal is like the pageantry of an emperor who imagines himself in brilliant raiment while oblivious to the reality that he stands naked before a crowd, while the crowd adores him only because no person has the gall to point out the obvious and risk being an outcast.
The analogy of an emperor with no clothes seems harmless enough—a cute parable to illustrate the vacuity of a fatuous obsession and the alacrity with which a crowd defers to pomp. But what about when coveting popularity, or deferring to it, makes one susceptible to the trespasses of moral compromise?
In March, a story broke that D’Angelo Russell, a professional basketball player for the Los Angeles Lakers, secretly recorded a video in which teammate Nick Young admitted to cheating on his fiancé, rapper Iggy Azalea, with a nineteen-year-old woman at a club. Then the video was leaked and ended up on the gossip site Fameolous.
A merciless backlash ensued. Teammates isolated Russell. Professional athletes all around lambasted him. Crowds booed him. It was as if people from all corners were incensed by his alleged transgression and felt compelled to express their disapproval as vociferously and sternly as possible.
D’Angelo Russell was suddenly a very unpopular professional athlete.
One may reckon there are many reasons for the backlash: people assumed Russell had ulterior motives; he was reckless and immature; he exercised poor judgment; former star Shaquille O’Neal suggested it was an accident stemming from a youngster’s motive to get new followers on social media.
But perhaps there is another, more fundamental reason for the backlash: Russell had committed a flagrant violation of the ‘bro code.’ That’s right, ‘bro code,’ as in, code among brothers, i.e. male friends, buddies, pals, whatever you want to call them.
The ‘bro code’ runs deep among men, and it runs wide.
Yet one is tempted to ask: what, in fact, is it?
I, and I venture to say most men, have not subjected the code to rigorous examination. In fact, I’m not confident I could deliver a competent lecture on it, in all its gory detail, if you asked me to hold a seminar on it. If I tried to hazard an attempt, it would more likely come out as a random discharge of half-truths and superficial memes drawn from a lifetime of conversations with male friends. It would certainly not be a fine-tuned list of rules to live by which I could claim are universally honored among men. It would be more like a fan talking about a sport he watches but has never played or studied like a coach or commentator: it’s a topic that inspires great passion and strong opinion and fervent camaraderie, but not necessarily something a man knows a lot about.
Nevertheless, ‘bro code’ is something a guy learns as he grows up into a man. To the extent there is anything systematic about it, it is the codification of a culture in which men are immersed from the time they first begin to navigate the intricacies of masculinity and male relations in our society. Over time, it becomes what a Supreme Court judge once said about pornography: ‘I know it when I see it.’ And part of knowing the code is feeling like it is a secret you’re not supposed to divulge, like ‘bro code’ is akin to something out of freemasonry or Skull and Bones—as much as I could certainly conjure up a bunch of (half-baked) ideas of what it is, a man is supposed to know, not tell.
But ‘bro code’ is at best an open secret. A quick Google search brought me to a site that lists 184 rules that comprise the so-called code. As I read through the list, I found myself nodding and grinning, i.e. intuitively acknowledging the truth in many of them. I wasn’t necessarily nodding or grinning in approval. Many of the rules do not shine a flattering or progressive light on modern masculinity. In fact, while some are a matter of common courtesy (“33: A Bro leaves the toilet seat up for his Bros”), many indicate that bros are immature ruffians who never grow up. Yet as a man I have to acknowledge that many of the rules are indisputably ingrained in the male psyche, and there are a few that reflect some, ahem, Neanderthal attributes of modern masculinity, as if men are mere brutes.
They range from the ridiculous:
- “177: If a bro dies while lifting weights, the other bro shall add more weight to the bar before dialing 911”
to the stereotypical,
- “4: Whether a Bro is into sports or not, a Bro picks a team and supports them until his dying breath”
to the homophobic,
to the hilarious,
to the downright novel,
- “162: If a bro finds out a girl he has slept with has a serious boyfriend, if possible, he will leave a quarter/penny/coin under his shaving foam or deodorant as an apology and a signal to that bro to get rid ASAP.”
That said, I am not displeased to announce that some rules would exclude me from the fraternity of bros if complete obedience to all rules is a condition of inclusion. For example, I am in proud violation of at least two of them:
and, as my opening sentence makes clear,
But the number one rule of ‘bro code’ to which (as I can attest as a man) absolute obedience is a critical condition for inclusion in the hallowed society of brotherhood, is, crudely stated:
- “1: Bros before hoes – A ‘hoe’ is defined as any woman that is not your wife or any other direct family.”
I’ve heard ‘bros before hoes’ so many times I lost count. It’s the motto that comes to mind when someone mentions the ‘bro code.’ I don’t remember the first time I heard it, but I am sure it was early on in my entry into manhood. I have not ceased to hear it since. On the face of it, it seems straightforward and essentially self-explanatory. Women and relationships come and go, but your friends are always your friends, so your loyalty is always to your friends first, at least until you meet the woman you plan to marry. It may be the one tenet of ‘bro code’ that rings true for most, if not all, men.
It’s also a tenet that poses an ethical quandary. As a standard by which male behavior can be judged and regulated, ‘bro code’ presents itself as a kind of moral code. For example, D’Angelo Russell has been widely condemned for having allegedly exposed Nick Young’s infidelity. As noted, the backlash against Russell likely stems from multiple causes, but at the center of the storm is clearly Russell’s blatant violation of trust among teammates, a trust that is critical to team chemistry and to the harmony of locker room relations. What happens in the locker room is supposed to stay in the locker room.
But a man familiar with ‘bro code’ may also recognize a violation of the first rule of ‘bro code.’ If so, then let’s face it: ‘bros before hoes’ basically means looking the other way while your bro cheats on his girl. And if that is a moral maxim designed to guide male decision-making, then ‘bro code’ means tolerating, condoning, and even encouraging your bro as he remains complicit in a hurtful lie.
It is for reasons like this that I have misgivings about the ‘bro code.’ The code tolerates, even encourages, blatant deception. Loyalty to bros means looking the other way when your bro cheats on his girl. To be clear, it a precept that I, and probably most men, would follow, if only because in practice you feel it’s not your place to tell your bro how to live his life, and besides, even if you are your bros’ best friend and have heard him complain endlessly about a relationship going sour, you probably still do not know the full dynamic of ebbs and flows in the relationship between your bro and his girl. You have good reason to feel like it really just isn’t your place to judge or intervene.
Nevertheless, if ‘bro code’ is supposed to convey something about the honor and character of men who make up the fraternity, then, just as there is no honor among thieves, is there also no honor among bros who remain complacent while bros cheat on their ladies?
Is the ‘bro code’ an ethical mirage?
I’m inclined to say yes. Assuming Nick Young was being truthful in the video, I do not condone him. I think many other men would also not condone his behavior. But I do not think I am wrong in saying most men, if they are moved by conscience, will conclude that his alleged cheating is between Young and his conscience, and between Young and his fiancé. Unlike the case of informers, we’re not talking about a criminal case. One might instead call it a moral crime, but is it the role of a trusted friend to intervene in a relationship and inform the significant other of his friend’s infidelity?
Perhaps it should be, not only for the sake of the woman, and not only for the sake of telling his friend straight up that he is wrong, but also for the sake of his own conscience. The famous philosopher Immanuel Kant cultivated a system of ethics grounded in the so-called categorical imperative: adopt a course of action that all creatures endowed with reason would unanimously agree that the course of action is in accord with an ethical principle that should be elevated to the status of an absolute moral law. For example, never lie and cheat. It is pretty straightforward why rational creatures would agree to this.
Cheating presents a false account of oneself to one’s partner that he is loyal and true. It does not respect the integrity of a relationship. It does not respect a partner’s expectation of loyalty. And as such, it does not uphold the moral status of a partner as deserving of the gratitude that would cultivate, inspire, and ultimately demand loyalty. It treats a woman not as an end-in-herself but as a partner who can be ignored when hedonistic distractions come calling.
So, maybe a trusted friend should intervene, though perhaps more delicately than flat out tattle tailing. But again, a man likely refrains from doing so because he feels it is not his place to dictate to his bro how to live his life, and besides he may not be fully aware of everything going on between his bro and his bro’s girl. His reluctance is entangled with emotional attachments of loyalty, friendship, and self-preservation. One seeks to avoid being an outcast among his community of friends. The immediate unpopularity of D’Angelo Russell has a chilling effect on any man who might consider outing a bro who cheats, or even confronting him about it in private. Instead of listening to the inner voice tugging at his conscience, he succumbs to the top mandate of ‘bro code.’ To remain popular is to be morally compromised, but at least you still have your friends.
Russell broke with the code. He did wrong and must be held accountable. Or must he? Can it be said that Russell was, in fact, breaking with the ‘bro code’ because his conscience demanded adherence to a higher moral principle? Was he willing to bear the cross of merciless unpopularity to avoid a moral trespass and claim the moral high ground? I would say this is unlikely (I say more on this below), and even if it were so he could have done it more delicately by confronting Nick Young privately. But posing the question forces us to confront the dubious ethical foundations of the ‘bro code.’ Men have to concede that ‘bro code’ may not, in fact, be a moral code, but rather a codification of behavior that helps preserve a chauvinistic, misogynistic culture long prevalent in society.
First, the number one rule of ‘bro code’ which this article has been considering clearly demeans women by designating them as ‘hoes.’ It may be cheeky, and yes, it rhymes, but surely you wouldn’t want this as your slogan if you were running for office. Second, the number one rule of ‘bro code’ invariably means looking the other way while your bro cheats on his girl. It condones a hurtful lie. And third, compliance with the code makes one complicit in a retrograde male chauvinism while gnawing at one’s conscience when he sees a moral precept undermined.
I do not know D’Angelo Russell, but as a male and former competitive athlete who is familiar with the ‘bro code,’ I highly doubt that the philosophical imperatives of Kantian ethics, or the chauvinistic undertones of ‘bro code,’ motivated his subsequent apology as much as the tension the whole affair has caused between him and his teammates. But his case nevertheless illuminates a central problem I have with the ‘bro code.’
Loyalty to bros often means disloyalty to personal ethics.
Unlike the crowds that booed him and the teammates who isolated him, I don’t blame D’Angelo Russell. The backlash of negative sentiment stems from a confusion of consequence with motive. Many will call Russell a snitch. Maybe some principled moralists will extol Russell for being courageous and ethically grounded in having exposed the hypocrisy that allegedly lurked within an ostensibly healthy relationship, in the same way prosecutors would laud the courage of an informant who works undercover to help bring down a crime ring.
This all assumes a motive which does not seem to be present in the case of D’Angelo Russell. All the evidence seems to suggest that Russell did not intend for the video to go public. The whole affair seems more a case of foolishness than principled action or ill intent. Russell was not conducting a sting on Young. Given his public comments about the matter and what appears to have been a sincere apology in which he said he was ‘as sick as possible’ about the whole affair, it is clear that this scandal was the unintended consequence of a young man fooling around with his friend in a digital age in which it is exceedingly difficult for public personalities to keep things private. In short, let’s not impute a nonexistent motive to the consequences of his action.
The Russell affair is ultimately about the erosion of trust between Russell and his teammates. It is a concern that Russell, Nick Young, and the Lakers will have to work out for themselves. Early signs indicate that wounds have begun to heal. In terms of professionalism and maturity, Russell has grown up a great deal in the wake of this controversy. “At this point, the damage is done,” Russell said. “Best you can do is own up to it.” That shows he is a mature young man capable of accepting responsibility and learning from mistakes.
Meanwhile, the ‘bro code’ has not lost any steam. I expect to hear the phrase ‘bros before hoes’ for many days to come. And if the code admirably exhorts men to proclaim loyalty to friends over loyalty to, for example, a random woman he met at a bar one night, maybe we can at least find a more elegant way to proclaim our loyalty without calling women ‘hoes.’ A rhyme can only take us so far before, in this case, it takes us so low. Moreover, I do not appreciate being plunged into the sooty depths of a moral trespass watching silently as a bro cheats on his girl. But though I’d like to say I would rather be content with being unpopular, I will likely remain silent if I am ever confronted with a bro cheating on his girl.
There I will stand, an armchair philosopher among his friends, with a discontent churning within that remains unnamed, unspoken, and unheard. The ‘bro code’ may be morally unpersuasive, but it is socially inescapable. It is, in short, an apprehensive but fundamental part of being a man.
Also by Jonathan Church
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