The ‘brod’ mystique

When Representative Raul Daza stood up last week at the Senate impeachment trial to introduce himself as the prosecution lead counsel for the day, Presiding Senator-Judge Juan Ponce Enrile formally acknowledged him, and fondly called him “brod.” Enrile then quickly turned to the senior defense counsel, Serafin Cuevas, and likewise referred to him as “brod.” Broadly smiling, the venerable defense lawyer impishly nodded to the chair, and forthwith called out the other “brods” among the senator-judges – Senators Edgardo Angara and Franklin Drilon. This is not how lawyers address one another; it is how frat men call their brethren from the same fraternity.

“Sigma Rhoans” watching the proceedings would certainly have taken pride in seeing their alumni brods take the major roles in that courtroom—prosecutor, defense counsel, and judge. At the same time, everyone would have been aware that frat membership was an irrelevant affiliation in that setting. That is the reason the “brod” bit came up as part of preliminary banter. It broke the ice among some of the key figures in this otherwise stressful play. But perhaps it was also these senior lawyers’ subtle way of paying tribute to a chapter in their youth that remains enveloped in pride, mystique, and the anxieties of growing up.

By a strange coincidence, the violence often associated with fraternities hit the headlines once again last week. Marvin Reglos, a freshman law student of San Beda College, succumbed to severe injuries he sustained in the course of his initiation into the Lambda Rho Beta fraternity. Like all the other hazing victims before him, this young man was literally beaten to death by the same people he aspired to call “brods.” In October last year, another law student, this time from Ateneo de Manila University, was rushed to the hospital for serious injuries allegedly inflicted during his initiation into the Utopia fraternity.

Police investigators usually face a blank wall in such cases. Those who participate in these bloody initiation rites maintain a strict code of silence. Victims who survive the ordeal seldom speak out against their tormentors. None of them was forced to join these organizations. They knew more or less what to expect in these initiations. As absurd as it may sound, they were “willing” victims.

Knowing this, however, does not make the crime any less grievous. It only draws our attention to the enormous complexity of the motivations involved. Of the countless affiliations worthy of young people’s loyalties, why would they choose organizations that they know can injure, maim, or even kill them? And why would these organizations wish to confer membership on the basis of how well their applicants can withstand the rigors of physical punishment? The answers are not easy—not even for a frat man and a sociologist like myself.

But we may begin our search for answers by looking at what fraternity membership might mean to a potential applicant. He will, first of all, be made to think that he is not so much applying to join as he is being invited. He is being singled out as someone who can be a worthy member of an exclusive group, a small elite that links generations of individuals like him to a timeless chain of great achievers.

What is being tapped here is not merely what the sociologist Georg Simmel calls the inherent human capacity for sociability, but the need to belong to a tightly knit group. A group that lies outside one’s family, but is as strong and enduring. Most fraternities offer not only solidarity and camaraderie, but as importantly, a functional bridge to one’s future professional world.

The initiation into this exclusive world begins with an introduction to the names of the illustrious members of the fraternity. It is on the latter’s combined achievements, and the powerful positions they occupy in society, that the organization rests its claim to distinction. It is for this reason that connections to alumni brods are kept alive.

When a brod introduces himself to an older brod who could well be his grandfather, he asserts a tie that binds equals. It is a bond that is supposed to transcend the traditional barriers of age and social status. In that sense, fraternity membership shares the characteristics of modern affiliations. Yet, in another sense, fraternities in transitional societies like ours mimic the functions of traditional kinship. Where everyday social relationships are casual and thin, the brotherhood of frat men is expected to remain special and thick, utilizable in a variety of settings.

Whether this happens in fact is, of course, another question. It is obvious, for instance, that the fraternity affiliation of defense counsel Cuevas, which makes him a brod of “Sigma Rhoan” Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, has not made him less assiduous in his defense of his client, Chief Justice Renato Corona, who belongs to Ateneo’s Utopia fraternity. Carpio was Corona’s main rival for the position.

It is as it should be in a modern society. Personal ties of friendship or enmity should not matter in professional settings. As Niklas Luhmann said: “While on duty, we must not take revenge on our private enemies.” But where connections still matter, the allure of fraternities will remain. The question is whether these organizations can find ways of preserving their exclusiveness and testing the worthiness of their recruits without having to resort to barbaric methods. There’s no reason to believe that hazing is the common experience that binds brods to one another.

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