Brother- and Sisterhood (2000)

Roger Bissell

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Brother- and Sisterhood

by Roger E. Bissell


I have been nagged and haunted by something that occurred during a discussion centering on whether the word "man" could be an appropriate gender-indefinite term, referring to all human beings (and not just males). Someone mentioned the phrase "brotherhood of man," as used by John Lennon and I, for the life of me, could not remember what song that phrase came from.

I did recall the song "Brotherhood of Man" by Frank Loesser from the hit broadway play How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, which dated from the mid-60s, a few years before Lennon used the phrase himself. Loesser's use of the phrase was much more in the traditionalist, "good old boy" club context. Meaning: "no girls allowed."

It didn't seem that Lennon would have had such a paleolithic sentiment in mind when he used the phrase himself, and indeed a search on (my favorite search engine) showed that the song in question was his well-known inspirational song, "Imagine," a brief passage of which I quote here:

Imagine no possession. I wonder if you can.

No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man.

Now, as far as I know, no one can accuse John Lennon of being particularly sexist, yet there it was, in all its gender-exclusive glory, a last cultural echo of the long pattern of male-domination. To be fair, the brief, clipped style of Lennon's phrases nearly dictated something like what he wrote, so he should not be judged too harshly. (R.I.P., John.) But surely creative, idealistic songsters can do better -- and James Taylor (for one) did...

How much more appropriate and powerful is this passage from James Taylor's more recent song, "Shed a Little Light." As against the wistful pondering of Lennon's song, Taylor is delivering a sermon-like manifesto and call to action, not just to "imagine" how much better the world could be, but to resolutely dedicate ourselves to making it better -- and to do so as brothers and sisters, with a spiritual bond of shared vision and commitment.

Oh, let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King,

and recognize that there are ties between us,

all men and women living on the earth,

ties of hope and love, of sister and brotherhood,

and we are bound together in our desire to see the world

become a place in which our children can grow free and strong.

We are bound together by the task that stands before us,

and the road that lies ahead. We are bound, and we are bound.

You may not share Taylor's political and social values (I don't), but on a meta-level, he goes right for the ethical jugular. No mind-body dichotomy. No wistful yearning for what might be. And no "good old boy" mentality. Men and women, as equals, as brothers and sisters. What possible problem could Objectivists have with that?

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