John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Community organized

Last week I heard an apologist for business interests refer to people concerned about global warming as “the alarmist community.” Then on Sunday an innocuous post about gluten on Dining@Large yielded an increasingly strident series of comments, one by a person self-identified as a member of the “gluten free community.” *

I do not speak on behalf of the language usage community but for myself when I say that I am mildly disturbed and to a greater degree annoyed by this vogue for identifying single-issue groups as a “community.” **

Community and common are etymologically related, and I understand that people who suffer from a disorder have common interests and concerns. But community suggests, or ought to, something broader. A community of citizens, such as a neighborhood, has multiple interests and concerns: property values, public safety, schools, taxes, socializing, and many more. In ecological terms, a community is made up of different species acting interdependently in a habitat.

I cringe when I read a reference in a news story to the “African-American community,” because such references leave the impression of a uniform, monolithic group rather than suggest the complexity of interests and concerns that must exist among the members.

We would be better off if we trained ourselves to think and speak about ourselves as members of larger communities rather than narrow ones.



*It did not take long at Dining@Large for someone to crop up with obscure nonsense about gluten and vaccines. Is there some kind of Distant Early Warning system to which the members of the tinfoil hat community are connected?

**How am I supposed to decide which community I represent? I am a former member of the pipe-smoking community and in graduate school was a member of the ABD (All But Dissertation or, alternatively, All But Dead) community. For years I was a member of the newspaper community and the East Coast Liberal Media Elite community but am now in the unemployed community — and, buster, there are a lot of us. I am two-thirds of the way toward eligibility for the Dead White Male community, a lifelong member of the nearsighted community, a practicing member of the bookworm community, an enthusiastic member of the bourbon-drinking, martini-mixing, draft-microbrew-swilling community. Not to mention the bow tie community. Who gets to decide which community defines me?

11 comments:

  1. The bow tie community decides all things at all times, so you have to clear through them whichever community with which you publicly identify yourself.

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  2. An interesting read I discovered on Facebook. As a longtime City Council member, I have always preferred to refer to my city as my community, for the very reasons you state...we are all residents, interested in similar issues affecting our city, but all with very different backgrounds. And besides, it seems to me the word "community" seems to naturally evoke a warm and fuzzy feeling. Perhaps that is why all of these "communities" are cropping up...? Thanks for the thought provoking post today.

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  3. Thank you for this, sir. Perhaps it is just me, but when I see that "community" tag applied to a group of people who are joined solely for a common purpose (e.g., global warming, as in your first example), I tend to think they are being branded as belonging exclusively to that "group," with no ties to any other groups or larger, true communities.

    I'm all for a living language, but that doesn't mean it needs to live on a shoestring budget and subsistence rations. Let's grow the language, rather than confine and regiment it.

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  4. Try asking the stakeholders which community you belong to.

    Barbara Phillips Long

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  5. I have observed that the word "community" has become a euphemism for describing African-Americans as a grouping distinct and separate within a population. eg. The mayor does not represent my community.

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  6. On a different - but related - topic, David Marsh at the Guardian yesterday wrote about what those-who-don't-believe-in-global-warming should be called: "climate change denier" or "climate change sceptic". The argument (put by someone else) being that "climate change denier" has the association of "holocaust denier".

    Personally, this member of the sub-editing community is a great believer in saying it like it is, as simply as possible.

    Worth reading: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/mar/01/climate-change-scepticism-style-guide

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  7. As a refugee from a profession which too frequently claimed as one of its goals "to build community" I find myself being cautious about the use of the term these days. I agree with those of you who have commented about the implications of labeling racially-defined communities, and wonder if that is an easy/safe way of grouping people in order to avoid the recognition of varying qualities within the racial group. That's just plain dangerous.

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  8. Patrick K. LackeyMarch 2, 2010 at 6:05 PM

    Belonging to one community doesn't stop a person from belonging to others. In my racing days in Iowa, the running community really felt like a community, but the only thing we all agreed on was that running was fun (and that, not always). Diana Ewy Sharp is right that the word community evokes a warm and fuzzy feeling. A community offers comradeship and like minds (on at least one topic). For a community to qualify as a community, members ought to have the option of dropping out. After I was drafted in 1967, I never spoke of being part of the military community. I was part of the calendar-marking community. Some subjects are too broad to be the basis for communities. There might a community of lawn lovers but not one of lawn mowers.

    John wrote, "We would be better off if we trained ourselves to think and speak about ourselves as members of larger communities rather than narrow ones." He's right, but if magazines are any indication, the world is splitting into special interest groups. Most magazines are astonishingly specialized, yet come out monthly and seem healthier than the general interest mags. Looking for magazines that might pay me to write for them, I think, "Damn, too bad I'm not a gun nut. Why didn't I learn to knit when I was growing up?" And cable television is going the way of magazines.

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  9. I think the simple beauty of it is that you do. You get to define what community or communities you belong to. Even just in terms of geography I am a member of my neighborhood community, my cities community, my states community, my countries community. Each one of those things does define something about me but are not the sole definition of who I am. Community to me is a positive thing. I don't judge people solely based on one aspect of who they are or what "communities" they belong to.

    In my opinion I don't think that the world is breaking into smaller communities. I think that we have tried to force ourselves to become one giant community. Before internet and television and even telephones people identified with much smaller communities, their church community perhaps or their town. Because of modern technology and modern life we are privileged to belong to whatever community we want to. Wherever or whatever we most identify with, that's your community. I think its kind of empowering.

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  10. Patricia the TerseMarch 3, 2010 at 12:20 AM

    When those "communities"get their own ZIP codes, I might take them seriously. Meanwhile, my favorite misuse of the word is when the long-haired, scruffy defense attorney refers to his criminal client with a record as long as the Kochel catalogue as having 'strong ties to the community."

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  11. With verity untrammeled, the community here doggedly pursues inanity over substance. What color is the sky in the land of charmed existence where the likely response to a news story about the African-American community being in an uproar about the lynching of a black man is not the proper outrage against the crime but instead a sarcastic discussion of whether African-American qualifies as a community or whether black is truly accurate since, in reality, the man was more brown? For shame, people.

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