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?