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Jewish World Review Dec. 7, 2001 / 22 Kislev, 5762

Geoffrey Nunberg

Geoffrey Nunberg
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Consumer Reports

Community sting -- THE title of Robert Putnam's book Bowling Alone is a reference to a curious recent trend. While more Americans than ever are going bowling, there has been a precipitate decline in bowling leagues over the same period. For Putnam, the tendency exemplifies a much more a general decline in participation in American civic life. PTA membership is down in recent decades, and so is membership in the Elks, the Kiwanis and B'nai Brith and the NAACP. Americans play cards less often than they used to, go to church less, and are less likely to get involved in political campaigns. All of these are signs of what Putnam describes dramatically as "the collapse of American community."

But if it's true that Americans have less of a sense of community than they used to, it certainly hasn't stopped them from using the word community more widely than ever before. Of course the word has been used for several centuries to refer to groups that are drawn together by some common circumstance that sets them off from the people they live among -- the merchant community, say, or the British community in Naples. In the 19th century English Jews referred to themselves simply as "the community" -- pretty much the same way that gays and lesbians use the phrase today. But alongside of these more-or-less traditional uses of the word, you find it applied to just about any group of people that share some property or interest, however incidental it may seem. Do a search and you'll find references to the the rottweiler community, the Windows community, the vegetarian and vegan community, and the video arcade game collecting community. I ran into a regional transportation plan that talked about accommodating the needs of the pedestrian community, a group that I've communed with myself from time to time. And this is not to mention the left-handed community, the asthma community, the bail-bond community, the piercing and tattoo community, and the diaper community, which in case you're curious is a branch of the infantalist community.

Then there's just "the community," in the abstract, which is the term we apply to society when we want to paint it in a warm and deserving light. Expressions like community service, community relations, "Give back to the community" -- all of them have the positive connotations which are a defining trait of the word, however it's used. Whatever else it may be, community is good for you. Nations, states, classes, regions -- those are all things that can sometimes make us nervous when they exert too strong a hold on people's allegiances. But nobody ever complains about an excess of community feeling. And just to ensure that community remains an absolute good, we withhold the word for any group that we disapprove of. Not long ago I heard a speaker at an AIDS conference say, "We need input from all the affected communities: the Gay and Lesbian community, the minority communities, the intravenous drug using community…." That stopped me in my tracks -- you don't usually hear drug-users referred to as a community, nor do you hear people talking about the terrorist community or the holocaust denier community. It isn't that the members of those groups don't have common interests or convivial interactions, but for us they aren't bathed in the glow of warm sociability that the word community evokes. Though of course this all depends on your point of view. A phrase like "the pedophile community" sounds pretty weird to me, but it turns out that pedophiles use it all the time.

The explosive growth of community began long before the Internet Age. It got its first modern boost from the sociologists who popularized the word in the 1920's and 30s, around the time the American public was first becoming fascinated with social science -- among other things, that was what led home builders to begin using the word to describe the developments they were putting up all over the country. And it enjoyed a further boom in the 1980's with the rise of an identity politics that defined everybody by their differences. But it's only with the Internet that the word has achieved its current promiscuous versatility, as it becomes possible to organize a national conversation around any common interest or concern, however diffuse it may be. And like the housing developers of the 1940s and 50s, the Web developers and others have been quick to perceive a commercial opportunity in the new uses of the word. Software companies offer tools for "building high-traffic community" around a Web site or a new video game, and most commercial sites have what's called a "community page," where people can gather to commune about Campbell's Soup or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And software makers are in hot competition right now to develop "community portals" that are specialized to the needs of everyone in the Farmer's Insurance community or the purchasing agent community. Community is on its way to becoming just another commodified American virtue, like Heritage -- you can buy it by the yard.

If there's any silver lining to all this, it's that the currency of the word is becoming so devalued that people may start to bail out on it. There's something about the word community that ought to make us nervous -- not just because of the rosy light it casts on whatever it touches, but because it's hard to see how there could be much meaning in a word so elastic that you can use it to wrap anything from an ethnic group to a bunch of people who like to write each other notes about soup recipes. Maybe it wouldn't be a bad thing if it was finally stretched so thin that it snapped.

JWR contributor Geoffrey Nunberg, is a principal scientist at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and a Consulting Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University.The author of, most recently, "The Way We Talk Now," he also chairs the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Comment by clicking here.


11/30/01: 100 Percent Solutions

© 2001, Geoffrey Nunberg