Few words irritate careful writers and editors more than this one, which has become a catchall term for any group of people with practically anything in common. Its etymology (literally “unity together,” with the original Latin meaning of “fellowship”) would seem to make this word apply only to a deeply close-knit group that shares some fundamental, spiritual connection.

But there is no justification for insisting on such a narrow definition. In English, COMMUNITY has applied for centuries to practically any association among people, whether profound or superficial. The almost boundless vagueness of this word is therefore not a new invention, an affectation, or a subterfuge. Jargon it’s not. But vague it is, and therefore an invitation to mental sloppiness.

In some recent expressions like “community development” or “community organizing,” the word started off as real jargon – trendy and obscure, with multiple meanings – but it has gained a certain practiced precision, built up over time. COMMUNITY now means, in these contexts, a group of people living near one another who share, by reason of their common residence, some political or economic interests. In this sense, the word can actually be preferable over more precise words like “neighborhood,” because some such communities aren’t urban enough to be clustered into neighborhoods.

But more often, in phrases like “the intelligence community,” “the arts community,” or “the child-welfare community,” the word drops a deliberate scrim in front of a bunch of shadowy people whom no one is expected to identify. Most of the time, those who use such phrases really mean to say “people in these fields whom I consider important, but can’t or won’t name.” Used that way, the word falsely pretends to give information, while actually blotting out important details.

Worse, that use of COMMUNITY is sometimes deliberately misleading. It implies a unanimity among members that rarely occurs in reality. These COMMUNITIES that speak so conveniently in unison may suit the polemical purposes of some writers, but not without seeming a little fraudulent. When “the Harlem community” supports or opposes a new shopping center, it is a near certainty that a group of individuals, and not all the residents of Harlem, share one view of the development. Used this way, as with SITE, the word may be just the result of careless diction, but it exposes the writer to suspicions of dishonesty.

In the earlier essay In Other Words, we discussed one version of this polymorphous word: the annoying sense in which it describes any group of people with practically anything in common. But readers’ response to that essay made it clear that we had been too easy on COMMUNITY, neglecting one of the other ways it has muddied philanthropic discourse. Quite apart from near-oxymorons like “the diplomatic community,” “the academic community,” and “the arts community,” the far more mysterious use of the word is in its plainest and most generic sense: THE COMMUNITY-meaning, it seems, something like “the universal fellowship of all regular folks.” For example, “mentally ill people should live in the community,” “service should be provided in the community,” and “the community must decide how to respond.” Should elderly people be helped to remain “in the community” (meaning, we presume, somewhere this side of Antarctica), or would it be more to the point to say “at home”?

There may well be a difference between those two ideas, but if there is, the word COMMUNITY does not convey it. When mental health programs are told that their work should be done “in the community,” they are probably being told that their hospitals and clinics are too far away from where their customers live. But the word doesn’t say that, unfortunately-especially not if we read in an adjoining article that the “health care community” is doing something or other. Are the services of the “health care community” not in “the community”? We’re back to oxymorons again.

Whoever wrote that services belong in “the community” no doubt wanted to urge that services be provided in “residential neighborhoods where many patients live.” To replace that specific idea with a formless placeholder like THE COMMUNITY is to presume that everyone already knows what you’re really talking about. And if that’s the case, why are you talking at all?

Leave a Reply