This past week the word “community” has popped up like mushrooms after a summer rain. No, I have not eaten any of the mushrooms. But I do have a good ear for language, and it has become more attuned now that I don’t work full-time anymore. This means I can actually focus on what people are telling me. It’s not that I ignored them before, but, let’s face it, some people drone on and on when you’ve got work to do. You end up picturing yourself committing various acts of harakiri à la Bud Cort’s character in Harold and Maude.
To wit, I have heard people refer to the “jiu jitsu community,” the “special forces community,” the “World War II reenactment community,” the “firearms community,” the “pro-life trans community,” and the “Orwellian community.” That last one refers to a group of people who read and discuss Orwell as in a book club, not a dystopian community prepping for a totalitarian, virus-infected apocalypse, although the two are bound to meet at some point like star-crossed lovers. How could they not?
I’ve always thought of community in a physical sense like a neighborhood or area. Think of Hells Kitchen or the Lower East Side. Thus, there are community libraries, health centers, gyms, grocery stores, parks, etc. I remember going with my dad to a community pool in Tompkinsville on Staten Island. Of course, it was a different world back then. Now, community is defined by interests, status, identity, or affiliation, which could be anything from people who believe they are Australian sheep dogs to the “preppers” mentioned above. These communities rely heavily if not primarily on technology and social media to exist.
By lack of understanding they remained sane. They simply swallowed everything, and what they swallowed did them no harm, because it left no residue behind, just as a grain of corn will pass undigested through the body of a bird.”1984, Book 2, p. 156, (1949) by George Orwell
I’m not sure how I feel about these new communities and the ease with which people join them. I’m certainly not after a formal application process, but there’s something more permanent about coming from a geographic community with history. I remember a colleague once remarking, “You can take the boy out of Staten Island, but you can’t take Staten Island out of the boy.” It was meant as a slight, but I wore it as a badge of honor. I wanted to show him exactly where I would wear the badge but in the end refrained, figuring it only would have proved his point about my being uncultured. This from a guy who served oysters on Ritz Crackers.
Of course, people can use geographic communities to distance themselves from their neighbors. For example, after moving to the Bronx years ago, I had another colleague who would make fun of the borough. Why? Because he lived in swanky Brooklyn. “Oh, you mean where Vinnie Barbarino came from?” I asked one day, referring to the John Travolta character from Welcome Back Kotter. He stuttered and backed down. More importantly, I’ll have to figure out why colleagues keep playing this game of one-upmanship on me.
In a certain sense, I don’t believe these new communities exist. To claim that the “xyz community thinks such and such” strikes me not only as presumptuous but devoid of any substantive meaning. But this is how the manufacturers of information manipulate their audiences. Instead, I see people not as market segments but individuals with their own interests, motives, and perspectives. Individuals who–by the way–are far from dumb or uninformed. Sure, you can put them into categories for the sake of initial analysis, which may be better than nothing, but that only goes so far. If you’ve ever been to a protest as I was two weeks ago, then you probably know that building relationships, not scare tactics or manipulation, attracts people to your cause.
I heard “community” getting tossed around this week like a frisbee without being defined in any serious way beyond what “our members” want, need, and demand. The World War II reenactors were the only exception. They were just happy to carry M1 Garand rifles and sleep in pup tents for a weekend. To each his own. But I’m sure they did not all think alike or approach their hobby in the same way. And that may be the greatest difference between community as a lived experience and community as it is used today.
I am thinking here of those Christian religious orders whose members live in community with like-minded men or women who have committed their lives to a certain way of worshipping God. I see this as different from self-identifying with a community of people who may or may not be like-minded beyond a certain cause or affiliation. The organizing principles are vastly different.
Other basic concepts have been redefined along the way. One is “family,” the other “journey.” Both are used in ways that co-opt their original meaning. “Family” now refers to any close-knit group of people who identify through relationships or shared interests. You see this in the workplace. My reaction has been that no, we are not a family. Furthermore, I am not on your “team,” so please don’t refer to me like that (there’s Staten Island again). And if you’ve ever taken a marketing course, you know that “journey” refers to all the steps a company will take to sell you its product. Sometimes, the journey has more steps than an Argentine tango. If that’s cynical, okay, I’ll take my comeuppance.
Finally, the careless use of these words and their application to a collective identity rather than the individual makes me think of the criticism I used to hear in church circles of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” It made those who were committed to the new, conciliar church livid. They were good people, but they insisted on community and how wrong the song was. This was right around the time of Hilary Clinton’s “it takes a village.” I would sit and listen, nodding, without saying a word. Now, I get Sinatra.
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