Tossing rings at objects in concessions, state fair, Donaldsonville, Louisiana. State and county fairs are among some of the last of the real community-building events still going strong. (Photo by Russell Lee, November of 1938)

In a Yuletide bar conversation in Portland [Oregon], I complained to one of my writers’ association colleagues about a Seattle editor who had asked me which community I was referring to in a book review. 

“What does the guy mean, `community’?” the editor had asked, “Like, the religious community or the business community, the gay community or what?”

“No,” I’d told him, “he’s talking about a place where people live and they bump into each other on the streets or around town all the time and most of the people know each other and they get together with their neighbors for local stuff like Little League or River Clean-up Day or whatever.”

“Hmmm,” the editor had replied, “that’s an interesting concept.” 

I finished the sad tale, stared deep into my pint and sighed beerily, “Everybody’s talking about community these days but nobody knows what it is anymore.” 

My colleague replied that my complaint was “just a matter of semantics”. He said it dismissively, the way that phrase is almost always used in debate. I was too mindful of the season’s promise of “goodwill toward men” for an argument and let it drop at that. But his comment must have scratched deeper than I thought because I’ve been picking at that particular scab ever since.

The words we use are the tools of our thoughts. Muddy language is a sign of muddy thinking. Personally, and professionally, this lack of precision when it comes to talking about something as important as the place where we live frightens me.

If we use the same word, “community,” to describe both every person on the planet who shares one particular outlook, interest, or demographic category and also the small understandable world of our daily experience, how can we settle the very real and enormously important conflicts between the two? 

It gets worse yet when we say “community” and can’t distinguish between groups of human beings and groups of artificial beings, the corporations, agencies, and institutions which have “neither a soul to be damned nor a backside to be kicked” and yet wield tremendous power.

These three groupings which have distinct and often conflicting needs can’t all be one and the same thing. One of them has to be more important than the other two in any given situation. Yet by applying a single word to all of them we’ve created the illusion that each of their competing claims is equally important.

I’d guess that this failure of our language is probably a result of our history and our technology. We are a nation of immigrants who by and large never did settle down. When almost no one lives in the same place where they were born, it’s terribly difficult to extend the notion of home beyond the walls of a house or apartment. And now we have technologies–automobiles, televisions, telephones, and computers—which allow us to live in isolation from our neighbors. As a result, most people I meet nowadays seem to rely on their membership in a like-minded group for acceptance rather than trying to be part of their home towns.

Words are created or lost because of changing conditions. In the case of “community,” the word was vague to begin with but became even less real when extended to mere common interest among like-minded people and then reached surrealism when it was applied to artificial beings. The phrase “business community” implies two obvious stretches, that a corporation is a person and that businesses as a group make a neighborhood.

Metaphors, because they extend the range of thought, can enlighten but they can also lead to foolish thinking if we don’t remind ourselves from time to time that they are “as if” constructions and not real. You can spend a lifetime searching for metaphorical “common ground” between metaphorical “communities” but unless you look to the very real ground beneath our feet, you’ll never find what you’re looking for.

If we put it bluntly, we can see the absurdity of the proposition that allying ourselves with remote strangers who share our interests and outlooks can give us the same sense of belonging and usefulness that we would find in walking the streets of our home town and talking with our actual neighbors. 

Of course, we all participate in all three types of communities. It’s unavoidable these days, in fact, it’s necessary because of the need to associate with others to attain specific goals such as setting standards for a trade or perpetuating an art-form or lobbying congress. But, beyond those narrow purposes, there is only one community which includes the other two—the small world of our everyday lives—the only one we all share.

Robert Leo Heilman is a writer from Myrtle Creek, Oregon.