On The Promiscuous Use of “Community”

Little Boy and Girl Kissing

Little Boy and Girl Kissing


If there’s one thing I hate it’s Miller Lite—and also a loose turtle-neck on a shapely girl. But that’s two things, and neither has anything to do with the promiscuous use of “community,” which is a third contemptible thing.

I acknowledge that too much less-filling beer can sometimes involve a too-little-guarded shapely girl in communal promiscuity, but still I digress.

What I meant to say is that we’ve got to get hold of our language. “Like,” for example, is neither a subordinating conjunction nor a dab of verbal spackling invented to fill conversational interstices created by girlish mouths outrunning their sorority brains.

And “community” should never be used unless it refer to an identifiable place inhabited by people who live there and know one another.

Here are a few examples of the promiscuous use of “community”:

“Community of scholars.”

“Global community.”

“Gay and lesbian community.”

“Community of ham radio operators.”

“The ‘East Jesus State University’ community.”

What’s wrong with these uses—which is to say abuses—of “community”? A “community of scholars” is an abstraction marked by nothing more than a narrow set of interests and attendant egos. It survives only because it is placeless. A “community” of scholars in one place would soon crumble, because scholars are odious egomaniacs who can’t get along with one another. They would never survive the demands of place.

As for a “global community,” well, try walking through one. In several lifetimes.

Gays and lesbians exist, it is true, and sometimes they live “in community,” but to claim that they “belong” to a larger “family” or “community” is to take what is knowable and expand it beyond the limits of knowing. Or, to put it another way, such a “community” would crumble for the same reasons a “community” of scholars would crumble.

Ham radio operators … ah, let’s move on …

… to East Jesus State. No college or university is a community. The damnedest thing about colleges and universities is that the “permanent” members do not reside on the premises but the transients do. This is bass ackwards to say the least.

These uses of “community” make sense only by a dubious metaphorical extension that so attenuates the meaning of “community” as to render it threadbare. The word’s so thin it has only one side, and none of us lives in one-dimension, except maybe frat boys.

And as a former president of I Phelta Thi (having been kicked out of Tappa Kegga Beer) I’m here to tell you that The Front Porch Republic is not a community—and for the same reasons that no “gathering” of individuals at any “place” on the internet is a community. Community requires bodies in an actual place—a place where whole human beings can live and move and have their being. That is, a community requires a place where we can walk, eat, kiss, defecate, give one another the finger, and go a progress through the guts of a beggar.

That list has nothing arbitrary about it. It spans the gamut: we move, we consume, we copulate, we produce waste, we fail more often than not to get along, and we die. And each item on the list is necessary to the health of real communities.

Item the First: Walk. To know a place we must experience it on human, not mechanical, terms, and this means not only that the places we inhabit must be built to human scale but that we must be willing to experience them as humans, not as machines. No one knows the earth, says Elie Wiesel in The Town Beyond the Wall, who has not walked it.

My own street, for example, which is a slow serpentine dead end, is inhabited by people who have never seen it except through the windows of their cars. I sometimes see these people in other places, and I usually wave to them or say hello. They look at me as if a sapling aglow with acid rain has sprouted from my left nostril. They’ve never seen me before.

Item the Second: Eat. Our communities must also feed us, and we must be willing to eat with one another in them. It may be regrettable that there is too much petroleum implicated in what gets crammed into the American maw at Kay’s Kuntry Kitchen (a state of affairs soon to end), but at least there is a real gathering there: old men by turns complain to and rib each other, and Dottie the waitress, both fed-up with and flattered by the old guys, readily calls you “Sweetie” and brings you your coffee, your eggs over easy, and your American fries. That is to say, the local diner is a sign that community is actually possible.

The morning drive-thru? Not bloody likely. (First of all, “thru” is spelled “through.”) Almost every morning on my walk into campus I see people idling in their horseless carriages, eating dripping globs of Occlusion McAngioplast from standard-issue paper wrappers. This is what we call the American Dining Experience: fat people in their minivans eating corn-fed beef and communing with AM talk radio (which has turned the GOP base into a confederacy of half-wits). Onan would approve, but this, O best beloved, is bad for community.

Item the Third: Kiss. Now if people walk a place and eat with one another, chances are good some of them will eventually kiss a little too, and kissing, we know, leads to other things, like getting caught. But it can also lead to marriage and procreation. It can foster love, keep proximity present to our eyes and hearts and minds, and in walkable places where people eat together it can even result in that rarest of things: young people marrying into families their parents have known and learned either to trust or distrust.

Can you imagine? Your daughter wants to marry a young man, and you don’t have to wonder about him beyond the usual array of fears. You know from whence he issues. The bands of accountability spread out within your field of vision. You aren’t constantly wondering why his mother, whom you will never know, is more like the woman at the well than like the mom next door.

That parents must see their children marry strangers who come from strange places is surely one of the grimmest consequences of our much-vaunted hypermobility. We know what can happen when a son or daughter marries a young woman or man whose people we don’t know and can never know. Kissing can sometimes lead to heartache.

Item the Fourth: Defecate. But let us not dwell on such unhappy matters as marriage. Let us set our sights on things below—defecation, say. Let us note the importance to community of taking care of its own—as opposed to someone else’s—wastes. Rural communities especially have been given the privilege of taking care of their own plus city people’s garbage (city people, being important and powerful, never have to take care of their own garbage), but the point here is that a community should turn its wastes to good account. As its young people willingly see to fertility of one kind, the community itself must preserve fertility of another. This will make future eating together possible and so demonstrate at least one important function of any community: that it perpetuate itself in health and agricultural potential. Let there be gardens. Let there be CSAs. Let there be garden co-ops. And let there be compost. Let waste be turned to life.

Item the Fifth: Give the Finger. And let life be understood in all its beauty and ugliness. The walking, eating, kissing (etc.), and fertilizing will necessarily involve some wrath and acrimony—that is, some flipping of the bird. Acrimony tends to follow people wherever they go. But a community marked by real people in real places is poised to deal with real middle fingers. Unlike a supposed community—like, say, the FPR—an actual community is comprised of people who flip one another off in physical proximity. They do so with real fingers extended in front of faces that attach to real names. They cannot hide behind the anonymity afforded them by the computer screen. Even the young boys throwing snowballs at cars after midnight will be found out sooner or later. As a thrower of late-night snowballs I know this to be true. The longed-for anonymity is always pretty short-lived. What we throwers learn is that it’s hard to dole out abuse anonymously in a place that takes seriously the business of caring for itself.

In such a place I don’t mind getting flipped off. But let’s be clear: someone who flips you off from a moving car is a placeless coward. Let disputes take place face to face. There will be fewer of them if they are not conducted in abstraction.

Item the Sixth: Go a Progress Through the Guts of a Beggar. And when the acrimony has died down, as in a real community it eventually will, let communities bury their dead. If they presume to go marching into the future with no physical markers of their past, no indicators of a placed people having inhabited their place, then such communities are poised for decimation. Here’s a good community indicator: the names of people you know are etched in slabs of stone that yield themselves to the elements in a cedar-bemused cemetery nearby. You want to keep up with the Joneses? Keep the names of your people next to theirs where “the inexhaustible bodies that are not / Dead … feed the grass row after row.”

What I have said here is reducible to what ought by now to be a general law: that whereas abstraction conduces to abuse, its opposite makes love and care and health possible. This does not mean that in communities—real ones marked by real people in identifiable places—there will be no abuse. This means that in circumstances marked by concrete relations—to the land and to others—conditions favor real human thriving. Circumstances marked by lonely grubbers at their keyboards are inimical to it.

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