We are community, and membership has its privileges

It's a phenomenon I've been following out of the corner of my eye for some time, but two articles side by side on our op-ed page one day last week brought it front and center: "Community" is everywhere.

One article blasted Fox Television for its planned reality show about adoption:

"[I]t would be hard to exaggerate the level of near-uniform disgust and outrage they have engendered within the diverse segments of the adoption community - a potential audience of tens of millions."

Tens of millions? I hadn't ever thought of an entity called "the adoption community," but if its "population" is in the tens of millions, it's on par with some of the largest of the 50 United States.

The page-mate for this piece was an article about security for members of "international aid community" operating in places like Afghanistan. This "community" lacks the numbers of the "adoption community" but makes up for them in reach - spread thinly as butter on Melba toast - around the globe.

"Community" may be four Latin-derived syllables long, but it's a wonderfully broad umbrella that covers just about every kind of human settlement: cities and towns as well as villages, urban and rural. The adoption community and the aid community are different - they're communities of interest, organized around a particular subject.

"Community" can also be a convenient way to avoid speaking of "camps" or "sides" in a dispute. Analysts of the conflict in Northern Ireland, for instance, often speak of the nationalist and unionist "communities."

I see a couple of things going on here. I see more people claiming status as a "community," either for themselves or on behalf of others, in part because it is such a convenient umbrella term; but also because people are concerned, consciously or otherwise, that "community" may be endangered. And I see people claiming "membership" in these communities - even in phrases that seem slightly ridiculous if you think too deeply about them, such as "members of the homeless community."

I'm struck by how often I see references to individuals as "members" of some larger entity. We speak of someone as "a member of the cast," or "a member of the faculty," rather than simply "in the cast" or "on the faculty." Watch for this pattern and you'll see it everywhere. I did it myself just a few paragraphs back, in the reference to "members of the aid community."

"Cast member" turns out to be the term the Disney theme parks use to describe their employees. It's easy to see why it works for them - it connotes performance, teamwork, and belonging - and, while we're at it, "let's pretend."

Do we talk so much about community because we're afraid it's endangered? It could be. I find myself wondering whether what I think of as the Bruegel Paradox is at work here.

Several years ago I went to see an exhibition of paintings by the Bruegel family, Flemish painters of the 16th and 17th centuries. The show made the point that they painted their charming scenes of peasant life not because such scenes were everywhere around them, but because they were disappearing in the face of urbanization and modernity.

So it is with "community": It may be that we use the word everywhere because nowhere do we feel we have enough of it. And we keep talking about "membership" because we all want to belong.

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