All this talk of "community" distracts us from the task of actually living togetherby William Davies / November 19, 2006 / Leave a comment
Late on a sunny autumn afternoon in October, I and about 100 fellow residents of the Holly Street estate in east London were gathered in a public garden listening to the Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin’s sermon. “What is happening in our community?” she asked. “If you are going to be a community together, then we are going to need to work together to improve that community.” It was the memorial service for Stevens Nyembo-Ya-Muteba, the 40-year-old Congolese man who was murdered this month in an unprovoked attack in the stairwell to his flat. On this of all occasions, it was impossible not to ask oneself the simple question: what community?
The Holly Street estate should be a success story. Built in the late 1990s, its design—social housing, with wide open streets and a mixture of public and private ownership—is an exemplary reaction against many of the architectural disasters of the 1960s. After a period last year of public drug-dealing and regular disturbances, an uneasy peace now just about persists. But “community”? Would murders such as this one happen in a real community—one based on continuity, reciprocity and shared endeavour? The more distant this sort of community becomes, the more frequently it is invoked and the more confused we all become.
Consider the following expressions: “the international community,” “building stronger communities,” “giving communities what they want,” and “police are seeking support from the community.” In the space of four familiar catchphrases, the emptiness of the term is laid bare. The first strips it of anything specifically local, the second suggests that it is the product of policy, only to be contradicted by the third which implies it is a sentient being. In its use of the definite article, the fourth removes any specificity from the concept and mystifies it. Yet these mantras reverberate through the studios of the Today programme and Newsnight, offering politicians and public commentators the constant fallback option of saying nothing whatsoever.
This is a case of political jargon becoming “performative.” To use language in this fashion is to see it not as a way of revealing truths or referring to facts, but as a way of projecting a persona and shaping a situation. When someone says “congratulations,” they are not referring to anything, but performing congratulations through the act of saying “congratulations.” When business leaders discuss “corporate social responsibility,” it is rarely clear whether they are talking…