Lumping people into categories isn't a new invention. In high school it was jocks, preps, burnouts, rockers, potheads, soshies - and, if, like me, you're from St. Louis, you have to include hoosiers (which has nothing to do with Indiana and everything to do with mullets).

The grown-up version of this is the vacuously omnipresent "the community."

So let's see. I'm a member of the "female community," the "need-a-haircut community," the "have-seen-Tony-Orlando-in-concert community," the "pet rodent adopters community," the "beet-dislikers of America community," the "can milk a goat community," and the "R2D2 appreciators community."

I could join the "pianists community" but also the "can't carry a tune in a paper bag community." My membership in the "Sen. John McCain doesn't like me community" is pretty well-cemented, but I don't feel too special because it's a big group.

Which raises the question of how big a "community" can be. And how does one join a particular community? Can anyone get in? Who decides?

Is it a matter of demographics? It's not uncommon to hear about the "black community's" response to President Obama. What about the opinion of "those in the LBGT community" about marriage equality or the "Catholic community" reaction to reproductive choice?

"THE community" sticks a label on people and provides rhetorical wiggle room to act as if millions of individuals hold the same opinions, experiences or beliefs because they share a similarity.

Employing the "community" verbiage makes that lumping more palatable in the public sphere. It boils down complicated humans into simple categories by a personal trait, occupation or avocation.

Does anyone truly think that every person who is of a particular sexual orientation, ethnicity, geographical or spiritual background thinks the same way?

Chances are, yes, some people probably do - the same folks who protest "but some of my best friends are …" or "well that's how it is where I'm from" when their stereotypes run into reality.

But if we bid a rhetorical farewell to the "community," what do we do about the "bad guys" who commit misdeeds? Who hurts other people? Bad guys. Who endangers our neighborhoods, our way of life? Bad guys. Nameless, faceless bad guys.

The "bad guys" are the ones the authorities get, those whose crimes will never go unpunished - the bad guys are the miscreants hunted down and captured, or killed, by us, the good guys.

And what of the "activists"? It's not enough to be a person interested in an issue, or wanting to help in some way - they're "activists."

It's a word that carries weight, however, and usually in the form of baggage. Liberal activists, conservative activists - such a label smacks of being a minion, somehow, deployed at the behest of a larger force.

"Activist" is easy to brush aside, and, like "the X community," it associates legitimacy with a marketing label of sorts, rather than an action or shared experience.

But maybe all of these labels speak to our desire, our social need, to truly come together in one way or another. To act as if, in a society where many people don't know their neighbors (I confess to knowing more about the dogs than the people on my block), we construct the illusion of community through vocabulary.

It's time we stopped substituting labels for substance, context and understanding.

Sarah Garrecht Gassen writes opinion for the Arizona Daily Star. Her column appears Thursdays. Email her at