April 24, 2017
Is it Time to Retire the Word “Citizen”?
I recently witnessed the participants in a panel discussion collectively agree to avoid the word community. Early in the event, which was about art and society, one person mentioned that community is overused by nonprofits and has been co-opted by corporations, used as a synonym for “consumers.” After briefly debating imperfect alternatives — group? people? — the panelists came to a tacit decision. They would continue to use the word, but apologize for it each time, which forced them to say things like, It was beautiful to see the community (sorry!) come together.
I sympathized with the panelists’ dilemma. I work with social change organizations as a writer and editor, and I’m frequently part of these kinds of debates. Can we say impact, or is that meaningless? What’s a good synonym for thought-leader? As I watched the panelists apologize for a word while still using it constantly, I started thinking about whether (and how) any of us who care about language can retire words like these ones that have become so core to the vocabulary of particular fields and schools of thought.
Right now in city council meetings, advocacy group conferences, and media pitch meetings all over the country, a healthy debate is percolating about the word citizen.