If you are a careful and mindful reader of this column, you may have noticed over the last few months that I’m not a fan of colorful, yet empty words and phrases, the sort of refrigerator-magnet drivel that decorates PR copy and is buried like a textual landmine inside yet another useless “mission statement” hung on the wall of a hardware store.
If you follow me on Twitter, you might also note that I have a penchant for pedantry when it comes to urging writers to mind which words they use. And I do this because I have a deep, dark secret: I’m terribly conservative about words. Words have meanings, and those meanings matter.
So I come to you this week to ask you to reconsider our usage of a word that is being thrown around so much these days it’s a wonder it hasn’t lost any letters. It’s a word that colors almost every discussion about this area — its businesses, its customs, and its future. And yet, on balance, it’s really just a completely empty buzzword.
The word I have trouble with is “local.” It’s been in the forefront of my mind for the past few weeks now, as more and more of the stories I read deal with the “local” aspect of this business or that project or this charity or that school. Honestly, I think the word is both overused and misused in almost every single case. Instead of being an accurate descriptor of “belonging or relating to a particular area or neighborhood, typically exclusively so” (thanks, Oxford Pocket Dictionary), it is now as pointless a word as “vibrant” (which is used to describe color but now means that your town has a plethora of half-employed freelancers who also do “art” when they’re hanging out on the sidewalks during the day).
For years, people have talked about their “local” sports teams, “local” schools, “local” businesses, “local” events, and more. Yet none of these entities have anything particularly local about them, aside from a physical presence. I doubt there’s more than a handful of people playing for the RiverDogs, Stingrays, or the Battery are even from South Carolina, much less locals. Recently, the College of Charleston’s Twitter account let everyone know the school is only missing two of the 50 states in its pile of applications. And the new director of the Charleston Wine + Food Festival is from Greenville.
I was particularly perplexed at the outpouring of grief over the passing of the Piggly Wiggly some weeks back. The ad campaigns for the Pig always made a point of stressing “local since forever,” but I suppose they must have meant they were local to Memphis, Tenn. where the company began. I’m sorry, but just because a handful of independent franchisees operate under the auspices of a “local” office here in this area that does not translate into a local business. Even if it did, how many of the products inside would be “local”? The probable answer, sadly, is not many. After all, the advent of industrial capitalism sounded the death knell for not only the skilled tradesmen of the past, but also the family farms and the small businesses that made up the bulk of pre-Golden Age America.
Given that there’s very little of anything local anymore, why do we bother continuing to pretend that there is and use that word as a selling point? Perhaps there’s a certain element of nostalgia here, although it’s most likely for something that never really existed. I doubt that very many people would be willing to return to life in a pre-industrial manner, especially since we’re now well into a digital age. And it’s a given that we cannot go back to a simpler time, even if we wanted to.
But what we can do be honest about what “local” means, and that entails being honest about why, for instance, Blackbaud hired a CEO from Wisconsin, or the College of Charleston will hold a national search for a new president, or why the upcoming Shop Local Saturday (or Small Business Saturday) that many will tout as important for our “local” economy is actually little more than a PR campaign from American Express. The reason is simple: nothing is really local anymore.
Whether or not we want to believe it or like it (and I’m certain I don’t like it), this is just one more result of the continuing globalization revolution that has been pushed on us. Of course, we don’t have to accept it, and we don’t have to continue using “local” to describe things which, quite honestly, aren’t.