Submitted anonymously

Anonymous writes:
MAINSTREAM (typical Development Bank speak, eg from the World Bank) – refers to the objectives of trying to achieve the “integration” of a given policy priority (eg, environmental “sustainability”) into other “sectors”, eg, energy, transport, agriculture).

Tony responds:
Before launching a broadside against the verb “to mainstream,” we need to show the word a little mercy. It had a terrible childhood. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was born in 1973 — the apex of the career of Tony Orlando and Dawn — and started life in a rough neighborhood surrounded by bad influences.

It came of age in the world of education jargon, a pestilential fen teeming with slippery and unsightly life forms. With that as a starting-place, there was never much hope for poor “mainstream.” And sure enough, it ended up committing verbal offenses before it reached adulthood. It’s had a sad life, and deserves at least a brief pause for regret and understanding.

OK, now that’s done, let’s blast it. It’s a pathetic concept, instantly betraying an inferiority complex for anything to which it’s applied. It’s a wallflower of a word, pleading desperately for affection. When people say they want “to mainstream” something, they imply (often unintentionally) that their idea is awkward, marginal, peripheral, and unloved. But oh! If only the other kids would be nice to it! Then it would enter … not a realm of excellence, distinction, or renown, but mere ordinariness. It would be blessed with that life-dream of every adolescent: being just like everyone else.

Now, to be fair to the field of education, when the word started its life there it actually reflected a noble aspiration. It was applied to students who genuinely were marginalized, made inferior, and walled off from the education granted to other students. It described a hope that these students — young people in special education or disabled or emotionally troubled kids — could be returned to the full circle of other students’s lives and learning. Excellent idea, embodied in a reasonably descriptive word. The “stream” was well defined, in the universal language of K-12 education, and it was often possible to imagine the particular rivulets and tributaries under consideration, and how they might flow back into the main body of water.

But as a reader has pointed out, “mainstream” is now a darling of many other fields, especially that of international development, where feelings of inferiority and marginalization are rife. The trouble with the way “to mainstream” is used in those circles is that it hints at some clear, well defined waterway (the Ganges, maybe? Or the Congo?) as if we all knew what that main flow was and how a lesser river might stream into it. Sometimes writers are careful to describe some specific body of orthodox thought and then lay out a practical process by which their new idea or under-appreciated concept might someday be welcomed into that established canon. Fine — when the vision is described with that degree of care, then the trendy verb becomes inconsequential. (And so, one may suggest, it can be dispensed with.)

But much more often, no such descriptions are forthcoming.

Instead, the word is floated like birch-bark across some babbling brook, with no detail or clear plan to guide and steady it. Under scrutiny, it keels and sinks. (All right, all right — I’ve tortured the acquatic metaphors enough.) In those cases, not only is the use of the word usually imprecise, it’s subliminally timid. It suggests that the most a new idea can hope for is to be accepted — grudgingly, perhaps — among some established in-crowd, where it can forever join the faceless masses and become unremarkable.

Isn’t the developing world ready for a slightly more ambitious — not to mention clear — word?

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