Drifting in and out of the mainstream

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me." When I was a kid, this was the standard comeback to the insults of schoolyard tormentors. (You, too?)

This playground chant has come to mind as I've been exploring the way the phrase "out of the mainstream" is being used nowadays as a hard-edged put-down.

Webster's New World College Dictionary defines "mainstream" literally as "the middle of the stream, where the current is strongest," but many other dictionaries seem to flow swiftly to the metaphorical sense: "The prevailing current of thought" is the quick definition provided by the helpful OneLook site.

Global Language Monitor, a nonprofit organization tracking usage trends, identified "out of the mainstream" as the phrase of the year for 2005. The group's definition is straightforward: "Out of the Mainstream: Used to describe the ideology of any political opponent."

A contributor to the letters column of the Concord (N.H.) Monitor used a variation on this phrase the other day in a way that encapsulates conservative perception of liberal bias:

"A number of people in this country have lost contact with mainstream America.... Although I'm no expert, like many Americans I feel the majority of the information presented by the media to the public is driven by a liberal bias."

The "mainstream" seems to be overflowing on its right bank, you might say. But heartland conservatives aren't the only ones using the "M" word to beat up on their opponents. Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York has used the phrase "out of the mainstream" to characterize people and positions he disagrees with. In a November interview on The NewsHour, he said of Judge Samuel Alito, the nominee to the US Supreme Court: "He sometimes finds legal ways to throw out very common-sense laws.... That's why he dissented and was so [much] further to the right than judges we consider out of the mainstream...."

The Washington Post seemed to concur that "mainstreamness" was the right measure, but reserved judgment. Its analysis ran under the headline, "Alito, In and Out of the Mainstream: Nominee's Record Defies Stereotyping."

But guess what? If you're a journalist you can't win for losing. Self-styled media critics on both the right and the left feel free to zap you as part of the "mainstream media," or "MSM," as the bloggers call them.

English has other locutions to do the same work as "mainstream." One metaphor sometimes used to cover "most but not all" is borrowed from Anglican theological tradition: "broad church," which refers to those comfortable with both "high church" and "low church" tradition, and by extension, to that broad range itself: "the broad church of public opinion." It's like what Americans call a "big tent" in politics.

Noted writer Salman Rushdie pushed "broad church" to a new level in an essay in The Times after the July 7 bombings in London, when he wrote, "Traditional Islam is a broad church that certainly includes millions of tolerant, civilised men and women...."

It would be a very broad church indeed that has a minaret. But with so many public discussants evidently bent on demonizing their opponents, there's something reassuring about inclusive language.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy

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