The concept of ‘political correctness’ has become hugely controversial in the last few years – but why? Well, maybe it is because people struggle to even know what political correctness is because the definition is all over the place! I even suspect that your idea of political correctness is probably different to mine. One of many general definitions of political correctness that most of us can probably relate to is this one from the Oxford Dictionaries Online – “the avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against”. This is surely a positive thing? Stopping people using language which may be offensive and insensitive to others.
However, there are other definitions of political correctness where people may start to disagree. Chandler & Munday (2011) believe it to be “a term typically used pejoratively for what is seen as an obsessive avoidance of language or behaviour which might be perceived as offensive or discriminatory” (p.326). Penny (2015) claims that “what has come to be called ‘political correctness’ used to be known as good manners and was considered part of being a decent human being. The term now is employed to write of any speech that is uncomfortably socially conscious, culturally sensitive or just plain ‘left wing’”. It’s pretty clear that people are unable to agree on exactly what it is, so how are we ever supposed to know where the boundaries lie?
This brings us to the next point where language is starting to become regulated because of ‘political correctness’. Apparently, some midwives are now being advised what language is deemed as acceptable when helping women in labour. Recently, Donnelly (2018) in The Telegraph newspaper reported that midwives should “avoid the use of the phrase ‘big baby’ in case it makes women anxious, and not to talk about ‘foetal distress’. Instead, larger infants should be described as “healthy” while foetal distress should be described as “changes in the baby’s heart rate pattern,” (Donnelly, 2018). The advice also said, “midwives and obstetricians should never address the pregnant woman as a ‘she’ when they are discussing the situation at hand. Instead, they should always refer to her by her first name, the guide says” (Donnelly, 2018). The article claims that using the right language could help to reduce anxiety and show more respect for women in labour. So, the question is, would you find it more respectful if midwives changed their language around you when you’re in labour? I personally do not think that it would make much of a difference. I’m sure us ‘women’ are more focused on giving birth rather than how midwives use language to describe our labour process.
However, there are good reasons for regulation of language that have been enforced in recent years which I’m sure many of us can agree on, such as the substitution of words which can be “insulting and objectionable to various minorities”. For instance, black people became “African American” and high school girls became “women” (Cameron, 1995, p.115). This type of regulation helps create equality and fairness for everyone.
Lastly, new regulations have been proposed for school teachers as they have been advised to start using more gender-neutral pronouns, rather than addressing children as ‘he’/’she’, ‘girls’ and ‘boys’. Kinsella (2017) relates how the “UK Government’s former mental health Tsar Natasha Devon told teachers at the UK’s top schools to use gender-neutral language towards their students”. The reason for this was so teachers avoided enforcing gender stereotypes onto their pupils and to make those who are querying their gender feel comfortable when being addressed. However, some people, such as the likes of TV presenter and journalist Piers Morgan (see Kinsella, 2017), may argue that this type of political correctness is barbaric!
The overall motives behind ‘political correctness’ are sound. Who would not agree about stopping the use of offensive language? However, ‘political correctness’ is often not perceived as that anymore. Many refer to it as “PC gone mad” and it is leading people to being too frightened to say anything in case they cause offence. I think maybe we need to consider that although PC is a good thing, there will always be people who want to personally offend you. But phrases like ‘good girl’ being used by midwives is not something to be offended about. Maybe we need to stop going around looking for insults and grow some thicker skin?
STEPHANIE MEADOWS, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK