Would you find it patronising if your midwife addressed you as ‘good girl’? Or is it another political correctness blow up? STEPHANIE MEADOWS investigates

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

References

Cameron, D. (1995). Verbal Hygiene. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Chandler, D., & Munday, R. (2011). A dictionary of media and communication. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.

Donnelly, L. (2018, 9 February). Don’t say ‘good girl’ to women in labour because it is disrespectful, midwives are told. The Telegraph.

Kinsella, L. (2017, 23 November). UK teachers told to use gender-neutral pronouns. News.

Oxford Dictionaries Online. ‘Political correctness’ definition.

Penny, L. (2015, 1 June). What’s wrong with political correctness? New Statesman.

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3 thoughts on “Would you find it patronising if your midwife addressed you as ‘good girl’? Or is it another political correctness blow up? STEPHANIE MEADOWS investigates

  1. Georgina Guy says:

    Hi Stephanie, thank you for writing about such an interesting topic! You’ve presented a balanced argument, weighing up the pros and cons of political correctness really clearly. I find it really interesting there are so many different definitions of PC and I wonder why this is the case. Personally, I agree with the Oxford Dictionaries Online definition, that PC is about avoiding using words or phrases that can exclude or discriminate groups in society. I see politically correct language as largely positive, especially regulation that helps establish equality, such as referring to old people as senior citizens.

    Regarding the article in The Telegraph by Donnelly about midwives modifying their language in order to not make women anxious, I wonder if your attitude would change about how midwives talk to you if you are actually giving birth. I’ve asked my mum this and she has said that when she was giving birth to me, the midwife had to contact a doctor as I had gone into “foetal distress”, which my mum admits really freaked her out. Would saying that there had been a change in heartbeat pattern have made a difference in how she felt, do you think? However, I do see your point, as I can imagine women are much more focussed on giving birth, rather than analysing everything their midwife says!

    Finally, I totally agree with you that there will always be people who want to intentionally hurt others, so political correctness can help regulate what is said. Thanks again for such a detailed and interesting blog post.

  2. Briony Greaves says:

    Hi Stephanie, I found your blog insightful and informative!

    I have never come across midwives needing to use politically correct terms before, which is what intrigued me to comment. Although, I cannot comment on the experience of childbirth, I do firmly believe that midwives are in a busy work environment, and I am sure they do not need to prioritise thinking about their choice of words over the health of the mother and baby. In addition, childbirth seems like an already painful and stressful experience anyway, so in my opinion wouldn’t ‘foetal distress’ and ‘changes in the baby’s heart rate pattern’ be equally as scary to hear during childbirth?

    The original purpose for political correctness was to avoid offensive terms and make individuals feel comfortable and not attacked or labelled. This is my idea of political correctness, so I probably agree more with the Oxford Dictionary Online definition you presented in your blog. Political correctness does have its benefits and I think the school regulation is a positive step forward especially for individuals doubting their gender.

    I went on The Telegraph to study the article you mentioned more in-depth and stumbled upon an article where they quoted the Duchess of Cornwall, who called political correctness a severe form of censorship (The Telegraph, 2011). The Telegraph (2011) claim “if PC was originally designed with the best intentions to make the world a better, fairer, happier place, it has failed dismally”. This made me think of your “PC gone mad” comment which many people do think of when they hear the term “political correctness”. This is because words that have been around for years, and never meant to be non-inclusive are now being changed because people have only now started to find these terms offensive. For example, Waters (2018) from The Independent refers to a new debate after “the term ‘snowperson’ instead of ‘snowman’” was used and Piers Morgan protested on the inclusive neologism.

    I noticed how you mentioned Piers Morgan but did not mention the term ‘snowflake Britain’ which I believe he uses often and relates to political correctness. I do not know if you have stumbled upon this term before but, snowflake refers to “an overly sensitive or easily offended person” (Oxford Dictionaries Online) and is thrown around whenever an offensive word or a non-inclusive word is adapted to fit everyone.

    Thank you for enlightening me on the midwife article, this was a very interesting blog to engage with!

    References:
    Snowflake. (n.d). In Oxford Dictionaries Online. Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/snowflake

    The A-Z of political correctness. (2011, May 15). The Telegraph. Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/8513876/The-A-Z-of-political-correctness.html

    Waters, L. (2018, November 5). The BBC called snowmen ‘snowpeople’ and Piers Morgan reacted like a snowflake. The Independent. Retrieved from https://www.indy100.com/article/bbc-snowpeople-snowman-piers-morgan-snowflake-good-morning-britain-susanna-reid-ricky-gervais-8618501

    Briony Greaves

  3. Roberto Palermo says:

    Hi Stephanie,

    I think your blog on political correctness demonstrates that the debate on political correctness is still as topical as ever and touches every member of society.

    You start by giving a useful explanation of how political correctness can mean different things to different people. It seems that the dictionary definition emphasises the correctness of language choices in political contexts, in order to safeguard civil rights. However, perceptions have shifted to such an extent that, as Chow says, “[t]he phrase has gone from wisdom to weapon”.
    I would definitely agree that the ambiguity surrounding the meaning attributed to the term “political correctness” leads to a blurring of the boundaries, leaving many of us questioning where we stand on this matter. Has the desire to use PC language which is non-discriminatory and non-offensive been taken too far by certain individuals or groups in their search for social justice and equality? Or is the concept of “PC gone mad” being instrumentalised by anti-Social Justice Warriors, who are unwilling to consider the effect that language can have on people?
    As Wilson states in his article “Twitter tyrants and social justice warriors beware! The libertarians are coming for you”, this is a “messy conflict”, which is very difficult to solve. Those of us who are familiar with some of the wars waged on Twitter will know that, “in the real world, the right to speech might come into conflict with the right to be free of harassment, or racist abuse, or even with itself (online harassment provides an example of a case where an untrammelled right to speech might work to silence people).”

    So, how does the case of the midwives fit into this debate? You consider this from the perspective of women who are about to give birth, and call into question whether the language used to communicate with them would actually have an effect on them, when they have far more important things to think about. But let’s consider this from another angle: doesn’t the choice of appropriate language in this context fall within the boundaries of the duty of care of members of the medical profession towards their patients? In my opinion, it does. Admittedly, there may be women with “thicker skin” who are unlikely to concern themselves with the language choices of midwives, but what about the ones who are?

    The guide published in the BMJ is based on research proving the beneficial effects of “positive communication” during pregnancy, therefore this in itself provides substantial proof that “language matters”. As the guide says, “Giving birth is a life-changing event. The care that a woman receives during labour has the potential to affect her – both physically and emotionally, in the short and longer term – and the health of her baby. Good communication, support and compassion from staff, and having her wishes respected, can help her feel in control of what is happening and contribute to making birth a positive experience for the woman and her birth companion(s).” In this context, the argument for “PC gone mad” seems to lose ground.

    References

    Chow, K. (2016, December 14). ‘Politically Correct’: The Phrase Has Gone From Wisdom To Weapon. National Public Radio. Retrieved from: https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2016/12/14/505324427/politically-correct-the-phrase-has-gone-from-wisdom-to-weapon?t=1541709616788
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. (2014, December 3). Intrapartum care for healthy women and babies. Clinical guideline. Retrieved from: nice.org.uk/guidance/cg190
    Wilson, J. (2015, September 2). Twitter tyrants and social justice warriors beware! The libertarians are coming for you. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/02/twitter-tyrants-and-social-justice-warriors-beware-the-libertarians-are-coming-for-you

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