Hazel McHaffie

political correctness

Political correctness

Political correctness can be a troubling cause to espouse and defend.

I’ve been involved in the world of moral issues for a long time now, as you know, so I’m used to the ‘on-the-one-hand … but-on-the-other-hand’ arguments. Even so, every now and then, I have to swallow hard to avoid saying something that might offend or hurt a person’s extra-delicate sensibilities, or bring the woke police hammering at my virtual door, but I’m left feeling guilty that I haven’t upheld the cause or rights or interests of another individual or group. Comedians these days struggle with similar discrepancies; comments and gags everyone previously took to be light-hearted fun are now analysed from the viewpoint of the person potentially being mocked or hurt. I kind of know how they feel. But I’m also alive to the pain of being humiliated in public.

So, what’s prompted me to talk about political correctness today? Well, [deep breath] of all things, the sports pages – yep, I know, not where you’ll usually see me! But let’s go back a step. Over the years I’ve actually met and got to know a number of people who’ve changed gender, and I really do care about their vulnerability and their mental health. I can’t pretend to understand their struggle, but I’ve done my best to be supportive and respectful and not to add to their burden. And indeed in one of my novels – Inside of Me – I tried to portray the issues in a favourable light. That’s my starting point. However, when it comes to sport, I have a real problem.

I’ve written about this before, but it has recently reared its head again, and I confess I feel incensed on behalf of all those girls who’ve slogged and suffered and sacrificed in order to achieve elite status in their chosen fields of sport, and all those parents and coaches who’ve shown such commitment to get them there. So when they’re faced with an uneven playing field, I want to leap to their defence. Males who have been through puberty undoubtedly have inherent advantages in terms of strength and stamina. So, how can it be fair for trans-women to compete in women’s events?

Take the American swimmer, now called Lia Thomas, who became the first openly transgender athlete to win a National Collegiate Athletic Association Division 1 national championship in any sport after winning the women’s 500-yard freestyle race at the US NCAA Championships in Atlanta in March this year. There was none of the usual celebration when those long fingers touched the edge of the pool, however, because Lia Thomas, before beginning the process of transitioning in 2019, (incidentally still not complete) was a man called Will, ranked 554th in the world, but now, winning against female competitors. The photos look like cartoons: a tall strapping muscular winner at one end of the medals podium; towering over the three female competitors who came in 2nd, 3rd and 4th, a visible demonstration of the inequality of it all: someone with a powerful genetic and biological advantage taking trophies and titles away from women. Rather like a drugs cheat winning over clean athletes. Surely this isn’t bigotry on my part … is it? – it’s common sense!

And then there was Emily Bridges, a cyclist, who began hormone therapy in 2021, and wanted to compete as a woman in a Championship race, even though up till then she’d been competing at the highest levels as a man. Other female competitors threatened to boycott the race, and the international governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), ruled that the controversial cyclist is ineligible to take part – this time at least. Their rule book states that it must ‘guarantee fair and meaningful competition that displays and rewards the fundamental values and meaning of sport.’ Exactly so.

Sporting authorities clearly have much to grapple with, but elsewhere the reality is that competitors and clubs and colleges and organisations and celebrities all too often feel effectively gagged. They must not say or do anything that differentiates between those born with XX chromosomes and those who carry a Y one but choose to identify as female, for fear of being branded trans-phobic, politically incorrect, prejudiced. And the transitioning person does appear to hold all the trump cards – not just in terms of superior size and strength and stamina, but in terms of access. They even seem to have free run of hitherto private female spaces, even when they still have the physical anatomy of a male. Not all establishments cater for all shades of identification.

I’m very conscious that I too might be pilloried for these views, but sometimes common sense and biological fact must prevail. However, please don’t let that stop you making a comment below if you have a view on this topic. I’m all for open debate.

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What’s in a name?

You know that point when you think … life can’t get any weirder ….? And it does. Well, I had such a moment this week.

You might have noticed that my beautiful homeland, Cornwall, has been high profile for months – TV programmes, news items, holiday recommendations … now it’s in the spotlight again, this time for re-naming its fish to make them sound more appealing on restaurant menus. Spider crabs become king crab; megrim become Cornish sole. Pilchards have already become Cornish sardine. Made me think about names and what they conjure up. And about competing rights and interests.

But that’s when the ultimate craziness hit me. And it relates to another of my old stamping turfs: the maternity hospital. Midwives in one University Hospitals NHS Trust (Brighton and Sussex) are now being told to stop using terms like ‘breastfeeding’ and ‘breast milk’, and even ‘mothers’ without a qualifying add-on …! Like I say … Hello? OK, I accept that there’s an above average percentage of LGBTQ folk in that area of England, with sensitivities, but still … Has the world gone mad? In a hospital where women are naturally and normally having babies and feeding them from their breasts?

Why, you might well ask. Well, apparently such gender-exclusive terms might cause offence and upset non-binary people.

So, out goes ‘mothers’; in comes ‘mothers or birthing parents’
Out goes ‘breastfeeding’; in comes ‘chestfeeding’
Out goes ‘maternity services department’; in comes ‘perinatal services’
Out goes ‘breastmilk’; in comes ‘human milk’ or ‘chestmilk’ or ‘milk from the feeding mother or parent’
Out goes ‘woman’; in comes ‘woman or person’
Out goes ‘father’; in comes ‘co-parent’ or ‘second biological parent’
Out goes ‘maternal’; in comes ‘maternal and parental’

To begin with, are the folk behind this drive unaware of the facts?
– that men have breastbones
– that men can get breast cancer
– that it’s a biological fact that only women can give birth to babies
– that, in the excitement and responsibility of assisting the delivery of a baby, it’s hard enough to always use acceptable words, without this additional layer of prohibition and verbal diligence
– that in seeking not to offend an Infinitesimally small percentage of the population who object to exclusively female words, they are probably losing the goodwill of the vast majority
– that this attempt to be politically correct and woke, is most likely to put hackles up against the very people it purports to speak for.

I have no wish to attract the venom JK Rowling endured when she challenged a decision to use the expression ‘people who menstruate’ instead of ‘women’, so I will merely leave the matter in your capable hands. As for me, I’m still in recovery stage, and in danger of being left behind with the old dogs beyond learning new tricks.

 

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‘Calm down, dear!’

In a former life I used to be a midwife working in an extremely busy labour ward (I’m third from the right in this photograph). In spite of the fast turn-over, we spent long hours with the couples in our care, and often developed warm relationships. We were, after all, sharing one of the most special, intimate and precious experiences in their lives.  And for me certainly, it was always a privilege and a thrill as well as a relief to see the infants safely in their mothers’ arms. Indeed, I always said that, if it ever ceased to be a miracle, I would quit the job. It never did; I left for other reasons – good ones.

However, it wasn’t all a bed of roses. One day a mother registered a complaint against me with my boss. Why? Because apparently, I had exhorted her to ‘push into your tail end.’ It demeaned her apparently, reducing her to the status of an animal! Now this was fifty years ago, at a time when we’d never even heard the term ‘political correctness’, never mind become obsessed with the notion, but even so, I confess I felt mildly irritated. When you’re spending a good chunk of a day/night with a woman, encouraging, supporting, reassuring; working through official breaks and long past your shift-hours to deliver continuity of care, you don’t tend to doctor every word that comes out of your mouth. You’ve got more important priorities, I’d suggest. Especially if the woman hasn’t a clue what she’s supposed to be doing and has no knowledge whatsoever of the anatomical names for the parts of the body she’s employing for the mysterious but monumental effort of giving birth. But hey ho! I could only apologise and try to learn from the experience. Fortunately the Superintendent of the Labour ward was a no-nonsense, straight-speaking, hugely experienced woman who fully shared my values, and she generously let me know (without words) that I had her sympathy and confidence.

When I watch Call the Midwife on BBC1, I’m often reminded of those days, since the programme’s set shortly before the time I’m talking about. The Nonnatus midwives even use terms of endearment when encouraging the mothers in their care – ‘sweetie’, ‘love’, ‘pet’, ‘darlin’!! Ppphhhwww!!! It’s some years now since real-life carers were told to eschew such expressions, lest patients/residents/clients, felt patronised, although I’m quite sure they were used in all innocence as terms of affection and engagement, not slights.

Nevertheless, all these decades later, I’m feeling a sense of disbelief. The Royal College of Nursing has just issued a document for its practitioners in which it advises against addressing women as ‘ladies’ to avoid causing unwitting offence … hello?! Other terms now off-limits include ‘pensioners’, ‘alcoholic’, ‘mankind’, ‘manning a ward’, ‘gays’ … Oh, and don’t forget to be scrupulous about selecting the preferred pronouns for people who don’t subscribe to the usual binary classifications, and … You get the idea. Nor is the RCN alone in this; it’s about three years now since the British Medical Association deemed the term ‘expectant mother’ to be taboo, lest it offend transgender people …!!!

Really? Seriously? Has the world gone completely mad?

In the security of my own blog, I think I might be allowed to voice a personal opinion and declare that I honestly think the powers that dictate these things would be well advised to concentrate on gaining more time for clinicians to do their jobs, without the colossal pressures currently hedging them about with stress and restrictions. Time for them to save lives, to ensure safety and the best care, in the first instance. Giving them breathing space – time to attend to those niceties and refinements without burning out themselves. Easing the chronic under-staffing and over-working they labour under, instead of putting even more pressure on them to examine every word before uttering it. Pphshaw!

It appears I got off lightly all those years ago!!

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