Chest Feeding, the N Word, trans ( why not vertical gender?), binary toilets: The woke editor that sits on my shoulder as I write.
I must admit, at times, to feeling smug. After all I write frequently about many aspects of our changing world, nearly always with disapproval. I have guffawed at political correctness and taken many opportunities to take a swipe at ‘woke’ culture, the latest in a series of culturally Marxist moves, to dictate what we can write, who can say what in public and to condition us into fear of stepping over the line of snowflake sensitivity. But am I really that immune to the pressure to conform? Probably less so than I think and undoubtedly far less than I would wish to be.
In addition to writing polemics, I write academic papers about healthcare and have been aware of the creeping effect of the language police over the decades. I have edited several academic journals where, God help me, I have been responsible for helping to impose some of this. I don’t disagree with all of it but, looking back, it appears now that this may have been the thin edge of a very long wedge.
For example, in healthcare writing we no longer use the word ‘elderly’. Rather, we use ‘older’ as an adjective and ‘older people’ to replace the noun. Believe it or not, this was a hot topic in healthcare and gerontology about 30 years ago and the reasons – something to do with not classifying people into groups – are lost in the mists of time.
Closer to my own subject, we no longer refer to ‘student nurses’; instead, we use ‘nursing students’. I am even guilty of correcting this in drafts of students’ essays, so I may be part of the problem. The logic is that ‘student nurses’ describes the old-style students who worked in hospitals and ‘nursing students’ describes students at university who are studying nursing. A typhoon in a terminological teacup.
This phenomenon has its ridiculous, if quite harmless, excesses. Take, for example, my co-author who refused to let us use the term ‘grey literature’ in a systematic review of literature related to nutrition in people with dementia lest we offended older people.
Notwithstanding the fact that ‘grey’ is the accepted term for referring to literature that is not in the usual format of refereed academic articles and books but, rather, is found in unpublished research reports, government white papers and local authority policy documents.
Moreover, the official database, called Open Grey, incorporates the word ‘grey’. I cannot recall what convoluted testicles we used as an alternative, but it struck me at the time that I was dealing with someone with a deranged and over-developed sense of propriety.
Joking aside, it is now apparent that the wedge is considerably thicker, and we have progressed, or possibly regressed, to a stage where the careless or deliberate misuse of language that is outside of the liberal left leaning canon, can lead to much more than mild disapproval or the stroke of an editorial pen.
These days it can lead to the loss of position, status and earnings. I cannot be alone in scrutinising what I write, not only for grammar and spelling, but to ensure that it will pass the ideological censor who is always looking over my shoulder.
Some words have disappeared. Take the repulsive and abusive term for Black people of Afro-Caribbean descent, the dreaded ‘N’ word. This has not been an acceptable term since I was a child. But the word is a real word and was commonly used early in the last century. I cannot imagine the gripping adventure book Prester John by John Buchan getting past the censors now. In my early Penguin edition of the book the ‘N’ word appears on the first page. But a teacher or lecturer using the ‘N’ word in full and disapprovingly to exemplify its use will lose his or her job as someone, possibly not even a Black person, will report being traumatised; and we mustn’t have that. Strangely, however, and remarkable a person as she was the non-nurse Mary Seacole, elevated to a status outweighing her contribution to nursing, is recorded as having used the ‘N’ word frequently. I had to remove it from an article I was editing which was directly quoting her, on the advice of my publisher. Mary Seacole did not identify with her Jamaican compatriots and considered herself to be Scottish.
I am not sure where we currently stand on daring to write the expression ‘coloured people’ – I may soon find out – but this also went out of use decades ago to be replaced by the clumsy but more acceptable ‘people of colour’. ‘Coloured’ was a specific category of people in apartheid South Africa classified by the colour of their skin as not being black or white and receiving their proportionate share of discrimination in the process.
It is perfectly understandable why people of Afro-Caribbean descent and South Asian people do not wish to be referred to as ‘coloured’; notwithstanding that the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colo(u)red People) in the United States seems not to have received the memo. But for fear of slips of the tongue, albeit quickly corrected, or accidental misuse rapidly apologised for earning opprobrium or loss of job, the rest of us are terrified into avoiding similar career-ending faux pas.
We edit carefully what we write, which is relatively easy, and rehearse carefully what we are going to say publicly. But that slip of the tongue, a lapse of memory or an attack of nerves leading to the utterance of a terminological time bomb is rarely forgiven, earns us mobbing on social media, and investigation by our employers. That we all ought to have much better ways of spending our time never seems to cross anyone’s mind.
Beyond words, the expression of ideas which stray outside the narrow and monochrome confines of ‘whack-a-mole’ wokery, can land people in deep trouble. Even the blindingly obvious, to which many are obviously blind, that biological sex (with very few exceptions) is determined genetically at birth and immutable throughout life is committing a thought crime.
Being genuinely sympathetic to those of ambiguous gender, under the care of our mental health services, who may wish to identify as other than their biological sex is insufficient. This applies to disability, skin colour, sexuality and any of the lengthening list of characteristics whereby people assume victimhood, identity and intersectionality.
Years of friendship, a patent absence of discrimination, and even demonstrably active promotion of people from minority groups can all be overturned at the press of a key. We must appear to believe exactly what they want us to believe and express it as they wish us to express it ‘lex scripto, lex credendi’.
Roger Watson is a professor of nursing