Political correctness and its effect on practice

The need for sensitivity over language is well understood by social workers but do professionals find it difficult to engage with service users as a result?

People forget,” proclaims comedian Frankie Boyle, “that political correctness used to be known as spastic gaytalk.” The joke always gets a big laugh – not because many people use the word “spastic” in everyday language any more than they would “nigger” or “queer”, but because a lot of people want to stick a metaphorical two fingers up to a culture of political correctness that they perceive as having gone too far. Social workers have a reputation for being the most PC people around (although the term is so reviled that most disown the expression). So how can professionals use their language respectfully without becoming a joke themselves?

Andy Pilkington, professor of sociology at the University of Northampton, has some common sense advice. “We should be reflective and sensitive without becoming absolutely obsessive and closing down conversation,” he says. “If in my classroom someone gets slapped down for using the word ‘coloured’ instead of the term ‘black’, that’s not going to be helpful. We’ve all put our foot in it in the sense that someone’s objected to something we’ve said. That’s why there’s also the word ‘sorry’.”

But that’s easier in theory than in practice. Being labelled a racist, sexist or bigot of any hue is employment and social poison, so people’s fear that they could cause actual offence is multiplied by the worry of being seen to cause offence by others.

Taken together with the confusion over legal obligations covering equality, it’s no surprise that the “political correctness gone mad” viewpoint has become so prevalent, especially when it has been exploited by newspaper editors and the wider media. But while it is easy – and fun – to take the mickey out of press coverage and the mythical PC brigade banning black coffee and whiteboards, it’s worth remembering that most of us know at least one person who tries to change people’s language or behaviour when it’s not necessary.

Individual choice

Busybodies aside, how mindful do professionals need to be of the language they use? Disability equality trainer Laurence Clark says it is the individual choice of users that should be followed. “Talk with someone and figure out what terms they are comfortable with,” he says. “That’s fine on a one-to-one basis, but if you’re talking about a policy or a leaflet that’s delivered in the community, obviously then you have to be more mindful. There’s a difference between people’s definition of words, which is why I focus on where words come from. To my mind if you’ve got an idea of where words come from or what they might imply, then they can at least make an informed judgement.”

But Chiatulah Ameke, a diversity trainer, thinks that focusing on words is a problem in itself, and that it is an unnecessary debate. “I think you’ve got to create an environment where people can make mistakes [in what they say],” he says. “When I started as a social worker in 1991 that was possible that’s been shut down. And this distracts from underlying debates about recruitment and retention. They’re just not being addressed.”

This debate isn’t just academic the effects can change how people do their jobs. Towards Race Equality, published by the Inspectorate of Probation in 2000, documented that many white probation officers felt uncomfortable with black prisoners, and would choose to write “bland” reports on them for fear of asking difficult questions.

Training may be a cause of the focus on semantics. “Social workers are an interesting case,” says Pilkington. At one time in social work training there was a clear set of notions of racism and it was close to what critics of PC talk about [drawing up a list of banned words], so maybe social workers are particularly sensitised to that – it was closing down legitimate training. That has changed, so maybe the current generation isn’t so concerned about it.”

But effective training is currently absent, says Linda Bellos, former leader of Lambeth Council and now a director at Diversity Solutions: “Very few people have received training. They don’t know what the Race Relations Act says or what they are obliged to do, or even what the underlying message is, so they make it up as they go along, and that’s where the danger lies.

“It would be nice if the Equality and Human Rights Commission met its duties,” she says. “There’s been a duty [on employers] since 2002 to ensure all staff receive training on race equality. I’m not asking for anything more than the law says, but a lot of people don’t know what the law says.”

The gap between effective training and people running on moral intuition can be striking. Tiffany Bridgewater, a social work student at Wolverhampton University, says that while her training was effective, the culture of being overly mindful of language in the workplace is affecting how she works. “It does prevent me from having in-depth conversations with service users,” she says. “I am doing my placement with young disadvantaged women and because we are about the same age I feel they may think I am putting them down by using politically correct words. I don’t feel like I can talk to them in a friendly way it has to be professional, which I think hinders the amount of quality information I am able to access from them.”

Daft edicts

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the culture of being overly mindful is all too common. If a manager issues a daft edict about using a particular term, most people are not going to bother arguing the toss over it. “One teacher in particular is very persistent on us sticking up for ourselves, particularly with managers,” says Bridgewater. “But in reality the best thing to do is keep your head down and get on with your work.”

Bellos’s argument that proper training rather than moral intuition should define people’s language, is not just compelling – it’s legally binding. But in the absence of that, professionals have little choice but to take responsibility for their own language, says Ameke. “People need to realise that when someone makes a crackpot decision in a council, that it is not national law. My advice is if you’re not sure about something, then ask and discuss, but do stand your ground. Get support from your colleagues and look at the context.”

Your views on PC language

Opinions from contributors to our CareSpace discussion forum. A debate on the TV documentary Mum, Heroin and Me triggered the following exchange:

● Lizzer: Just a little thing, but I find it offensive when people are referred to as “clean” when they are drug-free, as this implies that when they are using they are dirty. Would it be better if the phrase “drug free” was used?

● Popeye: I’m currently on placement within a drugs treatment agency. All professionals use “clean” and when I was talking to a service user I asked if he minded the term. He was perplexed as to why I might think he did. I then started to discuss with more service users one lad told me that I was a stuck-up student, and did I mean that he was no longer a ‘smackhead’.

● Wolvouni: I am in my second year at university and I’m very worried that when I qualify I will say the wrong things (that the words I use won’t be politically correct.)

● Aitch: wolvouni – don’t worry about getting the PC language wrong – you will almost certainly offend someone at some point, as popeye’s example shows. The important thing is that you retain respect for the people you are working with and it will show in your overall language. Be open to discussion about what are or are not acceptable terms and remember that PC/acceptable language is always evolving.

● Stuart Sorensen: Politicising language in this way changes so rapidly that people fall foul of it without knowing they’ve done it. For example, the use of the word “schizophrenic” is innocent enough for most people but I could rail against it for hours during training sessions if I chose to. The only real result, though, would be to frighten my students into silence because they genuinely do not know how the rest of their language will be perceived.

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This article is published in the 4 December 2008 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline D’oh! Don’t say that


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