Friday, July 24, 2009

English chess needs to grow up about women

As many of our readers presumably know, the 2009 British Chess Championships start in Torquay on Sunday. As many may not know, an apparent change to the status of women in these championships has caused some English chessplayers to emit shrieks of protest. The change has been described as "kowtowing", as being "pushed around by politicians": a poster on the English Chess Forum added that "I had hoped that English chess might escape unscathed". Another, possibly with a problem rather wider than the one being immediately addressed, found himself invoking Patricia Hewitt, Margaret Hodge and somebody he called "Mad Hatter Harman" in a series of responses attacking "outdated" feminism and comparing the change to proposals to change the rape laws.

What, you may wonder, is this clearly controversial change that has caused these gentlemen such anguish? What injustice, what act of positive discrimination has caused them to react so angrily? What horror of political correctness could bring them to the point where they respond in such an outraged and aggressive tone? As English chess has not, apparently, "escaped unscathed" - to what degree has it actually been scathed? Have men been barred from the Championships? Have women been awarded bonus points for turning up? Have protesting men been threatened? Been beaten up by the police? Been dragged off to prison?

None of these. Not quite. What has actually happened, as I understand it, is that the name of the title for which women players are contending will no longer be that of Ladies' Champion. We will now have a Women's Champion instead.

Quelle horreur.

Now to my mind the only genuinely noteworthy thing about this change is that nobody thought to make it thirty years ago. Ladies is old-fashioned and outmoded, and for a reason: it's the equivalent, not of Men but of Gentlemen, a term which nobody would think of using, in contemporary sport, in its capitalised form. These terms no longer describe the people for whom they were devised. That is what language does. It changes, over time, as the subjects of a language also change.

It's not so important in itself. It's just a small, overdue correction that somebody has finally thought to make. Had they not made the change now, nobody would very much have minded: they would surely, however, have made it in the end. As one sane voice on the Forum says:
While the change itself is rather inconsequential, this is no reason in itself not to do it if it's appropriate
It could not be better put. It is a small thing but an appropriate one. A reasonable one.

Except in the minds of some chessplayers - to whom, apparently, it is neither appropriate or reasonable. It is an outrage, an imposition, a piece of grotesquery, an oppressive act to be compared with relaxing the laws on rape or murder, or even with taking people off to Nazi concentration camps. These are the terms in which people have, themselves, chosen to respond. These are comparisons which they have seen fit to make.

This is hysterical. But not in a good way.

Of course, the men who have responded in this way are keen, at the same time, to stress that they have nothing against women, indeed not, and nor in fact does any other male chessplayer that they are aware of. Writes one of the loudest protestors:
chess is open and welcomes people of all sorts
and that they are
utterly unaware of any male resentment to women playing chess
Utterly unaware is a good term, here, since they are also utterly unaware of the impression they are giving of themselves.

It is not really, if truth be told, a discussion about whether we should say ladies or women. That would be the issue if the responses were temperate, and thoughtful, and proportionate to the importance of the act. Proportionate is what the responses are not. Nor temperate, nor thoughtful. They range to the embarrassing to the wild and foaming. Some are extraordinary in tone. They are not just unreasonable but unreasoned. They are not the tones of a discussion or a disagreement. They are the tones of resentment and fear.

It's true, the men who respond like this, with their resentment and their fear, are not bad men. Nor are they thoughtless, nor stupid. Except, that is, for the idiot who thought it would be an appropriate response to quote Pastor Niemöller. Really. Somebody actually did that. Some cretinous individual actually did that. Some cretinous individual actually thought it was appropriate to compare a change in wording of a sporting title to people being sent in their millions to Nazi death camps.

You know, I've long since abandoned the idea that chessplayers are necessarily intelligent, but even I was surprised. One sees the most extraordinary stupidity on the internet and I have seen my share in full, but even I was forced to ask myself - just how ignorant and stupid is it possible for somebody to be?

Still, with the exception of the idiot Alex Holowczak, they are not ignorant men (though given that one of them is a Sun journalist, not all have an aversion to ignorance as such.) I've seen most of them comment thoughtfully and usefully on other aspects of chess.

But though they are not ignorant men, they are men nevertheless. And it seems, as it has always seemed, that at the first hint of feminism, many men lose their heads. Or, at least, that portion of their heads which contains the qualities of thought and reason. In the face of feminism the thoughtful become fools. Foolish men, full of needless, ludicrous resentment at an enemy who is present only in their fearful imagination. Men who have no idea that their own reactions demonstrate that they, themselves, are the problem - the problem that they insist does not exist.

They think of "feminism" as "outdated". Of course they do. And they show exactly why it is not.

Is it more ludicrous than it is extraordinary, or more extraordinary than it is ludicrous? Change the word ladies to women and some men respond as if they were being dragged off to the guillotine by a horde of wild-eyed feminists with Harriet Harman playing Madame Defarge. Or to an appointment with Valerie Solanas.

Hey ho. I really ought to be old enough not to be surprised by this sort of thing, but in truth I find it depressing, and troubling, especially if I think (as I do) that it reflects attitudes that are common within chess. I'm forty-four years old (old enough, it occurs to me, to have read Marilyn French's novel almost when it came out) and I can remember what a struggle it was, years ago but lasting years, to allow women to refer to themselves as Ms, if they so wished, not Miss or Mrs according to whether or not they had a husband.

Long and loud was the shrieking whenever this small change was proposed. Great were the insults heaped upon the feminists who proposed it. Dire were the predictions of calamity for humanity if the feminists got their way. Frequent were the accusations of tokenism laid at the door of the feminists for apparently believing that all you had to do to change something for real was to change its name. (You might think that people could either be accused of tokenism or of threatening calamity, but not both at the same time. You might receive the answer: "Quite".)

Of course, the usage Ms is now taken for granted, forms and forms of address have long since changed and nobody gives a damn if anybody prefers Ms, still less expects to heavens to fall when it does. If you're much younger than I am, you probably can't imagine what the fuss was about. Good. You've grown up in a world which is more grown-up - in that respect at least - than it was before. And similarly, in a few years somebody will understand what all this fuss was about. And the people who have written embarrassing things will be embarrassed that they wrote them.

So I hope. In the meantime, I hope these people do no damage. I hope, for instance, that the sheer stupidity of using phrases like "being pushed around by politicians", when the namechange is suggested by one of the few political figures who cares about chess and has been supportive of it, does not have the effect of losing chess those few political supporters.

I also hope that I am mistaken that these clowns represent a serious current of thinking (or indeed "thinking") within chess. It is never, of course, hard to find, on any subject, a small number of people speaking high-pitched paranoid nonsense on the internet, and it is tempting to believe that they represent no-one but themselves. I do not want to think, and I do not want other people to think, that chess - male-dominated though it is - is dominated by the sort of man who behaves like this. I do not want chess to be like that. I do not want chess to be thought of like that.

But I don't know. If they react like this over something so unimportant - what are they going to be like about that really matters? If it takes something as small as this to bring fear and resentment so very quickly to the surface - what is really going on in the minds of some male chessplayers?

There was a question asked on the Forum.
What does substituting one word, "lady," with another word, "woman," actually achieve by way of improving the participation and profile of women in chess?
It's not much of a question: as a rhetorical point it is a specious one, since nobody will be put off either. But what might well put women off - and Lord knows there are few enough of them in chess - is the reaction they get from men who play chess and the impression they get about what those men are like. They know that chess is overwhelmingly played by men - but what if they decide that it is not just overwhelmingly men, but whining, bitter and resentful men at that?

What will happen is that we have fewer of the women and no fewer of the whining, bitter and resentful men. What a depressing prospect that would be.

It doesn't have to be that way. If English chess does what it needs to do. English chess needs to grow up.

[This piece replaces the previously-promised fourth Benasque post, which may or not appear on a future date]


Tom Chivers said...

On a different note, does anyone else ever feel uncomfortable with the way chessbase photography features many more women than men ---- at least when compared to the ratio of those playing? It seems to me it sends the message that when a man plays we watch the board - but when a woman plays, we watch her.

Jonathan B said...

RE: The women v ladies.

I also have something to say about this ... and I'll add a fuller comment later today.

In the meantime, like EJH I find it hard to understand why people who profess to find the change so inconsequential or getting in such a fluster about it.

Try as I might I can't see this as a pair of modern day Emily Davisons grabbing Stuart Conquest's knights and refusing to let go until they get what they want - more an a simple updating of language. I think we can be fairly sure this is not the first step that leads to millions of chess players being herded into concentration camps.

The other thing I'd say at this point as that the number of people making a fuss about this over at the ECForum is very small - less than half a dozen maybe. Perhaps not "english chess" but a gobshite minority.

Martin Smith said...

To answer Tom's question: yes, and the implicit sexism of the whole "Chess Babes" concoction.

brenog said...

While I agree the reaction to the name change was hysterical, and I loved the demolition job you did on some of the wilder misinformed outbursts, I think this blog has gone over the top. In particular, you have gone in far too hard on young Alec. He'll learn to calibrate his sense of outrage more finely as he matures. On reflection, you might consider a small apology would be the charitable course to take?


nikita said...

Well said! English chess should grow up.

ejh said...

On reflection, you might consider a small apology would be the charitable course to take?

I don't think so, Brendan. Alex is old enough to can stand up for himself. He'll recover.

I don't think any great injustice has been done him.

Morgan Daniels said...

Just how old is this Alex chap?

ejh said...

Older than the ants, grasshopper, and younger than the sun.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the switch a big deal. The comments on the ECF Forum, pah. As for this blog - do you not have anything better to do? Self indulgent.

Anonymous said...

To me, the discussions at the English Chess Forum and here have been thought provoking and, dare I say, entertaining.