Thursday, October 20, 2005

Seirawan's strange pronoun logic

Seirawan includes the following qualifier in all the books in his Winning Chess series:
Bowing to tradition, in this book I refer to all chess players as he. To those readers who might find the exlusive use of this pronoun offensive, I apologize. It reflects the current reality of the chess world. I encourage female chess players everywhere to change that reality.

I have a rule to refrain from expressing political preferences on my chess blog, and this post comes very close to breaking that rule. However, from any location in the political landscape, the above quote is lame. From a conservative standpoint, I'd like him to take a stand and state that he is using the masculine pronoun to refer to all people because he does not find the arguments that he should do otherwise compelling. I thought this is what he was saying in his first line, when he says he is 'bowing to tradition.' But then he justifies his use of the masculine pronoun by alluding to the present chess-playing population, which is indeed mostly male. This rationale comes off as disingenuous and cheesy. From a liberal standpoint, if he really wants to change that reality, one (perhaps Quixotic) way to do it is to exert a tiny bit of linguistic pressure in the right direction. Also, by only encouraging 'female players' to change that reality, he is showing naivete about how demographics are changed: typically those in the majority must act to encourage and support those in the minority before real change takes place.

8 Comments:

Blogger Druss said...

Yes this stuck out when I read it as well. I agree - it is lame. He's have been better off just not saying it. It's not that hard to write in a non gender specific way anyway ... just use "they" or "white" or something.

I am reading Understanding Chess Move by Move by John Nunn (very good book - highly recommended), and he was going through a Polgar game. It was odd to read she.

10/20/2005 06:44:00 AM  
Blogger CelticDeath said...

I wonder why he even addresses it all. It's his book in his writing style. If he wants to refer to all chessplayers as jabas or whatstits or even snickerdoodles, then it's his perfect right. To heck with his apologetics!

10/20/2005 09:20:00 AM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

I coudn't have said it better, CD.

10/20/2005 10:58:00 AM  
Blogger Jim said...

I find it more interesting that writers aren't properly educated in the use of common gender and neutral gender pronouns. . .

Even more ridiculous are the writers who insist on use "she" as a common gender term when in fact, no such common gender term exists.

The real problem is we don't bother teaching grammar to our children any longer and they grow up to be uninformed malcontents insistent on enforcing the use of abombinations such as "personhole cover" or "chairperson". . .

10/20/2005 11:02:00 AM  
Blogger phorku said...

One thing to consider is Yasser Seirawan was born in Syria in 1960 and lived there for 7 years before moving to the US where I assume he was raised by his Syrian parents.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yasser_Seirawan

Syria is an Islam nation and the partriarcal Sharia law had more influence then than now. Women did not have the right to vote there till 1949 with restrictions and 1953 supposedly unrestricted.
http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/suffrage.htm

http://www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID=45973&SelectRegion=Middle_East&SelectCountry=SYRIA

Women are still not treated as equals there. Women are not treated as equals here either and our women gained the right to vote in 1920.

So while I don't agree with his comment I just wanted to point out that you might view them differently if you had his upbringing.

10/20/2005 12:55:00 PM  
Blogger Pawn Sensei said...

Very interesting post.

PS

10/20/2005 03:26:00 PM  
Blogger Blue Devil Knight said...

An email from a friend who saw this entry:

I like your assessment of Seirawan on gendered pronouns. Here's another: The passage you quote offers two reasons for using "he" in the old, universal sense: (1) tradition, (2) it reflects the reality that most chess players are men. Both are specious. (1) Conventions of language-use change, historically and socially. Traditionally the universal for 2nd person address was: thou, thee, thine, thy, ye. Not anymore. "He" as the 3rd person universal is no different. (2) The reality actually is: not all chess players are men. It's perfectly possible (just a little more difficult) to reflect this *actual* reality by rewording sentences such that they don't use gendered pronouns. People who don't are sexist (true), but the *reason* most don't is because they are poor (i.e. lazy) writers.
=============================

It is strange that many defend the 'tradition' argument. All aspects of language such as syntactic rules (i.e., grammar) and semantics of individual terms change over time. Stephen Pinker, in the book 'The Language Instinct' has many good examples of this. 'Proper grammar' is just a dialect with a police force.

10/20/2005 05:58:00 PM  
Blogger BlueEyedRook said...

I agree with the general sentiment. "He" is not to me all that offensive. I live near the National Smithsonian and I remember when they had to change a good hundred exhibits in the natural history museum because it referred to the "history of man" or "mankind." That to me is pretty silly. (Our tax dollars at work!).

However, I am a big fan of the "he or she" use or even better using he and she in different, unrelated sentences.

10/21/2005 10:49:00 AM  

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