October 28, 2008

Engendering news

A weighty issue.This is the time of year when piping and drumming news is at a premium. After this weekend’s London competition, results will be scarce and many pipers and drummers and bands will nearly shut down. But every time I think that, something newsworthy pops up.

And so, the news of the vote by the Royal Scottish Pipers’ Society to accept female members was leaked last week. Those who care, and many who don’t, know that the RSPS is a male-only organization, and that is as much a part of their tradition as is the requirement that members are “amateur” pipers with some “society” standing. That is, they don’t accept prize-money and, as one famous RSPS member said once in a thick English accent, “You must be a lahnd-oowner – and by that I doon’t mean a bahck gahhhhrden.”

Honestly, at the time, I just thought the males-only vote was another quirky and quaint holdover from Scotland’s deep-rooted piping tradition that pipers from other countries have a hard time understanding.

I have been critical in the past of the fact that some RSPS members are invited to judge important solo piping competitions. My criticism centred only on the fact that these folks, fine and jolly gentlemen that they are, have never demonstrated their playing ability in any ongoing public way, and that many competitors don’t really take their judging decisions seriously. Yet they remain on the approved list of UK judges, as assembled by Scotland’s Joint Committee – the closest thing there is in that country to a formal accreditation process, something that just about every one of the world’s piping associations has had in place for decades.

It was in fact the very first comment to the pipes|drums news story that opened my eyes to the obvious: that female competitors might perceive an element of bias when competing before these judges. Truly, I had never thought of that before, and that was the issue that the Times, Scotsman, Daily Express and other UK newspapers picked up on when they followed pipes|drums’ lead.

The Scotsman‘s blurb has received some interesting comments as well, and this one from “Girl Piper” succinctly summarizes the concern particularly well:

“To me the argument is simple. The club is a private society, but is also used to impartially adjudicate important piping competitions outside their own society. Adjudication requires firstly skill and knowledge, and secondly the ability to remain completely impartial. It is easy for anyone to draw the very logical connection between a group voting out women in their own organisation, and that same group being deemed impartial when judging both men and women against each other in an external competition. This is a clear conflict of interest. It’s logic, not spite, which is at the core of this conclusion. Add this to a musical tradition which has already been historically sexist and you’ll understand why there is a problem.”

It’s interesting to me that any of the world’s piping and drumming associations – including the RSPBA, which has in the past dealt swiftly with matters of perceived racial bias – would have addressed the issue on behalf of its members. On the other hand, the UK, because there is no real unifying governing body for solo piping competitions, can’t really do anything. Competitions and competitors are left to decide for themselves what, if anything, they want to do.

And I expect more winter news eventually to trickle out as people make up their minds how they will address such dilemmas.


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