Grow a Pair?

The fact that my 15 year old nephew is studying J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls makes me feel a bit less starchy about referring to it now. If you don’t know the work – and I am reaching back 30 years or so to when I read it in school so my recall is far from perfect – it’s a play that invites us to make connections, to take stock of how our actions can impact on others and how the seemingly isolated actions of diverse people can be experienced cumulatively by those on the receiving end. It speaks of responsibility for our actions, empathy (and the lack of it) and the part we can play in sustaining or destroying other humans. It speaks of the importance of power and status too, because there are no level playing fields. It’s a 70 year-old work and I’m pretty sure that makes it pre-internet, but somehow I’ve started thinking about it quite a lot when I’m online, both because of what exists in this space and because of the specific type of work in which we are engaged.

The way we humans see connections between words, ideas, images and actions, or indeed whether we see connections at all, is irrefutably subjective. We all look at the same signs but they trigger subtly or substantially different responses in us, arising from our unique distillations of memory and experience, our positions in hierarchies of power and our stores of cultural capital. Connotations differ.

The thing that life teaches us though, is that, equally irrefutably, the way we respond to a given stimulus can evolve over time. We keep learning and can discover, accidentally or through application, previously unseen, hidden or unconsidered connections between phenomena. Sometimes those realisations engender an obligation to act. That can happen when we realise, for example, that we have enjoyed an unearned privilege or entitlement and that that cuts into someone else’s share of the pie. Our understanding develops. Pennies drop.

Simple example. In the Anglophone, early 21st Century culture people often use expressions like ‘Man Up’ and ‘Grow a Pair’. As part of our work with young (and not so young) people we often talk about these expressions, not merely because they are used frequently but because they are so effectively illustrative of, and partly constitutive of, an overarching sytem in which many people believe we live. Patriarchy.

‘Grow a Pair’ is definitely not about gloves. Or headphones. Or candle-sticks. It has a definite and exclusive meaning which is not now and never has been ovaries. We need to consider why that is the case.
You’re not from round here, are you?
To unpick this with other people we need to talk. You can’t beat face to face conversation. Ask students, or yourself, or your mates what exactly is meant by ‘grow a pair’. It’s highly unlikely you’ll get a response that isn’t about testicles. Balls. Gonads. Knackers. Nuts. Stones. The Family Jewels. We all know that’s what is meant by ‘a pair’ but how often do we think about what that meaning itself ‘means’?

Ask in what situations the phrase is used. Who might say it and to whom? What message is being transmitted? What kind of dynamic exists between the speaker and the spoken to? Who wouldn’t say it and why might that be the case? Can you say it to everyone or only a certain section of society? Is there an equivalent version relating to female biology? If not, why not? With a reasonably talkative audience you’ll probably get a rewarding and enlightening conversation going easily enough. Of course some will have thought about this more and better than you or I. Some will kind of get it but not yet shone a real light on its implications. Others will be awkward, maybe giggling nervously like Beavis and/or Butthead, or maybe retreating into a ‘fingers in ear’ stand. But ask the question.

Recently, I was asked to do a presentation to a mixed student audience of about 150 sixteen and seventeen year olds. It was billed loosely as a discussion of sexist language – contextualised beforehand for the students by the college – and as an opportunity for lads to volunteer to try out one of our programmes. It was a much bigger group than we’d normally talk to and usually our work is with males only, as that is our raison d’être, but we’ll talk to anyone to open a dialogue that can lead further. I asked the lads in the hall first if they’d ever been told, or told another young man, to ‘grow a pair’ or similar (‘get some balls’ etc). About half said yes. Some didn’t say anything at all and appeared a bit stunned, to be fair, so the final proportion is unknown. I then asked the young women if they’d ever been told to ‘grow a pair’ or ‘get some balls’. About a quarter said yes. Young women. Told to ‘grow a pair’ and/or ‘get some balls.’ Then I asked if they, the young women, had used the expressions sometimes too. A handful said yes, they had.

I asked the whole group if they had ever been asked about the use and meaning of this or similar phrases in a formal setting – at school/college. It seemed not. I then asked how humans principally conveyed meaning between themselves. The consensus response from the students was that it was by language. Next step, I asked if an alien came to earth to learn about the culture in this part of the planet and observed people using these phrases what that alien might infer as to which of the two principle biological classes of humans were held to be the ideal of courage, resilience and bravery – the default human, if you like, who is fully equipped for life, with all the necessary bits. Most (of those who answered) answered that ‘it’s men’. So, in about 8–10 minutes, without any equipment and without much preamble, we had established purely by crowd-sourcing responses framing ‘common knowledge’, discussing everyday phrases, that half the group were using a language that assumed they were themselves less than the human ideal – deficient in fact. The other half were using language that was deployed to impugn the credentials of their peers, to whip them into shape, to get in line, whilst at the same time asserting the overarching cultural ideal (that exclusive ideal that demotes 50% of the population per se). You can get quite a long way in a friendly and respectful conversation and you always learn/rediscover something in the process. What I learned, or had refreshed, was that in some situations even asking someone if they have ever been told to ‘grow a pair’ will expose them to feeling vulnerable or awkward. Such is the power of what that connotes. Next time, I’ll bear that more in the front of my mind, hopefully bringing a few more lads into the conversation.

If society is the sum of relationships in a given culture/place then the language(s) emerging from that context will both describe the relational basis of that society (including power and privilege) and, in its usage, shape its character. That’s why the words we use matter. That’s why ‘grow a pair’ needs to be discussed and understood for what it is and what it does. Not because testicles are bad, but because our society symbolically and in many ways practically privileges them and the humans to which they are attached to the detriment of those born with different biology i.e. women.

As the lady in Pearl’s Cafe by The Specials says so eloquently…