No, I will not "grow a pair"

Men need to admit their vulnerability.

If there's one phrase I'd love to get rid of, it's "grow a pair". You hear it a lot nowadays, not just said by men to other men they wish would grow up, but even from men to women, or women to other women. "Grow a pair", they say, or "strap on a pair", as if a couple of testicles will solve all problems, like a pair of dangly amulets.

As most men know, growing a pair of balls, or having them drop, doesn't really change much at all. You remain pretty much the person you used to be, albeit with a slightly deeper voice. But still, in our culture and language, "balls" and "ballsy" mean courage or courageous; we talk of "cojones" or "having big balls" to mean audacity or power.

It's irritating nonsense, for several reasons. Courage isn't inherently a masculine quality, of course, but there's more to it than that. People often use the phrase "grow a pair" or "strap on a pair" as a way of belittling someone who has shown weakness, or vulnerability - someone who didn't show the requisite assertiveness that apparently lives in the testes.

As well as that, it reinforces the very worst stereotypes of the "man's man": the rush to confrontation, rather than negotiation; a certain headstrong or even bloody-minded quality; the idea of maleness as something that is aggressive, rather than collaborative.

For those of us men who are more team players than the all-conquering alphas we're supposed to aspire to be, it's a tiresome thing. Not all of us are meant to shout and bellow and fight our way to success; some of us prefer other ways of doing things. It's not through a lack of balls, but through a lack of unfeeling uber-competitiveness.

Must we still, in this new century, be talking of men as people who should be nasty, assertive, pushy, unpleasant, in order to be proper men? We're not all Gordon Ramsay (who has a fondness bordering on obsession for talk of "big bollocks" when upbraiding some poor cookery sap on television).

But there's something else, too. The real quality that testicles have is staring us in the face. Human males, unlike many other mammals, have external testicles, dangling merrily away from their undercarriage like a couple of lychees in an old leather purse.

This evolutionary quirk exposes the adult male to extremes of pain and suffering at a stroke. A well aimed kick from an attacker, or punch from a young child (children happen to be at the perfect height to connect with full force), and even the toughest man will be reduced to a quivering foetal position of helplessness. There are no words for the pain, which I am pretty sure is definitely entirely worse than childbirth (THIS IS A JOKE).

How humans could ever have believed that a benign (and in many cultures apparently male) creator decided to place a couple of pain grenades hanging invitingly down as they do is a question for anthropologists. What it means, though, is that men's testicles, far from being a centre of our strength, are our most visible sign of weakness.

Every year, dozens of men die because they decided to "strap on a pair" rather than admit their own weakness. Whether it's shrugging off a niggling illness or feeling unable to talk about mental health problems (young men are at far greater risk from suicide than women, for example), the things we've been told about what it is to be a man can be our own worst enemy. It's not weakness to admit you can't cope; it's strength.

If we can't get rid of the odious phrase "strap on a pair" perhaps it's time it should take on a new meaning. Because it is courageous to strap on a pair - to hang your vulnerability so obviously, to invite a kick in the balls. It's an aspect of masculinity that often gets overlooked, the quality of honesty, vulnerability, and gaining strength through admitting your weaknesses rather than glossing over them with displays of machismo.

So if someone asks me to strap on a pair, I'll take their advice: be more aware of shortcomings; realise how vulnerable we all are; remember that a fall from hubris is just a well-aimed punch in the nuts away. That's real courage, I think.

"Adam's leaf" underpants, invented in 2004, are supposed to keep the testicles ventilated and increase sexual potency. Photograph: Getty Images

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.