Can We Drop “Balls”?

June 11, 2012

Many people, including many skeptics, atheists, and humanists, use the term “balls” or its myriad equivalents as a metaphor for courage, determination, resolve or similar attributes.  I suggest we should stop using such terms, for a pretty obvious reason: one doesn’t need testicles to be courageous, determined, or resolute.

There has been a fair amount of discussion in the secular/skeptical blogosphere recently about sexism and sexual harassment.  However, maybe I missed it, but I have not seen much discussion about the common use of slang based on male or female anatomy, perhaps because it’s ubiquitous or it’s felt not much can be done about it. Whatever the reason, I think use of these terms merits some discussion, in particular, the common use of “balls.”

Before I go any further, let me hasten to make clear that I’m not asking people to stop using “balls” as a substitute for “courage” because of some prissiness about language. Profanity and slang don’t bother me. I worked as a lawyer for over twenty years. In conversations with my colleagues, every other word was “fuck” or one of its derivatives—and that’s just when we were talking about the weather.

Nor am I suggesting that there be some sort of censorship by secular or skeptical organizations.  We’re not going to throw someone out of a conference just because they lace their conversation with references to “balls,” “nuts,” “cojones,” etc.

But I do think that people who pride themselves on evidence-based reasoning should refrain from the all-too-common use of “balls” as a substitute for “courage” and related terms, as in the sentence, “He doesn’t have the balls to tell Dawkins he’s wrong.” Testosterone is associated with certain behaviors and traits, including aggression (not necessarily a bad thing, by the way), but there is no association with courage, determination, or resolve. Use of “balls” when “courage” will do perpetuates the stereotype that men have more courage or determination than women.

One might argue that “balls” is used so often that it’s lost its gender-specific connotations. I don’t buy that argument—and isn’t that argument similar to what we hear, and reject, from the religious fundies? “Oh, the word ‘God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance has lost any religious significance” or “the cross has become a secular symbol.” We don’t think religious terms lose their significance just because they’re repeated frequently; why should we think slang loses its gender reference just because it’s repeated frequently?

Language is powerful. Language not only expresses our thoughts, it shapes them. “Balls” is in common use, and that’s precisely part of the problem. It’s embedded so much in our language that we don’t notice it, but that simply means our sexism is burrowed in deep.

Am I exaggerating the effects of using “balls” and similar gender-specific slang? I don’t think so. Quick: what do you call someone who has no balls, who is a weak-willed individual? Why, a “pussy” of course.

It’s difficult to break language habits, but not impossible. In a couple of decades, most people stopped using “mankind” when they really meant “humanity,” and I think one can stop using “balls” as a substitute for courage, determination, or resolve with just a bit of effort. (If one feels the need for an anatomy-based metaphor, “backbone” does quite nicely.) Plus, once one drops the sexist slang one will have the immense satisfaction that comes with the realization that one has finally graduated 8th grade.