Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

Neanderthal parents will never give kids lesson in tolerance

Under attack: Gail Porter has suffered abuse over alopecia
Under attack: Gail Porter has suffered abuse over alopecia

I went to a parents' meeting about my daughter's first 'sexual health' classes this week. She's 10 – so far it's just hygiene, hair and relationships. Next year, things progress to friendly chats about reproduction, hopefully less focused on the metamorphosis of larvae than they were in my time.

We laughed together at how tip-toey these classes are, how most kids in her class already know this stuff and more besides, and how distancing the formal vocabulary employed by teachers in this area is. We looked in vain for any acknowledgment of same-sex attraction in the curriculum. This disappointed her, as "some boys in my class call everything bad 'gay', but you only have to watch five minutes of Modern Family to see how nice gay people can be".

I've written many times about how poorly some schools in Northern Ireland deal with homosexuality (many still favour the 'la-la-la, fingers in ears' approach). But the point is actually wider. Whatever our kids are being taught about social interaction and 'loving relationships', there needs to be more emphasis on respect and tolerance for those who, not to get too Breakfast Club, don't fall into the straightest of mainstream lines.

These are tough things to teach; there aren't many facts which prove that stepping into other people's shoes for a moment before assaulting them with ignorant verbal abuse is A Bad Thing. But most of us agree on the principle, and I wish schools would preach it like it's the 11th Commandment.

I'm not just talking about encouraging kids to understand that gay people are not scary aliens, but in fact, just like them. (As Boy George said last week, being gay is "about half an hour a week; the rest of the time we do what everyone else does".) Too many of us are unashamedly scathing about anyone whose appearance or behaviour is not the environmental norm. We know about Northern Ireland's race relations problems but there are less obvious examples of clattering intolerance all around us.

Only a few days ago on a train I watched a 50-something woman ostentatiously roll her eyes and shake her head at a disabled boy who was not only talking loudly but occasionally moaning. This woman, I presume, felt that the boy should be kept out of circulation, especially when she was attempting a crossword. I wanted to sneak a hidden camera film of her and take it round schools explaining why it's the woman, and not the boy, who should be under house arrest.

There are also still huge leaps to be taken in terms of respect between the genders. I don't have a problem with men making cheesy Neanderthal jokes about women between themselves – friends often laugh over politically incorrect throwaway one-liners which don't reflect their real principles. What's important is how you treat people.

This week I spoke to ex-FHM cover girl, Gail Porter, a generally bubbly and upbeat conversationalist, even when discussing her alopecia. She got quite emotional, however, when she recalled the man who recently leaned out of his van and shouted 'Baldie' as he drove past her. Another man interrupted her in a restaurant to exclaim, 'Oh my God, what happened to you?'.

"As if I'd turned into an ogre," she said tearfully.

Wouldn't it be great if schools could convince kids that these kind of people are the most uncool, pathetic, unfulfilled, idiotic losers in society? I'm often told this kind of tutoring 'isn't part of teacher's jobs' but let's face it, when there are parents guilty of equally grotesque knuckle-headed insensitivity, wouldn't it be fantastic if it was?

Pain behind Chris and Gwyn's split

The papers are full of smug 'Told you sos', sarcastic 'Quelle surprises' and other joyous indulgences in schadenfreude regarding Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow's split.

I admit I was perplexed about why Gwyneth made the announcement on her site under the heading 'A conscious uncoupling', which sounds more like a sub-standard Philip Larkin poem than a serious and unhappy statement.

But seeing pictures of the couple looking incredibly happy, giggly and tactile just three months ago, I just felt a bit sad.

Something's clearly gone badly wrong and I sense that one party at least will feel bereft at this ending.

It's time to throw book at Grayling

Justice Minister Chris Grayling's ban on families sending books to prisoners is just another symptom of the knock-out philistinism of this Tory government.

Grayling claims, bizarrely, that the public are behind him, and has implied that opponents like Alan Bennett, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes and Jeffrey Archer (!) are 'left-wing' militant crazies.

For him, it's about getting tough on baddies. But the are few things which can reform a person like a book. A great book can educate, raise social awareness and personal aspiration, and teach empathy and responsibility. Grayling could lecture prisoners for 10 years solid and not come close.

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