Actions speak louder than prejudices

DILEMMAS
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Over the years, many is the crazy, lonely old lady who's written me letters full of bile and fury at any liberal statement I've made. Occasionally, I'll argue back; but usually I write a letter peppered with gruesome exclamation marks, ending with the cheery note: "Thanks for writing! We'll have to agree to differ on this one!"

It seems to me that Mandy must take the same firmly amiable line with her godmother. Because almost certainly, since her godmother is an intrinsically kind person who cares for her fellow man, her feelings are probably based on fear.

And it's the fear of anything new that's her problem. I'm sure her views on decimal currency and computers were once just as deep-seated as they are about black people. Sixty years ago, black people were a rare sight, homosexuality was illegal, there was capital punishment and the streets were safer. No doubt she connects them all together. This is why, when Mandy disagrees with her views, her godmother becomes acrimonious. She feels even more threatened when Mandy appears to take the side of her enemies. Of course, if she starts ranting in front of other people, Mandy might want to raise a discreet eyebrow behind her back, or repeat the "agreeing to differ" mantra, in order to disassociate from her.

But, alone with her loving guardian, what's the point in Mandy speaking her mind? Where is the courage in hammering a fearful elderly lady liberal arguments? Many's the time I've argued against hanging, or apartheid; indeed many is the dinner party conversation I've reduced to a freezing halt as I've ranted on embarrassingly about a subject on which I feel I hold the high moral ground. But the shouting is far more to do with vanity than courage. It's easy to take a moral verbal stand. At the times I should make a stand, when someone's actions are offensive, all too often, cowardly, I hold my tongue - for instance in the home of the friend who keeps birds in small cages; or another who screams abuse at her children.

If Mandy's godmother spat at her Indian locals, and refused to shake hands with homosexuals, that's the time Mandy should step in. Or if she were standing for Parliament and likely to try to turn her views into law, then she'd be right to argue. But Mandy's godmother only thinks bad things, because she's frightened. She does good things.

And in the end, actions do speak louder than words.

This week's problem: Mandy adores her generous, loving, 60-year- old godmother. But she dreads hearing her right-wing views when she visits - she's anti-black, anti-gay, anti-social security. Despite this, she has a close homosexual friend and is truly concerned about the lives of the Indian family at her local supermarket. When staying with her, should Mandy react to her godmother's views and risk the bitter arguments that always arise? Or should she keep quiet and feel guilty?

There's no reason why any of us should put up with offensive behaviour. Tolerance is one thing, but constant appeasement of other people's prejudices or irritability is a road to nowhere.

There are forms of direct opposition that are effective against very prejudiced persons, but it can also be effective to break up the problem by developing a varied set of responses. Mandy could allow some objectionable behaviour to go over her head, but now and then it might be useful to use the technique of extending the prejudiced person's argument, such as quietly asking whether she thinks that Hitler was right to send some of the groups she condemns to the gas chamber.

This approach will sometimes produce a retraction or may induce the individual to think more deeply. I don't think Mandy should seek a confrontational end to the relationship, which is one she obviously values; but she should adopt a long-term plan to improve the situation. If this does not work, she will have less self-reproach if she feels it is better to pay fewer, or no, visits.

Edward Turnbull,

Northumberland

I cut out it Mandy's article to show my grandmother, who riffled through her handbag and waved the same clipping at me. We both laughed. After years of "blacks are on drugs" (you can tell by the way their eyes roll) and "the unemployed are rolling in it" (they've got videos), we've reached an understanding.

I suppose that this unwritten agreement has been arrived at through an acceptance that the rantings of my grandmother's generation are impenetrable. I understand Mandy's guilt in keeping quiet - I get it when forced to bite my tongue under the flags of politeness and professionalism. But my experience is that intelligent people of 50-plus have made their pact with Mephistopheles; their souls have already been lost to the PC cause.

Make your point, say your piece and then keep quiet with a clear conscience. Save your breath for my generation.

Justine Gaubert, Sheffield

N E X T W E E K' S D I L E M M A

Dear Virginia,

I've just been rung by the mother of a friend of my daughter's, where she stayed for the beginning of half-term. Extremely worried, she told me that when slightly drunk, Suzi, my 15-year-old daughter, had apparently confided in her friend that she hated school, that she was being bullied by a gang of girls who tease her or won't speak to her, and that she felt like killing herself.

I've known about the bullying for some time and talked to the school, who were very feeble about the whole thing, but I never thought she felt this strongly. I'm so upset, but my husband says everyone goes through bullying at school and it'll pass. She's taking GCSEs next summer so she can hardly leave.

Do you think this was just an emotional outburst after a bit too much to drink? I often hear her crying in her room, but when I ask what's the matter she just says: "Nothing." She looks very strained and pale, and has slipped back in her work. Should I just let her ride it out? I love her so much and I am sick with worry for her.

Yours sincerely, Pat

All comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Please send any relevant personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, The Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London, E14 5DL; fax 0171- 293-2162, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas of your own you would like to share, let me know.

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