On Lecturing Others

None of us likes being lectured, although most of us seem to enjoy giving others the benefit of our advice. But let’s stop there a moment and reflect. That dreadful phrase of our childhood, ‘I’m telling you for your own good’ loses none of its effect as we grow older. It may not actually be couched in those words, but how often do we hear spouses setting each other right or people completely unknown to one another taking someone to task for some perceived shortcoming or making light of their expertise. It happens to women a lot. A rather good engineer of my acquaintance can be quite funny on the subject of people (especially men, I fear) assuming she knows nothing about engineering because she is a woman. I, too, have occasionally smiled deep into my wimple when someone has decided I can’t possibly know anything about a subject on which, strangely enough, I am moderately well-informed. It all makes for humility, we say, as we shrug off the annoyance and get on with life.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work like that. Some people will never let a matter drop until they feel they have ‘won’. Here at the monastery we try to cope with a constant stream of requests for prayer, distressed calls (especially recently, with the flooding in our area and some terrible events I’ve mentioned on Twitter, including the petrol-bombing of a young family’s home), the running of the monastery and its charity in all their complexity, and, of course, the awkward business of my having a stage 4 cancer which makes me less able to contribute to the community as much as I’d like. We make mistakes, which we acknowledge. We apologize, but still the lectures come. Can we turn this experience of being on the receiving end of criticism into something helpful for the times, alas all too frequent, when we want to give others the benefit of our advice?

St Benedict is very clear that authority over others is not be assumed by anyone in the monastery unless appointed by the abbot. That includes the power of correction, which is reserved to the superior and those with whom he shares his authority. He does, however, make an interesting exception of the visiting monk. The visiting monk is, by definition, not just an ordinary visitor, that is, someone whose ideas are possibly ill-informed, but someone who is familiar with monastic ideals and practice, and has some understanding of how a monastic community functions.

St Benedict says of the visiting monk that he should be carefully listened to, in case he makes any observations about the monastery which are for the community’s good (RB 61.4), but he must do so reasonably, humbly and charitably; and it is for the abbot to weigh his observations prudently. Do the criticisms we make of others ‘for their own good’ meet these criteria, or are they more of an attempt to justify our own position? Benedict is very keen on our doing things at an appropriate time. So, do we make our criticisms at an appropriate moment — or at a time that suits us, irrespective of what someone else may be going through? Finally, do we seek charity or are we trying to score points? Not only monastic superiors but every parent knows that not all complaints are justified, nor should all criticisms be considered valid. Some are over-stated; some, alas, are malicious or just plain silly.

There is a further point St Benedict does not make but which I think important. We need to know when to let matters drop. We may not quite need to echo Cromwell’s ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken,’ but maybe thinking twice before we assume others need our advice would be a good idea. For those of what used to be called ‘a positive nature’ that may be the hardest lesson of all. It is one I struggle with myself. As Horace said, ‘A word once let out of the cage cannot be whistled back again’. We all remember when we have been deeply hurt by what has been said to us; we are less mindful of how our own words may have hurt someone else. That throws us back on St Benedict’s teaching on restraint in speech (cf RB 6), but that’s for another post.

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Time for Another Little Rant?

Is the majority always right? I ask because a friend recently commented that they feel their freedom of thought and expression is being whittled away — here and now, in the U.K., traditionally the home of phlegmatic tolerance. When I questioned whether their thoughts could be determined by others, I was given short shrift. When society creates a climate of opinion regarded as acceptable or right, it is difficult not to be influenced by it. A totalitarian regime such as existed in Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany can survive only insofar as it maintains a hold on people’s thinking. The same has often been alleged of Catholicism. At present, said my friend, public broadcasts, online news sites and social media were all tending in one direction on such varied topics as gender identity, equality, and climate change; and it was claimed that the majority of the population supported such views. Therefore, no form of dissent was to be expressed without running the risk of legal challenges and we, as a monastery of nuns, should beware lest we fall foul of the kind of legislation that would inevitably come to pass.

I think my friend may have been on to something. We have had a few vocation enquiries from transgender candidates, and although I have tried to explain the Church’s position as kindly and clearly as I can, some have responded badly and angrily, even threatening to take legal action against us. Thankfully, none has — yet. The Church’s defence of the unborn and her opposition to euthanasia are well-known, but her freedom to act in support of her beliefs is increasingly questioned and sometimes circumscribed by, among others, student unions and pressure groups. How long will it be before there is yet another challenge to her teaching on priestly ordination or marriage? Whether one agrees with the Church’s teaching or not (and let’s be honest, a lot of Catholics themselves dissent from various elements), there are centuries of prayer and reflection as well as lived experience behind what is taught. In other words, Catholics have as much right to their views as anyone else. What we believe has been thought about just as carefully as the beliefs of those who believe otherwise.

Of course, a difficulty comes when people argue that the Church is imposing her views on others. Often the argument can be turned on its head, that others are imposing their views on the Church, but not always. That is where my opening question becomes urgent. Is the majority always right? How do we differentiate between opinions and attitudes that may be fashionable but have no substance to them, and those that are genuinely of the Holy Spirit, a challenge to the Church that we must address? We talk of the Gamaliel principle, but even in my lifetime the intellectual and moral landscape of Britain has changed utterly. In my family, for example, my parents’ generation, by and large, did not divorce and spoke about family members who did in embarrassed tones; among my own generation, it has become almost commonplace, as has the practice of not marrying at all.

Readers of this post will have their own views and I invite you to share them, but please remember, no ad hominem attacks, and no rants — even if, in that last particular, I don’t necessarily follow my own rule.

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World Cancer Day 2020

To be honest, I’d rather be writing about St Gilbert of Sempringham whose feast-day this is, but I spend so much time responding to people who write to the monastery about cancer, their fears, their experience, and so on, that World Cancer Day seems a more necessary subject.

The theme for this year’s day is ‘I can and I will’, a brisk and bracing one. Tell that to someone vomiting after chemotherapy or sore and bleeding after weeks of radiotherapy and I wager you’ll get a weak smile at best. Good advice is equally hard to take, well-meant though it is. I confess to my shame that I tend to respond with a howl of rage whenever exhorted to fight, told that I can beat this thing or am recommended the superfood of the moment. The truth is, cancer is not very pleasant, nor is its treatment, and only those going through it really understand. It is horrible for those who look after the person who has cancer; it is horrible for those who love them. I myself have managed six years with stage 4 of a rare and aggressive form of cancer, thanks to God’s grace and the skill and determination of those involved in my treatment and care, but I am quite realistic about the outcome. As a friend cheerfully remarked online, ‘There is no stage 5. After stage 4, you die.’

So, all those encouraging reports about improved survival rates, new treatments and so on which we in the West take for granted, are only half the truth. They don’t apply to everyone, and in the developing world, where oncologists are few and treatment possibilities limited, they don’t apply at all.

Today we are encouraged to raise money for research in the hope that we can reduce the incidence of cancer and perhaps find cures for some of the commonest forms. It was unfortunate, therefore, that the first search about World Cancer Day 2020 that I performed with the DuckDuckGo search engine produced a series of results beginning with ‘Cancer Market’, subdivided into UK Cancer Market, US Cancer Market and Canada Cancer Market. There was nothing about the spiritual side of cancer care and precious little about the daily hurdles most cancer patients have to surmount.

It isn’t popular to say so, but I think the spiritual side of cancer care is as important as the more obvious, physical side. Having cancer is a lonely business. There are long hours of questioning and self-doubt, times of infinite weariness, periods when one does not want to admit how much something hurts, when one just wants it all to stop. It is then, of course, that one is brought back to reality by someone else’s need or one is given the grace to laugh at oneself.

The Church offers an abundance of set prayers and blessings for the sick, but nearly all of them seem to expect the sick person to recover. I find it difficult to say ‘Amen’ to such. Would it not be more honest simply to ask the Lord to do what we already know he is doing, accompany the sick person until death? And don’t forget the carers! They have the harder job in many ways. Often they do not get the attention and support they need while the cancer sufferer is alive, and after the death of the patient are left dangling, as it were, with scant interest in them or the weariness and distress they have experienced. Being exhorted to have more faith is entirely wrong, in my view.

Faith does not take away all doubt nor does it remove all fear, but for the cancer sufferer it enables us to go on — not gloriously perhaps, but at least we go on. I used to hope I might limp into eternity. These days I suspect I’m more likely to waddle there. I don’t mind. It doesn’t depend on me, and I am content. ‘I can and I will?’ No. He can, and He will.

Personal Note
The treatment I was having with Trabectedin has now ceased because it is no longer working. There aren’t many options for metastatic leiomyosarcoma but the sarcoma team at the Churchill are exploring whatever might be available. Please don’t send sympathy — it is not my style and makes me feel awkward. Prayer is what matters, and especially for those who are younger than I am and face amputations, etc. and for the carers for whom it can be so hard. Thank you.

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Brexit Day 2020

Diego Velazquez : Public Domain

Much of my childhood and adolescence was spent with the U.K. trying to become a member of what was then called the Common Market and protesting vociferously whenever General de Gaulle said ‘Non’ — which was often. Much of my adulthood has been accompanied by seemingly endless arguments about fisheries, agriculture and ‘Brussels bureaucracy,’ with several attempts by British politicians to renegotiate terms. Today, after a lot of shouting, the U.K. is leaving what we now know as the European Union. Some are waving Union flags; others are dressing in sackcloth and ashes. With my unique talent for annoying everyone, whatever ‘side’ they are on, I give my own personal view of the matter.* Today is the day the U.K. reaffirms its status as a protestant nation, distrustful of what lies across the water; and I reaffirm my catholic and Benedictine identity as a member of something bigger and more important than the modern nation state or even the E.U. itself.

Tonight, at eleven o’clock, therefore, I shall be in the monastery chapel, giving thanks for all the good things our membership of the E.U. has brought; asking forgiveness for the suffering inflicted by our choosing to exit the E.U.; and praying for wisdom and right judgement for everyone in the post-Brexit future. You will notice that sentence does not limit itself to consideration of the U.K. or E.U. alone. So much of the political and economic discussion in the last few years has been on the level of ‘what I think is best for us,’ where ‘us’ is narrowly defined. I do not think we have always done that, and I take heart from two things that we may not always do so in the future.

The first is very personal. My father’s war service made him an ardent Europeanist; the breaking-up of the British empire made him an ardent champion of democracy and freedom throughout the world. In the later years of his life he returned to the Catholicism of his forebears on the grounds that it was the only form of Christianity corresponding to his world view. It was, as he once remarked to me, ‘big enough.’ How we regain that larger vision, I do not know; but I am convinced that our interdependence as a world will eventually lead to a re-thinking of our alliances. Either that, or we shall destroy ourselves and the planet on which we live.

The second will strike many as a little recondite, even subversive. The number-plate on our car bears the E.U. symbol of a blue flag with twelve golden stars arranged in a circle. I cannot look at it without thinking of the twelve golden stars arranged in a circlet around the head of Our Lady (cf Revelation 12.1). I am convinced that God has his own way of dealing with things and is particularly good at dealing with our failures and disappointments. Our part is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and be prepared to do whatever he asks. When Mary told the servants at Cana to do that, water was turned into wine. Those shedding tears of grief today may find them turned into tears of joy tomorrow. May God bless everyone, whether for or against membership of the E.U., and help us all to work for a better future for the world.

*The community has no particular view. I stress that this is my own view.

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On Being Tired

Here is a word of encouragement for anyone who is tired. For the last few days I have myself been feeling as though every effort were beyond me, so it comes from the heart. The community even has a word for this state of weariness — exhaustipation — from which you can see it is commoner than you may have imagined. Everyone experiences it from time to time. The problem is that tiredness is often associated with grumpiness and a feeling of guilt. We tell ourselves we should be doing more; and because we are angry with ourselves, we tend to lash out at our nearest and dearest. We may not say anything hurtful, but most of us are quite good at the pointed silence, the ‘hard stare’ of Paddington Bear or the selective deafness of the PBGV — endearing in them, but not so much in adult Human Beans.

The solution to the problem is actually very simple: a supernumerary nap, a quiet nodding off over a book (or even an email), a period of reflection requiring closed eyes and an absence of engagement with those around us, but with this difference. Our restorative nap needs to be ushered in with a prayer, so that even our sleep can become prayerful. I have always taken as the motto for what I call the Prayer of Gentle Drift those encouraging words from the Song of Songs, Ego dormio sed cor meum vigilat. I sleep, but my heart keeps watch (Song of Songs, 5.2). In sleep, we cannot erect any barriers to God or his will as we do when we are awake and on our guard, so that’s worth thinking about. Solomon was a wise man. Let us be wise in our generation, too.

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St Agnes and the Exploitation of Children

St Agnes with Lamb (after Dorigny)
St Agnes with Lamb (after Dorigny)

We know very little about St Agnes, except that she was martyred at an early age and was the inspiration for much of St Ambrose’s thinking and writing about consecrated virginity. Neither martyrdom nor consecrated virginity seems to exercise much appeal nowadays, which may be why this day is more often associated with the basilica of Sta Cecilia in Rome, where the pope will bless the lambs whose wool will be made into the pallium worn by the pope and archbishops. There is a curious fitness about that, because I think it underlines the way in which we tend to filter out everything that is disturbing or ugly and substitute what easily becomes sentimental. Fluffy white lambs are much more attractive than broken limbs or children and adolescents abused or exploited by adults.

A third of the world’s poorest girls are denied access to education, according to a report issued by the U.N. (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-51176678). The number of boys and girls who are homeless, living in sub-human conditions in refugee camps, working as bonded labour, forced into marriage or otherwise exploited is frighteningly large. In the U.K. we have learned, to our shame and disgust, of the sexual abuse of children and adolescents by so-called pillars of society — clergy, teachers, doctors, parents, relatives and many more — and have been horrified by some of the high-profile cases of neglect reported by the media. The IICSA reports and the recent BBC documentary on Bishop Peter Ball have been sickening in their exposure of the depravity of which the human heart is capable.

Most of us protest, quite rightly, that we condemn any and all such behaviour — then we go off and hurl insults at Greta Thunberg or say of a young boy knifed to death by a drugs gang that ‘he got what he deserved’ and do not register the inconsistency. If we truly believe that children should be respected and protected, we need to examine our own conduct first. The manufacturer who sexualises the clothing worn by the young; the singer or influencer who foists on children the acceptability of conduct they are not yet intellectually or emotionally ready for; the parent or teacher who abdicates responsibility for those entrusted to their care; the pastor who is a wolf in sheep’s clothing — indeed, anyone and everyone is capable of the massive self-deceit that leads to the abuse and exploitation of children and adolescents.

Instead of dismissing St Agnes as one of those saints who are no longer ‘relevant’ to our times, it would be far better to see her as someone who can provide a valuable corrective to our treatment of young people today. Her courage, her clear-sighted love of Christ, her youthful fragility, which was so much stronger than the brutal power of those who put her to death, make her both inspiring and loveable. I admit, teenagers are not always loveable all the time, and younger children can be maddening in their own unique way, but unless we see and love in the young that which God sees and loves in them, how can we truly claim to be his disciples?

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The Extraordinariness of the Ordinary

Today we return to the liturgy’s Ordinary Time. That has always seemed to me something of a misnomer. To anyone who lives in a monastery the ordinary is really extraordinary, every moment of every day freighted with meaning and grace, leading us deeper and deeper into the paschal mystery. Even the words we say again and again or the gestures we routinely perform are transformed into runways into God. A deep bow during the gloria at the end of every psalm reconnects us with our creatureliness as we face the ground, then raises us to our new identity as ‘sons in the Son’ as we stand erect. And to those of us who are, so to say, ‘brands snatched from the burning’, the sense of the preciousness of the ordinary can never be extinguished. The raindrop on the window pane, the weed growing through the asphalt, the feel of the sun or wind on our cheek, these are ordinary things, but they are miracles, too.

A personal thanksgiving
Most of us like to mark anniversaries and the passage of time. Today I have a very personal reason for giving thanks. Six years ago today a letter was sent confirming a diagnosis of metastatic leiomyosarcoma. The cancer had spread to my lungs (already scarred with sarcoidosis), my liver, my hip and various other parts of me. The outlook was not encouraging. I thank God, the many, many people who pray for me, and all those who have worked hard and long to keep me alive — especially when I’ve found things a bit tough and haven’t been my nicest, kindest or sunniest self. I hope my experience will encourage others not to assume the worst when they receive a shattering diagnosis; and to treasure every moment of life as a gift. I know my own life could end at any minute but, as a Benedictine, I take to heart the Rule’s exhortation to ‘keep death daily before one’s eyes’, not as a threat but as an invitation to make the best of things, serving God and others as well as I can, and joyfully, too. Laus Deo.

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Gracious Words

There are times when a phrase leaps out of a text and hits one between the eyes. Very early this morning I read today’s gospel (Luke 4. 14-22), the last sentence of which is ‘And all were astonished at the gracious words that came from his lips.’ It made me question how often the words that come from my own lips could be described as gracious, and whether those who hear them are astonished when they are. Food for thought there, and not only for me!

We are often told (in words) that we live in a world where the visual is more important than the verbal. Our use of smartphones and messaging apps has encouraged a truncated language of abbreviations and emojis incomprehensible to some, and I’m surely not alone in thinking the regular use of profanities as adjectives goes unnoticed by the perpetrators, so habitual has it become. But, and it is a big ‘but’, there is not much point in lamenting the passage of a past that was never quite as golden as we would like to believe. I could quote hundreds of instances of ugly, brutal misuses of language from earlier times, but it is what we do now that is important. The words we speak or write, the choices we make, have an effect on ourselves as well as others.

St Benedict devotes a whole chapter of his Rule to restraint in speech (RB 6) and often mentions the value of the good word or blessing that we pass on to others. He is concerned, too, about the way in which we shape our words in choir or as we read in the refectory, how we address one another in the cloister, and how we use words (or not) to welcome a guest. I think most readers of this blog know that it was reflecting on hospitality in the Rule of St Benedict that led the community here to develop an internet outreach at a time when it was still unfashionable among ‘churchy’ types. It is what drives our engagement with social media today, but I think we are facing a new challenge; and if we are, then you, the reader, are, too.

It is not enough to make a resolution to avoid profanity, for example, or refuse to join in when others are casting slurs on the integrity of others. That can look a little like holier-than-thou tactics to avoid drawing fire on one’s own head, though I would endorse both as being part of civilized discourse. When Jesus is described as uttering gracious words, we have to consider what made them gracious. Content, style, purpose, yes; but something more, the something John tells us about in 1 John 4: love. I wonder how often love of others prompts our words, and how often it is simply love of self, the desire to be heard? Being more self-aware without becoming self-obsessed is a difficult art but one I think we all need to master, both online and off. It may change how we perceive words and how we use them. The most gracious word ever spoken was made flesh at Christmas. That’s how important words are and what we need to ponder.

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On Being Oneself

The statement issued yesterday by the duke and duchess of Sussex is being picked over by the media and every Tom, Dick and Henrietta with any kind of online access. Some applaud; others deprecate. I have no particular interest in the royal family (leaping over 51 candidates with a nearer claim to the throne to ensure the Protestant succession in 1714 doesn’t make me a Jacobite though it does make me feel a little distant from the institution) but I am interested in one of the underlying questions prompted by the statement, viz. how to be oneself. It is both a profoundly moral and profoundly religious question which goes beyond individual personalities.

As a Benedictine and erstwhile medievalist, I have always felt the force of the importance of community, the group. For many, a parallel is to be found in family. The individualism we associate with the Enlightenment is really only possible in a world where we are not dependent on one another for the basics of existence — food, shelter and so on — but can obtain these things for ourselves without reference to community/family. In other words, if we can buy something, we do not have to rely on its being provided by our group. That has not been the case for most people most of the time. Indeed, if parents were not to provide for their children, the human race would have died out long ago. Some degree of mutual co-operation is essential, but the amount may be determined by our economic circumstances — which is why the rich have choices the poor can only dream of.

Benedict sees things differently, of course. He comes from the world of sixth century Rome, and his values are not primarily economic but religious. Someone who can write of the property of the monastery in terms of sacred altar vessels, as he does when addressing the cellarer, is by no means indifferent to the importance of material things, however, nor is he unaware of how they affect the well-being of both individuals and community.

The abbot is to provide everything the individual needs via the cellarer or some other official, while the monastery itself is to be equipped with everything the community is likely to need in order to sustain itself. As a corollary, there is a delicate system of checks and balances, an etiquette all are expected to observe which is meant to ensure that the community not only functions but flourishes. This includes mutual obedience, reverence for the old, kindness towards the young, consideration about when to make requests (even by the sick and cantankerous), patience, giving help when needed — and accepting that when one fails, there is a discipline to be undergone to reassert a right relationship with those who have been affected by one’s shortcomings, whether it be a false note in choir or a more serious matter. Being oneself does not mean doing anything one chooses — that, in Benedictine terms, is to be a sarabaite — but accepting the yoke of the Rule as a way of becoming what one is meant to be and freely doing all those things which once required effort (cf RB 7). It isn’t easy at first, which may be why newcomers to the monastery often have difficulty seeing how their individual quest for God, their sense of personal vocation, fits into the common endeavour of the community. We go to God together, but it takes time to realise that we become more free, more ourselves, as we go on.

This morning, as I mulled over the first Mass reading (1 John 4. 11–18), I had as an echo at the back of my mind the thought that in the Lord’s service is perfect freedom. It is in him that we find our deepest, truest identity, are most genuinely ourselves. Let us pray for all who are learning how to be themselves, especially the young; for those who feel they have made mistakes or lack courage; and for those who are baffled or hurt by the choices made by those they love. It takes most of us a lifetime to learn how to be ourselves, but we have the Lord’s assurance in the gospel that we should not be afraid (Mark 6.45–52). Let us trust him.

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The Antidote to Hate Crimes

The stabbing of five people at an orthodox Jewish rabbi’s home in New York state during Hanukkah celebrations on Saturday added one more dreadful statistic to the wave of hate crimes associated with the resurgence of antiSemitism in the West. Then came news of a gun attack in a Texas church during service-time on Sunday. No doubt we shall be told in due course who the attackers were and what their motivation was thought to be. We in the U.K. will probably allow ourselves to wonder whether the frequency of mass shootings in the U.S.A. (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-50936575) has created a culture of indifference towards such violence, but we have nothing to be proud of when we consider the rise in knife crime in our own city streets. The fact is that the expression of hatred is becoming harder and harder to contain or neutralise. The kind of anger and abuse we find in social media easily translates into violent action, only we tend not to see or want to acknowledge the way in which it can affect both ourselves and others. There are no boundaries, it seems — except for some fashionable hate crimes which seem to draw a disproportionate amount of attention because endorsed by the celebrities of our day.

I was struck by the response of Mayor de Blasio to what happened in Monsey: he promised more security in Jewish areas, by which I presume he means more armed guards, and a programme of education in schools. As Rabbi Sacks sadly remarked, in a tweet published yesterday,

Antisemitism has returned within living memory of the Holocaust, and after more than half a century of programs of legislation, and education designed to ensure that it could never happen again.

Legislation and education don’t appear to have changed things, and while there are those who will say it was because a churchgoer had a gun on him that the attack in Texas was no worse than it was, some of us still find the thought of taking weapons into a place of worship highly questionable. Two thousand years since the birth of the Prince of Peace and we still have not learned that violence too often begets violence!

As 2019 races towards its close, we are faced with an ever starker choice. Do we want to be people of violence or of peace? Are we going to pass the poison on, or are we going to say, ‘No. I refuse to be part of that violence’? If our answer is ‘no’ we must be prepared for huge sacrifices. It will mean being extremely careful about how we speak or act, not in the sense of being cowardly but in the sense of being mindful how our words and deeds increase or decrease the stock of tension in the world. It may be ‘fun’ to denigrate others with our witty put-downs; it may be a relief to our feelings to disparage those with whom we disagree; it may even be a source of inner congratulation to have pointed out the wrongness of a policy or an individual’s behaviour, but we do need to think about possible consequences. It is no good lighting a touch-paper and then lamenting the fact that the building burned down. The only real antidote to hate-crimes comes from those who are not prepared to hate. Which will we choose?

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