Ethics Blog

December 18, 2014

Sony Hacking Scandal

The hacking and subsequent publishing of emails between senior executives at Sony last week caused quite an uproar. The racially charged remarks about President Obama as well as disparaging comments about actors and directors caused serious embarrassment for their authors.

Hacking violates the important value of privacy and in most cases it is illegal. No ethical dilemmas here, it is just wrong.

Privacy is a human right that is included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 which states: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

I find the Sony hacking story interesting from two different ethical aspects.

For one, the role of the media in dealing with information that has been illegally obtained is problematic. Should the media or anyone for that matter, publicize information that has been obtained illegally and that violates someone’s privacy?

Andrew Wallenstein, co-editor of Variety is asking the right question in the December 11, 2014 issue of the magazine. He says that he wonders whether he is somehow “complicit with these nefarious hackers by relaying the details of seemingly every pilfered terabyte.” He, however, concludes, erroneously, in my view that “Journalism is, in some sense, permissible thievery. We occasionally catch wind of what our subjects would rather us not know, and we don’t hesitate to report it if it contributes to an understanding of what we’re writing about.”

One of the arguments in favor of such publication is the “public right to know.” Andrea Laksmiwardani, from the Department of Communication at Taylor’s University, in her article Right to Know versus Infringement of Privacy, published by Journalism Ethics believes that: “Publics have the right to be aware of the things that concern their safety or things that might affect their way of living.” She adds that: “Journalists should always consider the right of individuals’ privacy, even if it is contradicting with the public’s right to know.

Secondly, as to the “public” (you and me?) are we morally entitled to be entertained by the shameful exposure of the privacy of others?

We, as a society, should determine the kind of media we believe we deserve. It is the public’s demand for the sensational and ludicrous that creates the market for a media that satisfies those very demands.

One of the roles of ethics in society is precisely to try to change a culture that does not uphold strong ethical values.

As author and poet, Henry Van Dyke once said:

“Culture is the habit of being pleased with the best and knowing why.”

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December 2, 2014

Bill Cosby

I have been quite reluctant to write about the accusations of rape and sexual abuse by now 20 women against Bill Cosby until I wondered if my reluctance was not akin to other people’s reaction of turning of a blind eye.

We have a tendency to ignore what makes us uncomfortable and then we give ourselves all kinds of excuses for not addressing allegations of wrongdoing. We may also want to avoid being in a conflicting situation and would prefer to remain uninvolved.

One of the frequently given excuses is that we do not know for sure what really happened and that we should leave the matter to law enforcement and the courts.

It is a poor excuse for two reasons:

1.           Allegations, by definition, are unproven. Allegations do not have to be proven right before being investigated. Allegations, when addressed properly are often a first step in a long process that might lead to exposure, denunciation, arrest, conviction and jail time. It is a legal obligation for certain professionals, such as healthcare providers, teachers and lawyers to investigate such allegations.

2.          If we relied only on the courts to determine wrongdoing, criminality would grow exponentially. We are each individual members of the Jury of Public Opinion. When sufficiently informed, we are entitled to our own opinion!

What is the correct ethical response to allegations of misconduct?

Let me list three possible actions:

1.    Report

It is important that more than one person (you) be aware of the alleged conduct. Tell someone you trust and that you know will take it seriously.

2.     Investigate

Try to get as much information as you can. If you are in position to do so, you may do your own due diligence but depending on the allegation, it may be best to have a third party such as an institution or government entity do the investigation.

3.    Pursue Justice and Fairness

If the allegations are found to be baseless then move on. However if they are credible, then it is your duty to do the best you can to see the matter resolved in a way that both fairness and justice is served.

It takes courage to act but remaining silent will enable the perpetrator to continue in his or her actions and thus cause more harm to many more victims. It is our duty to prevent that from happening.

Ernest Hemingway once said:

“Courage is grace under pressure.”

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November 24, 2014

The Ethics of Silence

Last Friday, I had an impromptu and very short brainstorm discussion with our current Executive Trainees about what could be a good topic for this week’s blog post. The conversation quickly turned to the theme of silence, its positive and negative effect in society.

The virtues of silence have long been recognized. The popular saying “speech is silver but silence is golden” may date back to Ancient Egypt. It probably means that in some circumstances the less you say the better it is. I can imagine that when you are in the company of strangers, discretion would be more appropriate than indiscretion.

Keeping a secret is a form of silence that is highly ethical.

Silence in some case is a legal right. If you are being arrested, you do have “the right to remain silent.” The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution permits you not to answer specific questions when you may, by the answer you give, incriminate yourself.  An attorney, under the attorney-client privilege, is bound by law to keep communication between his or her client confidential.

Sometimes silence is an obligation, such as when its purpose is not to disturb the tranquility of others. I am afraid I was oblivious to that obligation last week as I boarded an Amtrak train on my way to Annapolis to speak to a PRSA chapter there. I asked the gentleman sitting next to me whether he was going to Washington D.C. He looked at me as if I was insane, which prompted me to question his sanity. He finally with apparently great self- control whispered to me: “This is the silent car!” I did not even know Amtrak had one.

Silence can be a powerful tool in sending a speechless message. Elie Wiesel once said that it was impossible to find the correct words to describe the Shoah and that maybe the best way would be to find the greatest contemporary actor, have him or her appear on the world’s  greatest stage and then… for the actor to remain silent.

Moments of silence can be moments of contemplation, prayer, reflection and remembrance of loved ones that are no more.

“Omerta” the implicit code of silence among members of the Mafia is a very negative aspect of silence.  The “Omerta” prohibits a member to reveal any information to the authorities and the breaking of it is punishable by death.

Keeping silent when witnessing wrongdoing is, in most cases, morally unacceptable, even if the victim of wrongdoing is you.  We are to say something if we see something.

The November 19, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone features a long article entitled A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA (University of Virginia.) The article tells the story of 18 year old Jackie who was gang raped for three hours at a fraternity party by fellow students. The victim waited for two years to make the assault public! The author of the article believes that: “Rapes are kept quiet (at UVA) both by students-who brush off sexual assaults as regrettable but inevitable of their cherished party culture- and by an administration that critics say is less concerned with protecting the students than it is with protecting its own reputation from scandal.”

According to the Clery Center for Security on Campus, (quoted in the article) one in five women is sexually assaulted in college yet only 12 percent reported it to the police.

What is wrong with this picture?

Could it be that we are facing a culture of silence about rape and particularly about rape on campuses?

The only remedy I see is to speak up, and to encourage others to speak up.

As Elie Wiesel once said:

We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

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October 31, 2014

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

The Value of Fear

The fear of an Ebola pandemic has gripped the country. Many believe that it is due in large part to the over dramatic coverage by the media. Jon Stewart is quite funny on his exposé of the Ebola media frenzy. The probability of a pandemic in the U.S. according to the scientific community is most unlikely. As of now, in the U.S. only one victim succumbed to the disease. Furthermore he was not infected in the U.S. but in Africa. To put things into a U.S. perspective, more than 36,000 Americans die of the flu each year yet more than half of the population choose not to be vaccinated against it. Deborah Kot, of the Boston Globe, in her article Why Americans Have Irrational Ebola Fears tells of a teacher from Maine who was: ”placed on a 21-day leave demanded by parents because she recently attended a conference in Dallas - the same city where the Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan died on Oct. 8.”

Fear is a basic and very powerful human emotion because it is often the base for many of our actions. Fear has numerous expressions horror, alarm and anxiety.

Fear has, for many, been perceived as a negative feeling. We are encouraged since childhood to overcome our fears. Many of the fairy tales we were told were actually pretty scary. What is more scary that a wolf eating your grandmother and about to eat you? These stories had the purpose of exteriorizing our fears.  Halloween and its zombies and other creepy creatures probably serve the same purpose. That may also explain the success of horror movies and novels.

Government authority has used fear (in others) as a tool to coerce required action from the public. Niccolo Machiavelli, author of the Prince understood that very well when he wrote that: “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.”

Tyrants have ruled their “subjects” by fear of prison and torture to obtain submission to their will.

Religious leaders have also used fear to control and manipulate the flock. One theme of Umberto’s Eco’s novel, The Name of the Rose is about the concern of Church hierarchy that fear could be eliminated by laughter. In the movie adaption of the novel, one of the characters, the blind murderous priest Jorge de Burgos says: “Laughter kills fear, and without fear there can be no faith because without fear of the Devil, there is no more need of God.”

Health public policy makers use fear in public health campaigns to bring awareness to the public of the risk of certain lifestyle behaviors such as overeating and smoking. The purpose of these campaigns is to change behaviors and thus improve personal welfare and public health.

Fear can have a paralyzing effect. It was that type of fear that Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke against in his first inaugural address in 1933.

“Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself-nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance”.

We have many reasons to fear and at so many levels.

At the global level, we fear, to name a few, the consequences of climate change, wars, terrorism (home grown or international) and the collapse of world economies and of our financial system. 

On a personal level we fear death and disease, whether our own or of those we love as well as financial distress. We fear anything that can cause physical or emotional pain.

Yet fear is essential to our wellbeing. If we were truly fearless, we would take unimaginable risks and most likely suffer equally unimaginable consequences.

Akiko Busch in his New York Times article What Are You So Afraid Of?” published yesterday has an interesting take on the potential benefit of fear on a global level. He says: “At a moment of such social, political and environmental urgency, I would like to think it is possible to tap into human fear to change behavior in some fundamental and strategic way.” 

Fear has an ethical value as well. In many circumstances it keeps us from wrongdoing. The fear of being exposed, charged and even condemned will keep us from committing a felony. The fear of being shamed will also keep us from unethical practices.

Aaron Ben Ze’ev in The Subtlety of Emotions writes:

“The functional value of fear is not merely existential but social as well: it keeps us aware of our norms and prevents some of the activities which may violate them.”

 Happy Halloween!

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October 21, 2014

Sayreville Hazing Scandal

On October 6, 2014, Richard Labbe, the Sayreville school superintendent cancelled the remainder of the 2014 football season. His decision came when he became aware of the allegation of a serious hazing incident that involved sexual assault. Since then seven students were charged with crimes that include sexual assault.

Hazing, a ritual of passage, which involves humiliating, abusing and harassing another human being, is by definition unethical because it violates the fundamental value of respect. Even though the victim may have consented to it.

One of the explanations or excuses given is that it is part of the culture, i.e. it is acceptable.  

That does not make it right!

According to The Guardian, some researchers believe that there are more than 800,000 students that experience hazing per year. “Everybody does it,” is a deplorable and disgraceful defense. We should attempt to change a “culture” when its practices are harmful. Hank Nuwer, an authority on hazing, says that “hazing has been part of the education culture for so long that it isn’t looked at as a major problem until it happens to your school. And then it’s the worst problem out there.”

We have historical evidence that hazing has been practiced in the U.S. since 1838.

That does not make it right!

Since when does a history of abuse justify it? What about the concept that society should improve with time?

What makes hazing particularly objectionable is the fact that there are so many that are aware of it yet do not speak up against it. In Sayreville, students, faculty, coaches and parents were aware of the practice. They all may not have been aware of the extent of the violation and humiliation but many had to know.  Why did they not stop it?

On October 19, 2014 all football coaches of the high school were suspended, as well as five tenured teachers because of the scandal.

Hillary Schmalzer of Florida State University, author of “Defining Hazing and the Immorality of Hazing by Sororities writes: 

“Since hazing causes pain and misery, it infringes on our human rights. Therefore the act of hazing is morally impermissible.”

Surely we, as a community, should be able to come up with some alternatives to abusive hazing practices and replace them with some rites of passage practices that are neither demeaning nor harmful.

As Laurence Sterne, the 18th century Anglo-Irish novelist once said:

“Respect for ourselves guides our morals, respect for others guides our manners.”

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October 6, 2014

Accepting Blame-Responsibility

One of the many controversies this past week was created when President Obama accurately quoted the Director of National Intelligence, Mr. James Clapper. He had acknowledged that the intelligence community had underestimated the strength and threat of ISIS and had not anticipated the extreme weakness of the Iraqi Army. Some accused the President of shifting blame to Mr. Clapper. I do not believe that is what happened. The President knows, as so does most of the country, that the “buck stops” with the presidency. The very function of a leader demands that he or she take full responsibility for actions or inaction that he or she was not directly involved in.

Admitting responsibility in a crisis situation is what we recommend our clients do.

The refusal to accept blame is what leads us to fabricate all kinds of excuses and more often than not, to blame others.

Adam blamed both Eve and God for his action when he replied to the question: Have you eaten from the tree from which I ordered you not to eat: “The woman you gave to be with me - she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”

Why are we so reluctant to accept blame?

Obviously there are many reasons depending on the circumstances. I would imagine that most of them are motivated by fear, such as the fear of shame and the fear of appearing weak.

The fear of consequences, particularly at a corporate level, is probably the most common reaction when facing disclosure of a wrongful action.  Accepting blame for such an action can have serious legal and financial consequences for any company or individual, particularly in our litigious society.

However, accepting blame is really about being honest with ourselves and with others. It is the mark of a responsible person. Accepting blame is accepting responsibility for our actions.

As Bob Dylan once said:

“I think of a hero as someone who understands the degree of responsibility that comes with his freedom.”

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September 22, 2014

Off-Field Transgression

The editorial in last Thursday’s issue of AM New York, Moral Issues Knock NFL for a Big Loss talks about the “NFL’s stunning ineptitude in dealing with off-field transgression.” The article was referring to the recent revelation that both Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson of the NFL had recently been implicated in domestic abuse.

Jim Harbaugh, the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers promised in a press conference that the NFL will implement a new conduct policy.

Let me first say that I do not believe that domestic abuse is a matter of ethics. Domestic abuse is a crime and should be dealt with accordingly.

However I find the term “off-field transgression” interesting and ethically challenging.

Where do we draw the line, assuming that there is such a line, between conduct on the “field” and off the “field?” What repercussions does unacceptable behavior outside of the workplace have in the workplace? Ultimately should someone be fired for reprehensible conduct outside of the office?

What are the values or ethical considerations in making that decision?

The answer to the question will obviously depend on a number of factors, such as to the nature of the offense, whether it was a one-time occurrence or a pattern and of course on the policy of the company that employs the transgressor.

Dawn Klingensmith in her article Behavior outside work could cost you your job published by CTW news quotes Robert A. Dubault, a partner at Warner Norcross & Judd LLP and chair of the Firm’s Employment and Labor Law Group who said:

“Usually, the type of off-duty actions that might result in an employee being terminated is either something criminal or detrimental to the employer’s image or reputation, or something that conflicts with the employer’s interests, such as working for a competitor or starting up a competing business.”

Different States have different laws regarding automatic dismissal of employees but generally speaking most companies will let an employee go if it believes that the employee represents a risk of endangering the well-being of other employees.

Dawn Klingensmith, in the same article quotes Gloria Petersen, a professional etiquette expert at Global Protocol, Phoenix who said:

“Probably one of the most popular questions to ask someone you just met is “Where do you work? Once you answer with the name of your company, the company’s reputation is at stake. Your behavior becomes a reflection of the company whether the behavior takes place at a cocktail reception, informal party or on a social networking site.”

We are integrated human beings with all of its failures and complexities. I do not believe that we can be Dr. Jekyll at work and Mr. Hyde at home. Striving for integrity should be our purpose both “on-field” and “off-field.”

As King Solomon once said:

“The integrity of the upright guides them, but the duplicity of the treacherous destroys them.”

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September 15, 2014

Engaging our Critics

Last week the New York Chapter of PRSA held a Mock Tribunal of the PR profession that I was privileged to initiate and organize. The intent was to provoke a conversation on Public Relations and its critics.

Each participant in the discussion was given a court role. Randy Cohen, original “Ethicist” of the New York Times Magazine and current CEO of the radio talk show Person, Place, Thing was the judge.

Paul Holmes of the Holmes Group played the role of the Prosecutor. In his opening remarks he said: “I believe that when we practice spin rather than public relations, when we try to persuade somebody to vote a particular way, to buy a particular product rather than focusing on the necessity of building a relationship, we cheat not only the consumers, the employees, the communities with which we communicate but also our clients in whose long term interest is a genuine relationship.”

Michael Schubert, our Chief Innovation Officer and the Defense Counsel for the occasion replied by saying that the public relations industry is about giving our clients a voice and that we have a “moral obligation to do our job, which is to bring a company or a brand’s point of view to the public in an honest and transparent way.”

The Prosecutor and the Defense each had two witnesses: Fran Hawthorne and Delbert Spurlock for the Prosecution and Steve Cody from Peppercomm and Jacqueline Brevard formerly from Merck for the defense.  The discussion was lively and both profound and entertaining.

You can view the recording by clicking on the link below.

It was my hope that this exercise would help us understand that ethical conduct in the practice of the profession was the best way to eliminate much of the criticism directed against public relations.

David Finn, the co-Founder and Chairman of Ruder Finn has always said that we should engage our critics. Back in 60s, he wrote an article for Saturday Review entitled Business and its Critics.  In an article published in MOVE! David refers to his Saturday Review article and writes that he believes that:

“corporations should give more thoughtful, sensitive and responsible responses when there were criticisms of their policies or practices in the media. This should apply to food companies that faced overweight problems, to automobile companies that faced accident problems, to smokestack companies that faced pollution problems, to chemical companies that faced agricultural problems, to nuclear power plants that faced potential disaster problems, and to cigarette companies that faced lung cancer problems. My argument was that corporations should not just dismiss these criticisms as unfounded or unproven. Means should be found to convince the public that business cared as much about health and safety as anyone else. In the course of the article I mentioned that the standard tobacco industry response to new health reports was unconvincing, and I suggested that a more thoughtful statement would be more appropriate. I believed that the industry should show respect for the new evidence and state that it would search for a responsible policy that recognized the seriousness of the problem revealed by the different studies.”

Why are we so reluctant to engage our critics?

I am sure that the reasons differ depending on the situation but could one of the reasons be that we are not so sure, after all, of the validity of our positions and actions? If that is the case, then our reluctance should be an indication that what we believe (or do) may somehow not be the right thing and that we should rethink our approach.

As Winston Churchill once said:

“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”

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August 11, 2014

Who Lives and Who Dies-The Ebola Emergency

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) we are facing an “international health emergency on Ebola.” The two countries most affected are Liberia and Nigeria. More than 1000 people have recently died from the disease.

Ebola is an extremely contagious, deadly disease that has no known cure.  There are two experimental drugs that some believe might be helpful. However, these drugs have not been properly tested and therefore are not on the market. One of these drugs (ZMapp) was administered to two healthcare workers, Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, from Samaritan Purse, who contracted the disease in Liberia, in the humanitarian exercise of their medical profession. They are now being treated at Emory Hospital in Atlanta.

The World Health Organization is convening a meeting of ethicists to discuss the ethical dilemmas of the use in an emergency of untested drugs and also to address the issue of distribution in a limited resources situation.

Some of the questions they will most likely discuss are:

1.      Is it acceptable to administer a drug that has not been tested on humans and whose benefits or harm are unknown?

2.      How informed can or should the consent be? Should one administer such a drug to a population   that can neither read nor write?

3.      Who should be held liable if something goes horribly wrong? The WHO? The ministers of health of different countries that authorized the use of such drugs? The pharmaceutical companies that manufacture them?

4.      However, in my mind, the most heart-wrenching question is who gets the drug when it is in a very limited supply? Should it be children, or healthcare providers, or the individuals who are most likely to benefit from the drug?

Bioethics is dealing with the most challenging ethical dilemmas because the choices that are made have life threatening consequences. In corporate ethics, the consequences are often about money (fines and lawsuits). In bioethics the consequences can be life or death.

In this case, we can summarily define the dilemma with the following question:

Who lives, who dies and who decides?

In facing such a question, we may have to recognize that there is no “right answer.” Any decision will be, at best, a choice of the lesser of two evils, a “wrong versus wrong” situation. There are some circumstances that require a heavy dose of humility and the admission that sometimes, we simply do not know.

I hope that the ethicists convening in Geneva this week will come up with guidelines that will help the international community make the right decisions. I sincerely hope that those guidelines will include the values of respect for human life, justice and fairness, as well as dignity.

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July 28, 2014

The Risks of Euphemism

The lead article, Silence and Punishment” in the July 20th issue of the magazine section of the New York Times by Michael Sokolove, tells the story of the fall from grace of Graham Spanier, an exceptional man who had a very successful career in higher education until he was forced to resign because of the Sandusky scandal. Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant coach of Penn State University was convicted on 45-counts of sexual abuse of young boys during a 15-year period from 1994 to 2009. He is serving a 60 year prison sentence.

Mr. Spanier now awaits trial. He is charged with “Conspiracy of Silence.” He is being accused of “conspiring with other top university officials to conceal information about suspected child abuse involving Jerry Sandusky.”

Jeremy Fyke of Marquette University and Kristen Lucas of the University of Louisville published a very interesting article: “Euphemisms and Ethics: A Language-Centered Analysis of Penn State’s Sexual Abuse Scandal” that was published in the Journal of Business Ethics.

The study showed that members of the University staff “used coded language to report the assault up the chain of command”… and that “top leaders relied on an innocuous, but patently false, interpretation of earlier euphemisms as a decision-making framework to chart their course of (in)action.”

For example, some of the words used to report the incident were “doing something with a youngster in the shower,” or “in very close proximity behind a young boy with his arms wrapped around him.” While the correct words that should have been used were that he had “raped a child.”

Sometimes euphemisms leave too much room for interpretation when there should be none!

Mr. Spanier says that he would have taken the appropriate actions had he been told of the true nature of the repeated incidents that were reported to him about Mr. Sandusky. He says: “I am an intervener, I see something going on the street, in the community, I intervene.” He adds that if he had been told “anything about child abuse, sexual abuse, had anything criminal had even been hinted about that possibility” he would have acted differently.

Having been himself the victim of violent child abuse by his father, who for many years, brutally beat him, one can easily believe that he would have indeed reacted appropriately had he been told the truth.

The authors of the study believe that: “Through euphemism, distasteful activities can lose their repugnancy, harmful conduct can be made respectable, and that which is socially unacceptable can be transformed into something socially approved.”

The use of euphemism serves an important role in society. It allows a “kinder, gentler” exchange between people and helps avoids unnecessary embarrassments and unpleasantness. It is indeed more appropriate to say of someone that he is “academically challenged” rather than “stupid.” It is kinder to say that someone is “disabled” rather than “crippled.”

Yet the use of euphemisms can represent a risk of downplaying an action that is unethical or even criminal. The term “enhanced interrogation” does not convey the horror of the word “torture.” The word “cheating” (on a spouse) does not have the stigma that the word “adultery” carries.

The question then: When is it acceptable, from an ethical point of view, to use euphemism and when is it not?

I believe it all depends on the intention. If the use of euphemism is for the sake of civility and an attempt not to offend, then most likely it is “OK.”

If, however the motivation is to diminish the severity of a reprehensible action, then we should abstain and have the courage to call out the unacceptable behavior by using the word of words that best clarify the action.  There is value in calling “a spade a spade.”

As the historian Paul Johnson once said:

“Euphemism is a human device to conceal the horrors of reality.”

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