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Author Opinion on Current Events: The Media is an Accomplice in School Shootings: A Call for a "Stephen King" Law

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Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.


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The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are solely the opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position of VitalSmarts.

Monday I watched in horror with most of America as the story of the Chardon High School shooting unfolded. But my horror was twofold. The first misery came as I heard the names and numbers of victims and thought about the pain they and their families will endure for the rest of their lives. The second dose came as I held my breath—hoping and praying the media wouldn’t amplify the violence.

But they did.

They did exactly what they needed to do to influence the next perpetrator to lock and load.

1. They named the shooter.
2. They described his characteristics.
3. They detailed the crime.
4. They numbered the victims.
5. They ranked him against other “successful” attackers.

School shootings are a contagion. And the media are consistent accomplices in most every one of them.

There’s really no useful debate on the point. The consensus of social scientists since David Phillips’ groundbreaking work in 1974 is that highly publicized stories of deviant and dangerous behavior influence copycat incidents. Phillips’ and scores of subsequent studies showed, for example, that suicide rates spike in the week after an inappropriately publicized celebrity suicide. Contrast this trend with no increase in suicides in the week following a media strike that unintentionally suppresses such coverage.

The same is true of school massacres. On Groundhog Day, February 2, 1996 a 14-year-old boy walked into his Moses Lake, Washington, Junior High School algebra class and started shooting. He killed his teacher, two classmates, and severely wounded another student. The media obsessed over the color of his clothes, his insidious planning, and the inventory of his arsenal. In addition, they practically offered a how-to guide for concealing and deploying weapons in a coat. But what got the most attention was the fact that after shooting his teacher, he delivered a line from the Stephen King novel Rage with charismatic panache. Suddenly, the invisible adolescent was a cultural icon. Within a week, another shooting occurred that clearly echoed that of February 2. Then another on February 19. Another on March 11. And yet another on March 13. More than one of the apparent copycats also cited King’s novel as a creative resource in their crimes.

Of course, when the Rage pattern became clear, the media scurried to get King’s reaction. King could have defended his right to free speech and used the “guns don’t kill, people do” argument—claiming the problem was the perpetrators’ mental health not his book.

But he didn’t. He apologized for writing the book. In an interview he said, “I took a look at Rage and said to myself, if this book is acting as any sort of accelerant, if it’s having any effect on any of these kids at all, I don’t want anything to do with it.” Then he insightfully added, “Even talking about it makes me nervous.” King understands that attention is influence. He asked his publishers to pull Rage from publication and let it fall out of print shortly thereafter.

The challenge our society faces is balancing the need to not cause additional mayhem through known influence methods with the right of free speech. As is the case with all complicated issues, there are multiple values to consider here.

It’s time to ask if we should find a way to stifle such reports, limit the anguish, and disallow one form of speech, for the greater good.

One thing is for certain—those who write about, talk about, televise, and otherwise report on school shootings need to take their lead from Mr. King by examining their own motives and methods—given that when news outlets include certain details of a crime in their reports that act as a virtual workshop for would-be acolytes, they are likely to incite similar actions.

Surely, media specialists feel the tension between their own values and staying in business. And yet, they must realize that their goals to get more air time, sell more ad space, and earn more attention don’t justify the potential to create new pain and sorrow.

The obvious first step is to talk openly about all sides of the issue—including the latest research. Media outlets need to examine their own tactics, impact, and motives. It would be wonderful if the entire industry started regulating certain aspects of what is reported. This could only be accomplished through collaboration between competitive entities and so far, we haven’t seen any progress in this direction.

Perhaps it’s time for legislators to start their own dialogue. Perhaps we now have enough scientific evidence to suggest that it’s time to take action before more lives are lost. It’s time we matched responsibility with influence.

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Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. read more

30 thoughts on “Author Opinion on Current Events: The Media is an Accomplice in School Shootings: A Call for a "Stephen King" Law”

  1. As a former journalist and proud defender of our right to know, I agree with the blogger on this one. In the newsroom in days of old, we just deemed some things out of bounds. . . suicides, minors’ names, personal tragedies. Now, admittedly, if a student pulls a gun in a public school, you’ve got public issues. But there is probably a way to cover this in the press that respects the public’s right to know something happened, and the privacy of the individuals involved. I insisted on going to all kinds of public meetings, but two things were out of bounds – personnel issues and lawsuits. Probably this is going to involve both. We need to be more concerned about covering fully those public issues that need covering (the backgrounds and relationships of who is spending public money, where it is going, the backgrounds of relationships of who is getting it, etc) and worry less about exacerbating personal tragedy to entertain the masses. Sad but true.

  2. Joseph,
    I agree with 99% of what you said. Unfortunately, the news media is only responding to what news watching public wants to see. How do we get the PEOPLE to want to leave the colloseum?
    Stephen

  3. I agree with Stephen; the news is responding to what the public wants. I have not owned a TV for years and enjoy conversations with people who ask why. Be the change you want to see in the world…

  4. I totally agree. As individuals — and communicators — we need to be vigilant on what we are “really” saying. Basic need for all of us is to be recognized — to feel important. As a society, beginning with us, need to stress the good actions and reward them appropriately.

  5. Thank you so much for writing this article. The thoughts that went through my mind when I heard about the latest school shooting in Ohio were…Please don’t name the shooter, please don’t talk about what and why did performed this terrible act, please don’t put his picture on the screen.

    I am so disturbed by the media coverage, I am sure my blood pressure rises! Thank you for using this forum to expose this behavior.

  6. Dr. William Bennett hits the nail on the head when he says that the culture is everyting. Our cultural failure today is twofold: 1) I have a right to say whatever I want, I have a right to own a gun and 2) Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, don’t judge me, there is no such thing as right or wrong but everything is relative.

    Yes, you have a right to say whatever you want and own a gun but you also have a RESPONSIBILITY to behave in a respectful and civilized manner. There is right and wrong, there is good and evil and we must discern appropriately WITHOUT legislative input.

  7. I’ll start by saying that I respect your position, and that you have provided a compelling case.

    With that said, I see things a little differently. Rather that restrict what can be reported on for the greater good, perhaps we should restrict “how” it is reported on.

    For example, the contrasting information on how this killer ranks against that killer, can cause attention and dare we say it, copycat competition.

    I think England may be on a better track in this area, not naming the crimindals, so as to not give them publicity. If we cut off the attention these crimes derive from the media, perhaps the effect it has on others can be reduced or eliminated.

    What is driving this alternate view on my part is simple: I’m reluctant to abandon our country’s founding principle of freedom of speech. With the recent attacks on free speech in Chicago with their new “demonstration” ordinances which has acted to make it difficult to demonstrate peacefully, I am becoming more sensitive to requests to further erode our rights.

  8. The numbing of American society to violent acts has accelerated exactly for the reasons stated by the author. The propensity for actions to be along the lines of “fire, aim, ready” pervades all sorts of human interactions, hence the reason many of us subscribe to this useful blog.

    Adolescents are especially susceptible to the “immediate gratification” that violent acts against others seems to bring. Yet, the ensuing responsibility for said actions is not linked in the “reality media” many have cited as the impetus for their actions.

    We adults authorize, create, publish, act, market, solicit and popularize these forms of so-called entertainment. And then we wonder, “why are the kids doing these things?” Well, time to look in the mirror. We have allowed to occur, through patronising those outlets and advertisers that promote them. For the TV stations to claim “this is what our audience wants to hear” is purely self-delusion, numbers ratings based justification. Where are the journalistic and community standards?

    I lived in Washington State at the time of the 1996 shootings. The author is right, the “copy-cat” shootings that ensued were deeply unsettling. Mr. King’s actions are laudable, for he took responsibility for his prose, did everything possible to remove the potential for additional adolescents to read (and copy) acts, and took the financial hit. Interesting that those aspects were not as widely disseminated as the shootings, is it not?

  9. I find this to be a disturbing article by a well educated person.
    Should we have a goal of reducing copycat crimes? Of course. But to ask that legislators look at restricting our basic rights in response to isolated incidents (we live in a country with over 300 million people) is heading down a very slippery slope my friend. You can’t legislate common sense and morality without eventually removing our rights. I for one am not ready to make that trade.

  10. It always amazes me how the media blames the public with the line of thought that “our hands are tied, the public wants to see it”. What they really mean is “we make more money when we blow everything out of proportion and fuel the craziness.” Thank you for sharing your view on this; I wholeheartedly agree.

  11. I agree. Negative media attention on issues of all kinds clearly adds to and perpetuates the problem. This is one of the reasons I decided to quit watching TV. In my own humble way I’m saying enough already! It’s been three years and I don’t miss the TV at all, in fact I find that I buy less and have less need or desire for “stuff”. I might be less informed but I’m far happier. Thanks for taking a stand on this important topic!

  12. Thank you so much for your response to Monday’s events in today’s message. I do agree with just about all of what you say, and unfortunately if it is left to collaboration among the competing news groups there will never be resolve. We should not rely on the government to regulate and mandate the use of the “Golden Rule”. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. How would these companies and individual feel about the reporting if the event had involved them more directly?
    Why should it take government involvement for these groups to have common decency for the public and use just a little common sense especially in the areas that so closely effect the young people in our country along with effecting everyone else too. Is our society so sick that they think glamorizing a tragic event is providing news coverage to the public? It would be wonderful to see advertisers actually remove support of the news groups who do glamorize or over publicize these events and make them up to be so much more than just a news story, maybe then it would be seen as a negative way of providing the “news”. It just seems to cause negative feelings, reactions, and carryon/over events throughout the viewing public and within the group who was involved directly.
    Where has the common sense and common courtesy gone in this world? A little more of both could do magic in so many ways. I for one try and live by the “Golden Rule”, I wish a challenge could go out to others for those who in the past have not always lived by this rule to try it for a while and see how it changes not only their lives but the community around them also.

  13. I agree with the general thought here. As a matter of fact, I adimantly support it! That said, I also had a strong reaction to what seems to me “painting with a very wide brush.” It seems to me, in this conversation, the underlying foundation is being ignored; human nature combining with modern times.

    I feel that I have been watching our current culture mutually support and encourage a general lack of individual responsibility. It appears to me as if we are looking to excuse behavior we all know is wrong because “everybody’s doing it.” I understand that excuse from children and teenagers, but I am concerned at how pervasive, and unacknowledged, it has become throughout our adult, of all ages, population.

    On the focus of the subject at hand, child violence: I see more debate on whom to blame for the actions of these kids; poor parenting, lack of supervision by teachers and schools, violent video games and movies, and of course, the media, than I see of adults discussing how to take an active role in accepting personal responsibilty for a positive community change.

    When it comes to placing blame on media hype, there is again an “it’s someone else’s fault” chorus. Listen to the water cooler talk right after a breaking story, read the comments below news articles online. We, nearly all of us, are conjecturing about, clamoring for, if not demanding, “more details!” We voyeuristicly scan newspapers and magazines, surf the web, or flip through television channels, with a treasure hunting kind of excitement. We seem to be hoping to discover a juicy bit of information to feed our own need to distract ourselves with someone else’s business, to offset or increase our feelings of self worth. Or, even more sadly, because of our current culture’s dilusion over instant “stardom” via modern technology, and our need to make ourselves the heroic bestower of titilating tidbits to an audience of fellow feeders at other’s sad events.

    When it was just “the kids” and the early stages of emerging social media, I’d hoped it was a passing phase that responsible adults would curtail into responsible and effective communictions. Sadly, that has not been the case. Adults are leading the charge in gossip and seeking their moment in the spotlight, setting poor examples for our children and undermining our communities by this false sense of socializing. This demand for, and relaying of unneccessary, “none of your business” details, from the media, and perpetuating exaggerated falsehoods, is no better than the cyber bullying we are trying to save our children from, the very stuff that pushes fragile children to the violent reactions at the surface of this discussion.

    They say “life is a circle,” but this is one that needs to be broken.

  14. Joseph, thank you for this opinion piece. There needs to be a more thoughtful dialogue in our country to address the amount of copycat violence occurring among young people – those killing themselves and those killing others. I agree with your call for the media to look at changing how they report information so they don’t encourage more violence. I also appreciated learning more about the work of David Phillips, and about the example set by Stephen King.

  15. I hope you will submit this piece to a number of major newspapers and TV outlets. Your opinion deserves as wide an airing as possible; it is a conversation that should be held at the national level.

  16. Thank you for your essay. I have two comments.

    Except for celebrities, when it comes to suicide (especially teen suicide), the news media does go along with mental health experts who advise that they not be reported or sensationalized. I wonder why no one can convince them regarding school shootings.

    Then I realize:

    Violence in schools hits us harder and triggers a bigger reaction. Nearly everyone has been to school (personal experience) and school is supposed to be a good and safe place (core belief). That combo causes us to feel the violence there more intimately. Perhaps the media is relying on these two things to ensure a large audience? But no one in the media is going to say, “Hey, you’re right. School violence is great for the ratings for the reasons you’ve just mentioned.”

  17. Thanks all for very thoughtful comments on a complex issue. Let me be clear on my current bias – I am NOT suggesting that the press black out any reference to these awful incidents. I am suggesting they report it in a way that does not influence others to follow suit. The five mistakes I point out at the beginning of the piece are most of what reporters need to avoid in order to strike a balance between the public’s right to know and the reporter’s responsible influence.
    1. Don’t name the perpetrator.
    2. Don’t detail the methods.
    3. Don’t profile the perpetrator.
    4. Don’t give a body count.
    5. Don’t give “kill rankings” vs. previous criminals.

    Perhaps committing to all five of these is too much for some – my point is that any one of the five you compromise increases the influence of the reporting on potential copycats. We need to ask ourselves, “Is it worth it?”

    A dozen or so other countries (Canada, for example) have voluntary ethical standards for reporting. The U.S. is the laggard. I believe that every year we lag costs lives. Sometimes legislation becomes the very excuse good people need to do the right thing as it removes the disincentive to do so as I worry my competitor will have a more salacious and attractive piece.

  18. Like others have commented here, I fear the concept of legislation that limits free speech. That being said, it seems to me that many have lost the basic understanding of personal accountability. Just because we have the freedom to say anything we want does not mean we are free of the consequences of exercising that right irresponsibly. When I was growing up, and found myself in situations where exercising my “rights” created problems for others, my dad’s response was always to remind me that my rights end where someone else’s nose begins. Then, of course, the consequences of my behavior reinforced that lesson by an order of magnitude. Unfortunately, in this situation, the members of the media who choose to capture audience through the sensationalizing of these tragedies are not the ones who will pay the ultimate price when copycat behaviors occur. I have decided to vote with my funds, and with my time, neither of which will be allocated in future to media outlets dedicating resources to making sure we know every gory detail of the dysfunction leading to these nightmarish events.

  19. The comments everyone provides are profoundly thought provoking. When we ask to change one thing, it inevitably impacts another. I propose we ask the media what their true intent is in sharing these stories. Is it to attract a mainstream audience? Is it to report a factual incident that occurred? Is it to inform the public and warn them about this type of incident? In my opinion, the intent has shifted. News used to have a purpose and it was reliable. You listened and watched the news and respected the newscasters. These days, I do not trust, nor respect the news and my intent is not come across as paranoid but it’s just that news feels like all the other reality TV shows out there. Everyone is looking for their moment of fame. Shouldn’t we ask what is in the best interest of the survivors (students, families and teachers, observers) and what we can do to stop this from happening again? It needs to stop! Period! Children cannot continue to kill children. We cannot continue to watch violence on TV and then have anti-bullying days hoping things will change. It’s enough….isn’t it?

  20. Sorry, but I really disagree. Quit blaming the media. Start paying attention to our own culpability in this matter. Isn’t that one of the tenets of crucial conversations? The fact is – the media behaves as any capitalist would; it is an exemplar of our culture. If WE stopped gobbling this crap up, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as lucrative to report. All of you who are sitting there glued to your media outlet watching the horror unfold are not only PART but the ESSENCE of the problem. You provide the market; why are you upset when someone provides the goods. Quit blaming others in their failure to do a job that ultimately only you can perform. Quit watching.

  21. Mr. Grenny,

    First, thank you for all the good you and your organization do. I’ve taken most of your trainings, and really appreciate your tools and insights, they are powerful.

    Second, I worry about the sentiments you have expressed in that they reflect a growing and in my opinion dangerous attitude about the solution to problems. I agree that the news media and the public at large encourage copycats. I agree that attitudes and practices should change to alleviate this problem. I categorically reject the idea that the government should be the one to effect that change. Not only do we have the usual problems with government trying to regulate things in terms of over- and under-inclusiveness, inefficiency, etc., but here we are talking about First Amendment rights of speech and press. Any people who trades liberty for what they see as supposed security deserves neither and will soon lose both (a much smarter man than I first articulated this idea). No, Mr. Grenny, you should practice what you preach. If America wants to change the behavior of the press and the public, then we need to influence them, using the strategies your company rightfully touts as powerful tools for change. Relying on the government to fix our problems, and particularly problems rooted in fundamental rights is the “miracle diet pill,” not only will it fail to work like it should, but the side-effects are disastrous. Why aren’t you advocating your model instead?

    @Joseph Grenny

  22. Thanks for the comment, Verb. I hope in my opinion piece I was clear that I am reluctant to rely first or solely on legislation. However, I must also be clear that laws and sanctions are not separate from our Influencer model – they are an integral part of it. The reason we have laws is to guide behavior. They are blunt instruments and come with clear downsides – including increasing the role of government in our private lives. However, as a free society we have still concluded there are times to use laws to shape behavior.

    The question is – is this one of those times? Other countries have found a way to use public and peer pressure to gain media compliance with ethical standards of reporting of these kinds of crimes. The US has failed. I’m open to any ideas that employ other sources of influence to solve the problem. In the meantime, lives are being lost. Any suggestions?

    Some have commented that this is an issue of media consumption not production – the viewers are creating the problem by lending their eyeballs to irresponsible reporting. I agree that changing consumer behavior would solve the problem. Does anyone have a suggestion for a robust approach to doing that?

    The more philosophical question I am asking is: “When innocent lives are being lost to irresponsible behavior, does that not make the actor an accomplice in the crime?” And if so, why is it inappropriate to express that truth through legislation?

  23. Mr. Grenny,

    Thank you for your thoughtful response, to which I see two important distinctions.

    First, you are certainly correct that other nations have done what you suggest, but these nations do not have the commitment to freedom of speech and of press that we do. Further, this right is so fundamental, that only the gravest extreme ought to justify infringing upon. For example, the right to vote, assemble, or freely exercise religion are much diminished if not extinguished by removal of the right of free speech. Now, obviously that is not what you are advocating, and I do not mean to overstate the point; I do intend to underscore the centrality of freedom of speech and press in our nation and how careful we ought to be when we speak of altering that right. This then goes to the second point.

    Second, and somewhat based on the above analysis, it seems unfair and unwise to set up the media as the scapegoat. I agree that the media and the public have some role in these tragedies. However, it seems that the true failure which makes them possible occurs not in the moment of reporting, but in the years of these individual’s lives without meaningful role models, without people who love them enough to know that something is seriously wrong. I do not mean to twist the knife for those with family members or friends who do things like this, but homicidal thoughts and feelings don’t just show up over-night. The failure is in the homes and communities of these individuals, and obviously in the individuals themselves. We ought to be reaching out to help those around us, and when we need help, we ought to reach out for it. So, at least one suggestion is to make sure that people have the courage and skills to speak up and avoid tragedy (you have books filled with these types of failures, this is just another one, where the nurse sees the disaster coming, but doesn’t speak up). Now, that’s the triage version for imminent disaster. A broader suggestion is to revive the “community,” from an anonymous online collective to the people we live, work, and play side-by-side with. Now, that is clearly easier said than done, but in my opinion the break-down of community is the root of most of our social evils. If we can fix that root problem, we fix a host of other symptoms including other crime, poverty, lack of education, etc. So, I ask you and your colleagues, as the truly gifted problem solvers you have proven yourselves to be, how do we bring back true communities in this e-society? How do we influence a nation?

  24. if i’ve said this once, i’ve said (variants of it) it a hundred (probably closer to ten) times:
    attention is in large(r) part the responsibility of the attender, less so the attendee. there’s no greater freedom/responsibility. “…those who [pay attention to and discuss] school shootings need to take their lead from Mr. King by examining their own motives …” except that those who pay attention to school shootings are only threatening if they’re of a certain age / (im-)maturity and have access to weaponry. i think that by teaching humans how to take responsibility for how their attention informs their value systems, then we can avoid the supression brought about by trying to legislate a box around acceptable perspectives.

    furthermore, i’d expect influence methods to be like most other social phenomena: dynamic. assuming so, basing any legislation on sociological evidence seems short-sighted because that evidence, once widely publicized (e.g. by legislation), would be expected to have just enough longevity to ensure that different influence methods crop up. … although this hasn’t stopped legislation before.

    it would be wonderful if news media all agreed on how to regulate the news?! like how to brainwash us just right?!! you have gone off the deep-end, sir! hahahaha i think it would wonderful if i was allowed to pay attention to what i wanted to!

    i love paying attention to this stuff; thanks for the opportunity,
    bean s

  25. i think one other source of influence you’re asking for is better parenting: what that means practically is harder to put into words, but it’s got something to do with engendering perspective in children. let’s pass out some educational materials.

  26. @T Fitzpatrick
    I appreciate your response, but am still sad to see there is no individual accountability. I ask, respectfully; why are we asking the media, advertisers, etc., to do what we will not do ourselves? Boycott the advertisers’ products, and the media themselves. Turn away. Turn it off. Write a letter. Enlist others. Take a stand. Take action. And, of course, the good old-fashioned, “vote them out of office” if they do not support your views. We should not simply be asking for change, we need to be part of the change.

  27. @Verb Kudos! And, thank you, sincerely. Here’s to reinstating “community” back into our communities!

  28. What I’m about to write is, to some, controversial at best. I ask only that, should you decide to continue reading, you keep an open mind and remember that, even if my views are different from yours, I do, as this entire discussion is about, have the same freedoms as you to express my thoughts and beliefs as I see them. With that, I wish you well…

    Missing from ALL the comments I read is the horrifying lack of MORALS amoung all parties involved. One person, in passing, briefly mentioned “Freedom of Religion” and then only made mention of it to make point about something else… Not to cause any forays into other areas, I offer the following… Many years ago, the”slippery slope” of freedom FROM religion began with the ban on prayer in schools which led to, eventually, removal of God from all public and some private forums under the so called “separation of church and state” – NOT in our Constitution, (incidentally, it was in the old Soviet Union “Constitution”). Upon that came the beginning of a rapid decline in a personal acknowledgement of the difference in “right and wrong” in, not only our children and young people, among adults as well. Having NOTHING to base “right and wrong” on, with the removal of the Ten Commandments” from the walls of our schools and every public building possible, everything started on a downward spiral. Now, do not rail on me about the first commandment – “Have no other Gods before Me” (paraphrased). Though important to me, it is one tenth of the whole… the rest are laws and rules for living a decent, lawful life – ie. do not lie, do not steal, do not kill, do not envy or covetet, do not have sex outside of marriage, you know, common sense, basic, home grown MORALITY. Unless and until we, as a whole, forget our own selfishness and allow this kind of teaching – not only in the home – AND in school classrooms, colleges and universities, tech schools, trainings of all kinds – things will never change… NEVER. If you continue to allow our children to be taught the THEORY of evolution and that all human life evolved from “monkeys”, what more can we possibility expect our children and adults to act like than the animals they have been taught, in fact, and that they believe they are? Until that changers, life will continue to be considered worthless and, therefore not cherished. Taking someone’s life will continue to be “acceptable”. No right from wrong equals a misguided life where doing wrong, any wrong, is OK – the goal being to not get caught. This HAS to change before anything else can possibly change. Even so, if it were to change immediately we would, possibly, have to wait at least a generation or two to see the fruits of that change. A sad fact and most assuredly true. It took forty to fifty years to get where we are, it will take a long while to return…

    Before you allow your Freedom FROM Religion to color your thoughts and increase your blood pressure, just think, for a moment, on what is written here. I have NOT called anyone’s personal belief ‘stupid’, nor have I railed on or mentioned any names. I have simply stated facts as I see them. I hope you have a blessed day…

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