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How to change minds and influence people?
Posted: 28 May 2009 10:31 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]
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Thanks, George.  I sort of got that impression from the quotation.

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Posted: 29 May 2009 08:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]
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I guess I should be more explicit about my own ulterior motive in the original post.
It seems to me that the vast majority of the time non-believers by whatever label expect that facts and logic alone should be able to persuade god-believers to give up their superstitions, and that any means of delivery of that reason will do, no matter how blunt or obnoxious.  That tack may work, as it has over many centuries in much of Europe, but I think it will take as long to bear sufficient fruit here as it has there.  In fact, owing to cultural and historical differences, it will probably take far longer.

The most basic question is really whether secular humanists really just want to have a nice club of like minds where we can all enjoy camaraderie and internal debate (inherently valuable, and one of the draws of religion, too), or whether our basic motivation is to move our society and culture toward greater sanity so that we can have a happier and more peaceful world.

If the former, that’s fine, nothing wrong with that and some pleasure to be had.  Much of the discussion above, which I do appreciate, is worthwhile along those lines.

But if the latter, I think many of us would do well to learn, as Buddhists would say, more “skillful means.”
Here’s a metaphor (with a pun or two) I used in another forum:
If you have to loosen a nut that’s frozen or rusted fast on a bolt, isn’t it better to put some WD40 on it and let that soak in for a while before trying to bust the nut loose with a bigger wrench or a hammer?

In our case, of course, the nut would be the believer.
The WD40 would be establishment of empathy and common ground.
The wrench would be reason.
The bolt would be the the superstitious institution or leader. Needless to say, once the nut is off, the plan is usually to hammer out the bolt…

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Posted: 29 May 2009 08:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]
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Good points, Trail Rider. This is the tack that people like Matt Nisbet take—figuring out how to frame science in ways that make it more palatable to the vast middle ground of people who have little interest. He also extolls work by people like EO Wilson who tried to join with Christian evangelicals to save the environment.

A lot of this does involve finding “common ground”, explicitly so with Wilson.

My own feeling is that there are many ways to go about the problem. One way is the way of Nisbet and Wilson, the way you suggest, of trying to reach out to people with whom we disagree, and finding ways to either find common ground with them or to “reframe” our issues and debates in ways that they are likely to find more congenial and less threatening. (E.g., argue in favor of science because of its economic and military benefits rather than because it extinguishes superstition).

Another way is to strengthen the arguments and rhetoric of your own side, bringing those who are on the fence over to a more articulate and passionate belief in your own points. That’s what people like Dawkins and Harris try to do.

Neil Tyson is somewhere in between, IMO, and Sagan would have been more towards the Wilson end of things.

So yes, I definitely think there’s room for the sort of approach you suggest, although I do not think it can or should be our only approach.

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Posted: 29 May 2009 09:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]
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I agree, and while all metaphors have limits, I’ll make a bit more use of the sort of military metaphor used by someone earlier:

In all struggles (I’d rather not fall into the gross misuse of the word “war”) against harmful ideologies that create violence and suffering, generals, diplomats, and all sorts of foot soldiers are needed.

For our purposes, I’d count Dawkins and Harris, for example, as generals of a sort.  I suppose Hitchens, too, is a sort of a Patton-ish character - brilliant, but possessing some unfortunate and counter-productive egotistical foibles.

I think Paul Kurtz, E.O. Wilson, and perhaps a few others are more like diplomats.

The rest of us are foot soldiers.  As such, we can do a lot of harm or good “on the ground.”  Like our literal soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, we can alienate and create reaction by being too broad in our attacks and condemnations, or we can be smarter and more “surgical” and get the job done better and faster.

Much more to say about this, but I’ll stop here.

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Posted: 29 May 2009 05:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]
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T.R., Dawkins and Hitchens really micturate me off because they are so dogmatic and demagogueic, but to use the West Wing analogy, preaching to the choir is how one motivates them to sing.  I think they upset and anger many theists, but they’re not going to be converted anyway.  They probably do give many closet atheists the courage to come out, which is beneficial. 

My policy is to be quite open but nonconfrontational about my atheism.  All my theist friends know of my position, but I’ve never initiated discussions on the subject.  Whenever anyone does bring it up, I’m careful to say early in the conversation that we almost certainly agree on over 90% of our beliefs - morals, ethics, social behavior, day-to-day living, etc.  We can talk about our areas of difference, but they shouldn’t outweigh our similarities.  When challenged I point out that my beliefs, like theirs, are based on faith.  Only after we’ve reached that point, and they want to question me further, do I go into the Non-falsifiable question and Occam’s Razor reasoning on which I base my belief. 

I don’t think I’ve ever converted anyone, but I do think that I’ve helped quite a few theists be somewhat more accepting of atheists and agnostics.  And that’s as much as I can ask for.

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Posted: 29 May 2009 06:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]
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Trail Rider - 29 May 2009 09:19 AM

I agree, and while all metaphors have limits, I’ll make a bit more use of the sort of military metaphor used by someone earlier:

In all struggles (I’d rather not fall into the gross misuse of the word “war”) against harmful ideologies that create violence and suffering, generals, diplomats, and all sorts of foot soldiers are needed.

For our purposes, I’d count Dawkins and Harris, for example, as generals of a sort.  I suppose Hitchens, too, is a sort of a Patton-ish character - brilliant, but possessing some unfortunate and counter-productive egotistical foibles.

I think Paul Kurtz, E.O. Wilson, and perhaps a few others are more like diplomats.

The rest of us are foot soldiers.  As such, we can do a lot of harm or good “on the ground.”  Like our literal soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, we can alienate and create reaction by being too broad in our attacks and condemnations, or we can be smarter and more “surgical” and get the job done better and faster.

Much more to say about this, but I’ll stop here.

Wow!  I’m sorry, but I was unaware that I would find a champion of “turning theists” in this forum.  IMO, that is a pretty unfortunate outlook to have on the world.  I hate when the bible thumpers come here and think of the nicest and easiest way to begin one of their conversion conversations. 

“Minds are very hard things to open, and the best way to open the mind is through the heart,” Professor Haidt says.

This is a fairly benign comment to me.  As simple as “you catch more bees with honey”.  You want people to listen to you, be nice to them.  That is one of those pieces of wisdom that is old as dirt.  It can be dressed up in all kinds of words, but the intent is the same.  But changing minds is not a one way street.  You don’t change an unwilling mind. 

The alternative medicine industry is huge and highly profitable because they sell a great many products to a wide variety of people, all done by emotional appeal (and lies), but I strongly doubt that, no matter how good the sales person and how well s/he used emotions to open the mind, s/he wouldn’t make any sales to the two doctors, the veternarian, or the nurse who are members here.

Occam illustrates this idea very well.  As a former door to door salesperson (horrible job fyi) I can tell you that a sale is made in the introduction.  As soon as you can get in the door, you have already made the sale.  The rest is a matter of how well you know your product, and get along with people.  The truth is a person is willing to buy if he/she is willing to listen.  As Occam says, the members he lists are not gonna buy, they are not willing. 

The most basic question is really whether secular humanists really just want to have a nice club of like minds where we can all enjoy camaraderie and internal debate (inherently valuable, and one of the draws of religion, too), or whether our basic motivation is to move our society and culture toward greater sanity so that we can have a happier and more peaceful world.

How is that the question?  If you believe there is the right, magic grouping of words or a set of proper psychological/emotional tools one could use to convince anyone that there is or is not a god, then I think you are a bit naive. 

And I have to add, how is an atheist who sets out to convert theists any different from the people who ring my doorbell?  I understand that you think that you are right, that you have the right answer, but the question I always through out to the “believers” is “how come I’m not allowed to believe what I want regardless of how wrong you may think it is?”

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Posted: 29 May 2009 07:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]
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This problem runs into a fundamental and ugly truth: Homo Sapiens is not an intrinsically rational creature. We can individually achieve temporary rationality (kinda like temporary insanity, only the other way) by dint of strong educational background and great personal discipline. But it doesn’t come naturally and such behavior is uncommon among even the most Vulcan of us. We’re Pleistocene hunter-gatherers through and through; we can learn to act like rational creatures but it’s impossible to keep up the act for long. So what are we to do? I hate to say this, but I have come to the cynical conclusion that we’re nearing the upper limits of what culture can accomplish in making the human mind operate in a rational manner. Let’s face it, we’re feces-flinging primates.

Perhaps we really would do best with an aristocracy. Perhaps we should award more power to those who can demonstrate genuine rationalism. But who rationally determines who’s rational?

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Posted: 29 May 2009 08:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]
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I don’t see it as likely that the sledgehammer, take no prisoner’s approach of someone like Hitchen’s wins any converts.  But, I see that there is some utility in having those that are the keepers of core philosophy of the group.

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Posted: 30 May 2009 04:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 24 ]
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I firmly believe that we don’t have to change the thiests mind, we have to change the everday citizens mind. Change peoples thinking of war, poverty, science, population/social structure etc. Religion has a little effect on this(in America) but not as much as everyone purports.
If the trend jauntily carries on, in a more and more liberal trend, that’s the best we can hope for. And the theists will still be around, long after these current batch of perceived ills are gone.
The best way to change peoples minds is through their intelligence, or through their well-being. Seeing as how on a Mass-Scale intelligence will be hard to tweak, Well-Being has to be modified—it’s that simple.

If you have a Draft Horse who’s thin and aged, and has been faithfully pulling a wagon loaded high with manure in one direction. The horse pulls this way because he was told that over the hill in the distance lies the stables and Hay and oats, and that horse is going to keep pulling that way.Even though he can’t actually see the Stable.
Now, If I try to tell that horse, to turn around, and go back the other way, there is no stable that way, he’s not going to listen. He may be mad. Mad because I’ve cast doubts and perceived ridicule on the fruits of his Tedious labors.
But….If I show up with 3 other horses, and I tell the horse that these three horses came from a stable just a little ways back down that sideroad, and he can rest there, he may stop. Now I hook up the other 3 horses to the Wagon, and we shovel off half the manure as well. Leave it on the side of the road. I give the old horse some fresh water, and hay, and tell him he didn’t have to be trucking all tht extra manure in the first place. Now the load is considerably lightened, there’s extra power pulling the wagon, and the Wagon and horse are heading off to The right stable.
That’s how minds are changed. Through improving well-being, and cooperation. When you can back up your ideas, with actions that benefit the recipient of your ideas.

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Posted: 31 May 2009 05:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 25 ]
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Chicken - 29 May 2009 06:10 PM

Wow!  I’m sorry, but I was unaware that I would find a champion of “turning theists” in this forum.  IMO, that is a pretty unfortunate outlook to have on the world.  I hate when the bible thumpers come here and think of the nicest and easiest way to begin one of their conversion conversations. 
...
The most basic question is really whether secular humanists really just want to have a nice club of like minds where we can all enjoy camaraderie and internal debate (inherently valuable, and one of the draws of religion, too), or whether our basic motivation is to move our society and culture toward greater sanity so that we can have a happier and more peaceful world.

How is that the question?  If you believe there is the right, magic grouping of words or a set of proper psychological/emotional tools one could use to convince anyone that there is or is not a god, then I think you are a bit naive. 

And I have to add, how is an atheist who sets out to convert theists any different from the people who ring my doorbell?  I understand that you think that you are right, that you have the right answer, but the question I always through out to the “believers” is “how come I’m not allowed to believe what I want regardless of how wrong you may think it is?”

I’m amused but rather taken aback by the above - guess I didn’t think anyone would take my military metaphor quite so literally.
I certainly would not advocate non-believers going door-to-door ala JWs or Mormons, making phone calls from marketing lists, sending mass mailings, etc.  But I’d be surprised if most non-believers don’t think the world would be a better place without superstition, and I’d be surprised if virtually all of us wouldn’t take any reasonable opportunity presented to us to advance our society in that direction.

As citizens or just as decent human beings, I think people capable of thinking critically have some responsibility to act - appropriately and within reason (not to make a pun) - to try to reduce the tragedy created by religious and other superstitions.
I’d say this even if our efforts fail, or when our results are frustratingly incremental, or if we ourselves never see their fruits.
I’m sure some people would say my reference to “responsibility” is something I should not project on to others.  If so, I can at least say that if a person has no desire to reduce the suffering superstition creates, that person is not someone I’d care to know.

Maybe I feel more impatient about this than some folks because I had friends murdered by devout believers on 9/11, was raised in a rather vicious and ignorant fundamentalist family, still today have family members who believe that the U.S. should invade China to help bring about the “End of Days” (and who vote), and I’m deeply saddened almost daily when I read about new efforts to impede science education, the latest news about child-abuse in Catholic or other religious institutions, or that prostitutes in India believe they are destined by the will of Hindu deities to ply their trade until they die of AIDS, and on and on and on.

I do believe that there is such a thing as progress over time, and that millions of small actions over time underlie what we often think of as major progress in society, and that social mores and memes can be changed for the better.  There are many historical examples - almost all through a combination of grass-roots movements and good leadership.

Progress can come about through the means of lots and lots of people speaking out - preferably calmly, intelligently, and in appropriate times and places.  Or by writing and publishing well-founded arguments as more and more people are doing, inspired by people like Dawkins and Harris. 
(One particular means of persuasion that non-believers, at least in organized groups, have not used very well is that of leading by example - by doing good works in local communities.  That’s a primary tool that religious groups of all sorts have used explicitly, intentionally, and with tremendous success for a couple thousand years.  Secular humanist and atheist groups have done almost none of this - many, many people want to help others and to ally themselves with groups who do humanitarian work.  It appears to me that atheists tend to talk a lot about altruism, without realizing how much ground we could gain by doing more of it TOGETHER.)

Chicken, do you think it is ever appropriate to disseminate information suggesting that reason and critical thinking are superior to reliance on scriptures and deities, or is it just that you assumed by my use of the military metaphor that I advocated some sort of goose-stepping by atheists bent on “converting” theists?  Yes, I’d love to “convert” theists, but I don’t think I’m as naive as you accuse me of being about the possibilities of doing so by “magic words,” or by any one encounter, or by myself or by any one individual.

While recognizing that minds are almost never changed overnight or by dint of argument alone (that’s what the thread was supposed to be about when I started it), are there other readers of this forum who think it’s a waste of time or inappropriate to ever encourage theists to think differently (or to really think for the first time)?  If so, I’d be fascinated to hear about that.

[ Edited: 31 May 2009 05:44 PM by Trail Rider ]
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Posted: 31 May 2009 05:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 26 ]
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VYAZMA - 30 May 2009 04:58 AM

I firmly believe that we don’t have to change the thiests mind, we have to change the everday citizens mind. Change peoples thinking of war, poverty, science, population/social structure etc. Religion has a little effect on this(in America) but not as much as everyone purports.
If the trend jauntily carries on, in a more and more liberal trend, that’s the best we can hope for. And the theists will still be around, long after these current batch of perceived ills are gone.
The best way to change peoples minds is through their intelligence, or through their well-being. Seeing as how on a Mass-Scale intelligence will be hard to tweak, Well-Being has to be modified—it’s that simple.

If you have a Draft Horse who’s thin and aged, and has been faithfully pulling a wagon loaded high with manure in one direction. The horse pulls this way because he was told that over the hill in the distance lies the stables and Hay and oats, and that horse is going to keep pulling that way.Even though he can’t actually see the Stable.
Now, If I try to tell that horse, to turn around, and go back the other way, there is no stable that way, he’s not going to listen. He may be mad. Mad because I’ve cast doubts and perceived ridicule on the fruits of his Tedious labors.
But….If I show up with 3 other horses, and I tell the horse that these three horses came from a stable just a little ways back down that sideroad, and he can rest there, he may stop. Now I hook up the other 3 horses to the Wagon, and we shovel off half the manure as well. Leave it on the side of the road. I give the old horse some fresh water, and hay, and tell him he didn’t have to be trucking all tht extra manure in the first place. Now the load is considerably lightened, there’s extra power pulling the wagon, and the Wagon and horse are heading off to The right stable.

That’s how minds are changed. Through improving well-being, and cooperation. When you can back up your ideas, with actions that benefit the recipient of your ideas.

I enjoy reading your posts, Vyazma. So insightful and optimistic, indeed. I wanted to add to that a mantra that many Evangelistic Christians use in their quest to win hearts for Jesus (lol): live the life. In other words, I am a very happy person. I’m ALWAYS smiling, and that’s mostly because I’m also very optimistic and positive, and people always ask me, “Are you a Christian” and I gladly, with a smile on my face tell ‘em, “No. Actually, I’m an atheist.” and, like clock work, the next comment is, “But, you’re always so happy.”

What I’m suggesting is that, even to this day with so many non-believers doing such wonderful and amazing things, many still believe that atheists and nonbelievers on a whole are unhappy people. If we live our lives with love, empathy and a demonstrated joie de vivre, we’ve already planted the seed.

In my office, many “born-again” Christians aren’t bashful about demonstrating their excitement about going to see Bishop T.D. Jakes or Rod Parsely when they come in town. So, equally, I get excited and am very verbal and open about seeing Christopher Hitchens at our annual book fair—for example—or going to local CFI chapter “dinner & discussion” nights.  We’ve got to get palpably excited about the wonderful lives we lead as non-believers. Heck, I’m getting excited just typing this post! Lol.

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Posted: 01 June 2009 03:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 27 ]
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Citizen477-

What I’m suggesting is that, even to this day with so many non-believers doing such wonderful and amazing things, many still believe that atheists and nonbelievers on a whole are unhappy people. If we live our lives with love, empathy and a demonstrated joie de vivre, we’ve already planted the seed.

Very true. The rust is slowly being scaled away. Peace Out!

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Posted: 01 June 2009 04:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 28 ]
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Trail Rider - 31 May 2009 05:37 PM

I’m amused but rather taken aback by the above - guess I didn’t think anyone would take my military metaphor quite so literally.
I certainly would not advocate non-believers going door-to-door ala JWs or Mormons, making phone calls from marketing lists, sending mass mailings, etc.  But I’d be surprised if most non-believers don’t think the world would be a better place without superstition, and I’d be surprised if virtually all of us wouldn’t take any reasonable opportunity presented to us to advance our society in that direction.

I’m glad I “amuse” you, but I’m most pleased that you were “taken aback”.  Your military metaphor may have seemed benign to you, but it read like conversion 101.  Here you make a comment, “I’d be suprised if most non-believers don’t think the world would be a better place without superstition…”  You go further with this thought below and I’ll address it all after.

As citizens or just as decent human beings, I think people capable of thinking critically have some responsibility to act - appropriately and within reason (not to make a pun) - to try to reduce the tragedy created by religious and other superstitions.
I’d say this even if our efforts fail, or when our results are frustratingly incremental, or if we ourselves never see their fruits.
I’m sure some people would say my reference to “responsibility” is something I should not project on to others.  If so, I can at least say that if a person has no desire to reduce the suffering superstition creates, that person is not someone I’d care to know.

I disagree with your view of the world.  Your view seems similar to theists I have met, and often debated regarding “good” and “bad” people.  I’m sorry that your friends died on 9/11, many people lost friends and family on that day.  Many people have lost family and friends in the endless wars that were waged as a result of that day.  I don’t consider the Afghan families killed by our bombings any less significant or sad than the deaths of those on 9/11.  I think you’re confusing the idea that the entire Mid-East is intertwined with Islam and the fact that 9/11 was motivated by Islam.  That is short sighted and you should really look into who Al-Qaeda is and why they were a problem in the first place.  Even some simple research should help:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/September_11_attacks

Through my life experience I’ve seen a lot of crime and poverty.  IMO, most “bad” people are motivated by poverty or abuse.  Both of which are happening on a daily basis in this country and around the world.  These people suffer and because of their lack of family/friends/a support network they are “perverted” and become a hazard to society.  The overwhelming tragedies throughout the world are because there are too many people and not a fair distribution of resources, as well as a legacy of abuse passed down through generations.  Religion is a powerful tool that some use to justify great movements (e.g. civil rights movement) as well as horrible injustices (e.g. Taliban orchestrated stonings).  Religion itself is a freedom everyone should be allowed to participate in or not.  If you’d like to try and convert people, go ahead but then you’re just providing another avenue for religious zealots to buck and organize against.  I’ve been to lots of different church services, and there is always a faction that loves to gather, demonstrate, and organize.

I do believe that there is such a thing as progress over time, and that millions of small actions over time underlie what we often think of as major progress in society, and that social mores and memes can be changed for the better.  There are many historical examples - almost all through a combination of grass-roots movements and good leadership.

I can agree with you on this point, because we can all work together to reach whatever we as a society deem as a “better” standard for our society.  Of course, some of these historical grass-roots movements were organized around/by/because of religion. 

Chicken, do you think it is ever appropriate to disseminate information suggesting that reason and critical thinking are superior to reliance on scriptures and deities, or is it just that you assumed by my use of the military metaphor that I advocated some sort of goose-stepping by atheists bent on “converting” theists?  Yes, I’d love to “convert” theists, but I don’t think I’m as naive as you accuse me of being about the possibilities of doing so by “magic words,” or by any one encounter, or by myself or by any one individual.

I would never “disseminate information suggesting that reason and critical thinking are superior to reliance on scripture and deities.”  I think it ridiculous to attempt to tell people that believing in god means that they are not capable of reason or critical thinking.  I had an awesome professor in college who was overly impressive (at least to me) with his lecturing ability and debating skills.  I later learned (through a personal story he told the class) that he believed in god.  At first it really threw me for a loop, but I have often thought of him when I get overly frustrated with religious zealots.  He is a very intelligent and compassionate person who has every right to believe what he wishes regarding the meaning of life or the creation of man or whatever.  We don’t have the right to restrict anyone’s mind, even if they are wrong.  What we should always do is make sure that no one enacts legislation based on religious beliefs.  Religion should stay as it is now, a free choice for one and all (well at least in this country).

[ Edited: 02 June 2009 06:57 AM by Chicken ]
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