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The paranoia driving office politics Social media has eroded our faith in humanity

Felicia Sonmez is the latest example of an insidious trend. Credit: Fox News

Felicia Sonmez is the latest example of an insidious trend. Credit: Fox News


June 17, 2022   6 mins

Picture a huge, poisonous fruit falling to the ground, its skin splitting open, the rancid pulp pouring out. Picture the ants discovering the mess, swarming over it, drunk on the abundance in front of them — and far too preoccupied with their feasting to ever look up at the tree it fell from.

It’s an apt metaphor for what happens during one of the public meltdowns that double as free entertainment for the extremely online. The splatter of drama, the rush to consume, the way we pick over every last sordid detail of the controversy until there’s no meat left. What we miss is that the details hardly matter, as individually fascinating as they may be; indeed, a large part of this problem is that we only ever talk about it in terms of its most recent iteration. We obsess over the individual characters — the Bean Dad, the Racist Cheerleader, the Guy Who Didn’t Cum On His Cat (the internet remains unpersuaded) — yet fail to grasp that they’re all starring in the same self-perpetuating tragedy.

Granted, some characters make this drama more riveting than others, and last week’s iteration was a peak example of the form. Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez waged a six-day war of attrition over a colleague’s retweet of an off-colour joke.

The offensiveness (or entertainment value) of the joke itself is a matter of taste. What quickly became clear, however, is that the joke was not the point. The problem was what it represented: the mere tip of an imagined vast, sexist iceberg lurking below the surface. Some claimed that it signalled the hidden sexism of the reporter, Dave Weigel, who retweeted it; others, including Sonmez, insisted that it was symbolic of a deep-seated culture of misogyny in the Washington Post itself. This type of projection is intrinsic to such online controversies: nobody ever makes a one-off mistake, everything is part of pattern. (When John Roderick, now better known as Bean Dad, tried to create a teachable moment by getting his daughter to work out the machinations of a can opener without help, internet scolds were so incensed that they reported him to Child Protective Services.)

We watched the action like a TV show: the callout, the apology, the suspension of the colleague (for a full month without pay) when the apology was deemed insufficient, the escalating demands from Sonmez (who not only supported Weigel’s suspension, but wanted everyone who publicly criticised her public criticism to be professionally sanctioned as well). All this, combined with a series of leaks from inside the increasingly-exasperated Washington Post leadership apparatus, built to a climax as hotly-debated as the series finale of LOST. How could they possibly fire her? How could they possibly not?

The immolation of Sonmez’s career seemed simultaneously inevitable and impossible, right up until the moment when it happened. And when it did, we swarmed. We feasted. And then, within days, we moved on — our appetite for drama sated, but the point thoroughly missed.

Every one of these meltdowns, from the dad with the can opener to the reporter with an ax to grind, owes its existence to an ongoing erosion of interpersonal trust. Consider how suspicious one has to be, how consumed by paranoid cynicism, to see a veteran reporter retweet an off-colour joke and declare it not an isolated error in judgment, but a definitive glimpse of the darkness that lurks inside his heart.

Never mind that the man in question has worked with and mentored women who loudly attest to his decency. Never mind the countless positive interactions amassed over the course of a 20-year career. The mask has slipped, the jig is up, the retweet is not just a retweet but a revelation. What kind of person finds a joke like that funny? A woman-disrespecter, that’s who! And having telegraphed his true disposition toward his female colleagues, surely the person in question is unfit to remain employed.

It is not hard to identify the flaws, and the threat, of a workplace policy founded on the notion that one’s employers should be meting out punishments, firings and fines, over matters of taste. The comedy you laugh at, the music you listen to, the art you hang on your walls at home: any of these things might grate against the sensibilities of a coworker, especially one who is in the habit of opportunistic offence-taking.

Such a rule would allow unparalleled interference by bosses into our private lives — policing not just the things we say outside of work, but the things we enjoy. It is hard to say where it would end. “You retweeted an offensive joke” becomes, “You were overheard telling an offensive joke to your friends at a bar,” becomes, perhaps, “You were captured by one of our corporate surveillance drones exiting a Ricky Gervais show, and our facial expression-analysing algorithm confirms the presence of mirth.” The boundaries between our work lives and our private lives have never been more permeable, and it has become increasingly easy for employers to track our movements — and hold us accountable for them — outside the office. And in a moment where brands are expected to have identities and values the same way people do, it’s all too easy for corporations to lay claim to their employees’ expression and activities as company property. You are never not at work; you are never not representing the brand.

It has also never been easier — as the Washington Post saga makes painfully clear — for office politics to become fodder for public consumption, as disgruntled employees seek to litigate their grievances in front of a bigger, more sympathetic audience. As much as employers might be interfering in the private lives of their employees, we the public also know much too much about workplace conflicts that are none of our business. Josh Barro, in his Very Serious newsletter, put it best: “If you think your coworker sucks, you don’t tweet about it. That’s unprofessional. If you disagree with management’s personnel decisions, you don’t decry them to the public. That’s insubordinate. Organizations full of people who are publicly at each other’s throats can’t be effective. Your workplace is not Fleetwood Mac.”

But the greatest cost is to our humanity, our interpersonal relationships. To walk around in a state of constant suspicion about the character of every person we encounter: it wears on us. It isolates us. And left unchecked, it brings us to a point where the only thing we share with our fellow humans is the conviction that everyone around us is only pretending to be good, and that the only way to truly know someone is to watch, and wait, iPhone camera in hand, for the tiniest crack to open up in their false veneer of decency.

We’ve been here before, of course. In moments of diminished trust, we turn on each other, becoming obsessed with ferreting out the subversives in our midst. Anyone could be a witch, or a communist, or a homosexual; everyone must be closely watched; and no misstep is too small to be worthy of indictment. The notion of an honest mistake ceases to exist entirely. Consider the case of the meteorologist who made an unfortunate spoonerism while trying to read the name of a park named after Martin Luther King, Jr., or the sports reporter who stuttered with similar results while speaking about Kobe Bryant’s death — and the enormous number of people who insisted that this was no accident, but incontrovertible evidence that these reporters must use racial slurs in private, all the time. A slip of the tongue? Ha! The only thing that slipped was the mask you’re wearing. That sound could only come out of your mouth if that word, in all its hateful and hideous glory, was already in your head.

Perhaps this is the natural outgrowth of a culture in which art and politics and opinions are increasingly seen as indistinguishable from one’s essential self. Matters of taste, or personality, now get swept up under the banner of capital-I-identity; you don’t just laugh at the sexist joke, you are the sexist joke. Even the silliest iterations of this phenomenon, like the obsession of certain young people with niche sexual and gender identities demarcated by bespoke pronouns and colourful flags, speak to a broader cultural impulse to make sense of things — and of other people — by slapping labels on them. Meanwhile, the idea that a person might contain self-contradictory multitudes, or that his taste in comedy, art, cuisine or decor says very little (if anything) about his character, cannot be borne in our present environment. The inscrutable nature of other people’s hearts is not an enticing mystery, but a source of horror: they could be hiding anything in there. The problem with this, of course, is not just that too many good people are saddled with permanent reputations for badness as a result of something as silly as a tweet, but that the cheapening of “badness” as a concept makes the perpetrators of actual evil much harder to identify.

There’s a paradox here: that in a moment where social media gives us unprecedented access to other people’s thoughts, we have become consumed by fear of all the things they might be thinking but not expressing. There’s a pervasive sense, perhaps owing to the inherent performativity of the medium, that signs of virtue cannot be trusted, but hints of vice should be treated with deadly seriousness, investigated, and prosecuted where possible. In the age of oversharing, it is the things we supposedly do not mean to reveal that are the most revealing.

And so we must be vigilant, ever watchful for the possibility (nay, the likelihood) that the mild-mannered coworker is actually a secret white supremacist, that the friendly kindergarten teacher with pastel pigtails is child-recruiting groomer, that your spouse is a clandestine enjoyer of weird pornography, or worse, problematic jokes. The circumstances, the politics, the main players may change, but the heart of every cancellation lies the same terrifying conviction: that other people are unknowable, and dangerous, and cannot be trusted.


Kat Rosenfield is an UnHerd columnist and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Her latest novel is You Must Remember This.

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Steve Osmond
Steve Osmond
1 year ago

This is a magnificent piece of writing.

Mark Freel
Mark Freel
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Osmond

It really is. Bravo!

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Osmond

The quality of writing here is superb. Not found elsewhere, even stuff you disagree with still makes you think.

Retanot King
Retanot King
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Osmond

Not really. Instead of clearly and succinctly exposing the moral and ethical rules at play and arriving at lessons of wisdom from this event, the author just goes on and on speculating about the behaviour and character and motivations of the people at play and her own reactions, with flowery low-information language. Long winding and uninteresting article on a very interesting subject. Some identity of writers wrongly confuse content with language, and assume embellished language can supplant the message.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
1 year ago

I’m the same age as Felicia Somnez. Much to the annoyance of my very patient friends, I went through a social-justice-warrior phase when I was in my 20s, well before it was popular. I’m sure I was a bit of a bore, but I got over it – I’m still an old-school leftie though, and that won’t change – more Keir Hardie than Keir Starmer. Now with kids at home, I see that the whole social-justice philosophy if you like – the metaphysics, the epistemology, and the ethics – are built on unreal assumptions. You can ignore the reality for a while, but eventually, the consequences of ignoring that reality do catch up with you.

But there are some people obviously who have not outgrown this phase of their lives. They perceive every slight to be a cosmic injustice. They are privileged people – in academia, media, government, and yet they see themselves as victims. When something very trivial (tweets) goes wrong, they want their boss / HR / the government to fix it, instead of trying to be the author of their own destinies. This is a catastrophic way to manage adulthood, and it leads to the kind of destructive spiral seen recently in the Washington Post.

Last edited 1 year ago by Lennon Ó Náraigh
Andy Cutler
Andy Cutler
1 year ago

Well said. I got off Facebook a couple of years ago. I grew tired of expressing my views and then being attacked for not being supportive of the narcissistic virtue signaling of others. People that do that are not worth “friending.”

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 year ago

In Scotland an official of the Scottish Government wanted to make e.g. conversations at the domestic breakfast table subject to State censorship. Coming to an election near you very soon.
HIs name is Humza Yousaf, and he’s on Wikipedia (see esp. section on ‘Hate Crime Bill’ – last sentence).

Bruce Luffman
Bruce Luffman
1 year ago
Reply to  Arnold Grutt

You are spot on about the whole of the SNP Government not just Yousaf in the way that they would like to enforce with the Speech Police.
Having been a farmer in England, a local politician in Scotland and a planner; I am now 75 and my view has always been is to trust everyone when I first meet them and see if that view is maintained as I know them better. Most people are decent in reality and we will rue the day if social media makes people go the way the author is suggesting in her excellent piece.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  Bruce Luffman

I do that too! It’s resulted in me sometimes being let down by people, but generally it’s a good approach to take in my view, and much less cynical.
it also means I decline to speculate or gossip about someone if their treatment of me is reasonable, and will voice disagreement on that basis. That stops ‘em in their tracks!

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
1 year ago

I remember reading about the Somnez thing (probably on Unherd) when it first kicked off, but had not heard that she’d been fired.

So that’s one bit of good news this morning, followed by my familiar sense of relief that I’ve never had a Twitter account, whenever I read of the mindless, trivial drivel that seems to be its raison d’ĂȘtre.

Derek Bryce
Derek Bryce
1 year ago

The first time I encountered the ‘where are you from offence’ was way back in the late 80s/early 90s while at university in Canada. I’d become heavily involved in the International Students Association and found the mix of nationalities and cultures of fellow members fascinating. I developed some good friendships, some of which last to this day. One night, while I was tending bar at one of our events, a guy of East Asian descent came up and ordered a beer. I couldn’t make out an accent because of the music and presume he didn’t hear my Scottish one. I asked ‘where are you from?’ in a friendly manner anticipating a brief exchange about our respective points of origin, what made us both come to Canada, maybe segueing into my time previously living in SE Asia. Point was it was an attempt at dialogue based on expectation of mutual shared experience, so when he stopped smiling and coldly replied, ‘I’m from here in Canada’, I was embarrassed in the way that only students in their early 20s can be. I stumbled inexpertly over an explanation that I’m not from Canada, that I realised that Canadian born people come from a range of ethnic backgrounds but that, given that this was an international students’ event, I assumed most people attending were, like me, from elsewhere. He seemed to accept that and started smiling again.

I get that things can be misconstrued but back in the day, we had no social media to tell us what to be offended by and to amplify that, often confected, offence. The point is that awkward mutual misunderstanding between that guy and me was resolved because an understanding of context and intent still existed. We’ve created a social dystopia, particularly for young people.

Last edited 1 year ago by Derek Bryce
Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  Derek Bryce

I’m always interested in the context of people in order to be able to have interesting conversations, with a bit of playfulness once mutual understanding begins. So I as a matter of course use the ‘where are you from?’ query, but with more subtlety and tact. It helps to be well informed about other cultures and sensitive to the ‘latest’ views on what is appropriate phrasing – for example if I found out someone is from Belgium I might reference something neutral about the Walloons to gauge a reaction. My experience is that people really like it when you show some understanding of their origin culture.
Like you I’m a Scot, with a strong accent, and this may have provided me with a ‘licence’ to have such discussions – in turn, no one ever thinks it odd to assume I come from Scotland, when I’ve lived in England for 40 years, and I take great delight in expressing disappointment that my English accent needs more work on it! The irony goes over the heads of most people.
The only person who ever suggested I was taking risks in having such discussions was a white English woman who worried about these things, and I ignored her.

Penny Adrian
Penny Adrian
1 year ago

I highly recommend Jaron Lanier’s book, “Delete Your Accounts”. I had 8,000 followers on Twitter and was genuinely addicted to it. My mental state was as paranoid and twisted as what you described in your wonderful (as always) essay (I subscribed to Unherd because of your articles – also love your novels).
I thought those 8,000 followers meant something. You know what? They meant nothing – they didn’t even exist in my actual life. With one click – poof!- they all disappeared. And my mental state gradually healed.
Social media is poison. It is truly destroying our ability to see the wholeness of one another – and has allowed us to fall for the delusion of Identity Politics. No human being can be accurately read as a political symbol – we are far to complex and miraculous for that.
Anyway, thank you for another great essay.
To anyone else reading this: delete your accounts.
You’ll be glad you did.

Laney R Sexton
Laney R Sexton
1 year ago
Reply to  Penny Adrian

I always look forward to your comments, Penny.
‘Stolen Focus’ is another book worth reading if your interested in the damage these accounts and distractions do to your brain and soul.
That being said, you should have your own sunstack! You’re a great writer with terrific insight.

R Wright
R Wright
1 year ago
Reply to  Penny Adrian

I deleted my social media in 2010. Best thing I ever did

Douglas H
Douglas H
1 year ago
Reply to  R Wright

I “detranstioned” from social media last year and feel much better for it

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
1 year ago
Reply to  Douglas H

Yep, all binned several years ago. Never even went near Twitter as it looked utterly toxic!

Jason Highley
Jason Highley
1 year ago
Reply to  Penny Adrian

Account free since JAN 2021. It’s like I had forgotten what real life was like. Never could go back.

Aldo Maccione
Aldo Maccione
1 year ago

This way of judging people on mere (supposed) intent (“proces d’intention” in French) reminds me of the Spanish inquisition : the conclusion is precluded, and all following discourse is a ineluctable process to demonstrate the awfulness of the character of the offender, and of course exercise a “just” vengeance upon them.
The intolerence of the “perpetually offended” is shilling.

harry storm
harry storm
1 year ago
Reply to  Aldo Maccione

It’s even worse than that. “Intent” often is irrelevant. For example, if you quote the title of a book that has a particular racist slur, or if you repeat the same slur in a conversation about how someone else used said slur, you’re a goner (if you’re white). Some “authorities” have made it quite clear that they simply don’t care about intent, the only thing that matters is impact.

Ian Burns
Ian Burns
1 year ago

She was self entitled moron. And social media revealed the truth. It is not a an erosion of our faith in humanity. It is an example of over inflated ego. It is raw narcissism. the malady of our age, in it’s most visceral from the self righteous female aka a young Karen.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Romanians whom I have the pleasure to know, in Britain, cannot believe how we are actually, via Conservative legislation, and American internet culture are actually waving in the type of totalitarian and oppressive country that they had imposed on them…. “Your people just do not respect the freedoms that they have” said one…

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
1 year ago

I think Felicia Sonmez’s real problem with the joke was that it hit too close to home. At a minimum she falls into the bi-polar camp, and who knows, she might fall into both.

Like most humor, it’s funny because it plays on stereotypes, in this case 2 different ones about 2 different generations of women. Considering the number of “men are brutes” or “henpecked husband” jokes that are out there, a woman offended by this needs to grow a thicker skin.

In truth, I do wish Felicia well, and I hope she learns from this experience. I doubt she will, but one can hope.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
1 year ago

Well, she did do a great job of proving those stereotypes about women to be wrong.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago

I don’t thing the joke is particularly funny, and it is mildly offensive, however, the difference between Ms Sonmez and myself is – I don’t care if it is tweeted, re-tweeted or sung from the highest mountain.

Penny Adrian
Penny Adrian
1 year ago

I thought the joke was silly, but trying to destroy someone’s career over retweeting it is horrifying. It wasn’t even that offensive, but even retweeting an offensive joke is not grounds for firing or suspending someone.
What aggravates me is that these are often the same people who sanctimonious argue against incarcerating violent predators because “we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
First of all, I do not think we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done (a child molester will never be more than the harm he has done) but most of us don’t commit such horrific crimes, and we are all certainly all more than telling an offensive joke FFS.
The Woke crowd have their priorities completely screwed up.

David Bell
David Bell
1 year ago

It’s the Washington Post, what else should one expect?

Jim R
Jim R
1 year ago

There is darkness in all of us. We are all flawed human beings who are capable of selfishness, hate and taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. We should be judged by what we do and how we strive to be moral in spite of our flawed nature – not whether we have negative impulses and biases. These ideas are all lost to history. Nowadays there are only good people and bad people – one of the three great untruths of our time, as Haidt and Lukianoff have written. Of course none of us could survive such scrutiny – cancellation depends not on your character but on whether the swarm turns on you or not. So keep calling out others, lest you become the target.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jim R
William Simonds
William Simonds
1 year ago

…that in a moment where social media gives us unprecedented access to other people’s thoughts, we have become consumed by fear of all the things they might be thinking but not expressing.

I wonder. Is it that social media actually gives access? Or is it that social media is, itself, inherently untrustworthy because that is the fundamental assumption people approach it with. Perhaps there is distrust because of social media, not in spite of it. Perhaps social media is just that: media. It is something that can be manipulated by the user to present whatever facade is desirable at the moment and everyone knows (or at least suspects) that.
I am not afraid people using social media are thinking things they are not expressing. I KNOW the things they are expressing for the vast majority are not. The purpose of social media to the masses is not the expression of inner thoughts, but the gathering of “likes” and “up votes” and (in this case) “retweets”. To be a successful social media “influencer”, I’m not going to say what I want to say…I’m going to say what my audience wants to hear. Or at least I’m only going to broadcast those of my thoughts that I think will drive the most positive outcome from my “followers.”
Kat is right. There is no forgiveness for the mistaken tweet. But that is not because we have lost the ability to recognize that all of us are complex animals that house a multitude of contradictions. It is because we must punish anyone that breaks the fundamental “tweet-verse” rule: only publish what your followers want to see. How dare anyone actually be real?

Peter Johnson
Peter Johnson
1 year ago

I do feel there is an undercurrent of fear in workplaces now. The MeeToo movement means women are less likely to be harassed and bothered by men at work – a big win – but men are now much less likely to engage in any kind of personal interaction (workplace banter, etc) with them either – especially if they are younger. This is the cost. The problem is the tendency of people to attribute the worst intentions on others as noted by the author. In an HR setting this means you really are in a difficult spot if someone claims something you did was ‘inappropriate.’ One of my gay colleagues was formally reprimanded in his annual review for making fun of some aspects of gay culture to his staff. Someone complained. So no more joking in front of staff.

Last edited 1 year ago by Peter Johnson
William Russell
William Russell
1 year ago

A must needed “step in the right direction” for Somnez and her kind.
People are growing tired of this narcissistic virtue signaling behavior that has swept our societies. Corporate workplaces have become unwitting victims of the media, academia and government power elites who praise the likes of Somnez, who call out those that do not step in line. Her actions and those of her ilk, continue to perpetuate and promote the thought police environment that’s so prevalent today.
Great article! The comments that follow show there’s hope we will find our way out of this “5hit show” that has befallen us. Maybe this recession or depression that’s about to take hold be the impetus needed to wake up the WOKE!

Adam Hendricks
Adam Hendricks
1 year ago

Joke Update:

Most women are bi. You just have to figure out if it’s sexual, polar, or Felecia.

Jason Highley
Jason Highley
1 year ago

It is hard to say where it would end. “You retweeted an offensive joke” becomes, “You were overheard telling an offensive joke to your friends at a bar,” becomes, perhaps, “You were captured by one of our corporate surveillance drones exiting a Ricky Gervais show, and our facial expression-analysing algorithm confirms the presence of mirth.”

ï»żThis has consumed my thoughts for a number of years now, ever since I noticed how willing governments were to monitor their people in every capacity.

Opt Out
Opt Out
1 year ago

women of course say far worse about men and get a ticker tape parade for doing so- clearly what she was counting on.

Al M
Al M
1 year ago

Did anyone watch the cheerleader video on YouTube? It was a tad perplexing. My take on the ‘scalp ‘em’ chant was that it must be the US equivalent of burly lads on latter day footie terraces shouting ‘you’re gonna get your furkinedskickedin’, only by young girls in mildly inappropriate uniforms. Looks a bit like a comedy zeig-heil straight from Fawlty Towers at the start of their routine too. Honestly thought that was the reason for the opprobrium.

Richard 0
Richard 0
1 year ago

Fantastic article. Thank you.

Dan Croitoru
Dan Croitoru
1 year ago

The effect of the social media on this generation is the blurring of the border between private and public. No, your workmates are not your friends until they become such. At work you are supposed to focus on work and if you want to banter there are plenty of neutral subjects: traffic jams, the weather,etc. Never expose your hobbies, your vision of the world, your comedic genius. Apply this rule and you’ll be ok 99% of the time. If you have fallen victim to the 1% bucket it is probably not your fault so no need to apologize.

Last edited 1 year ago by Dan Croitoru
Thomas Port
Thomas Port
1 year ago

I believe a wise person once said: “Judge not that ye be not judged.” Let’s all try keep that in mind.

Fred Grosso
Fred Grosso
1 year ago

Isn’t one participating in this comment section actually taking part in social media?

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago

“Another great example of this kind of thinking is the bad-faith interpretation of “where are you from”? This is a particular favourite of “anti-racist” activists. “
If anyone expresses offence about being asked where they’re from, you should immediately ask them where they’re from.

Murphy Squint
Murphy Squint
1 year ago

This article summarizes the snowflake issue perfectly. Please continuing writing such well done works!

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
1 year ago

I’m going to make it my business to laugh loudly at traditional sexist jokes.

Retanot King
Retanot King
1 year ago

My comment which took issue with the manner that this article is written, and not with the content, has been unceremoniously deleted. My review was not popular, but why censor disagreeable commentary?

Philip Mertz
Philip Mertz
1 year ago

“ escalating demands from Sonmez (who not only supported Weigel’s suspension “
When did Sonmez support Weigel’s suspension?

William Shaw
William Shaw
1 year ago

The colleague who retweet of the off-colour joke doesn’t deserve any sympathy. He was a naive fool for engaging in social media and mentoring women. Two major errors of judgement. Any man with sense knows to never get involved in either.

Last edited 1 year ago by William Shaw
William Shaw
William Shaw
1 year ago
Reply to  William Shaw

The truth cuts deep as always.
The red pill will set you free.

Last edited 1 year ago by William Shaw