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Dec 12 2011

Politically INcorrect? As though that was a good thing…

Over the past couple of months I have become more active on Twitter. While at first I used it primarily as a secondary RSS feed, with automatic updates for these blog posts, after a while I began to use it as a way of getting politics updates and rapid news on the Arab Spring uprisings. From there, it was a slippery slope down to constant updates from various Occupy sites and recording artists I particularly like.

As I’ve become more active (and after moving from the outer realms of anonymity to FTB), I’ve been steadily picking up followers of my own. Most are atheist/skeptics who I assume follow me because of the consistent reminders I put at the bottom of each of these posts. Others have, I presume, seen my full-throated defenses of Occupy or election reform politicians in the United States, or caught me uttering a particularly clever bon mot and thought I was worth checking out in greater detail.

I was perusing my list of followers one afternoon when I came across one who described hirself as, among other things, “politically incorrect”. This struck me as sort of an unusual thing to brag about. I have, on occasion, been caught describing myself as an “asshole”, because while I am constantly dissecting my language, I very rarely mince words. This is not bragging about my lack of restraint, but is intended as more of a wry observation on our tendency to prioritize tone over substance when evaluating each other.

The phrase ‘political correctness’ was common parlance in my upbringing during the late ’80s and early ’90s. By then, however, it had begun taking on a decidedly negative connotation – something akin to ‘thoughtcrime’. The spin on it was that whiny liberals were hopping up and down on semantics, getting hot under the collar over linguistic non-issues. Plain spoken folks were, as a result, forced to tiptoe across a minefield to make even the simplest of points. Political correctness was a muzzle that prevented the free exchange of ideas, and to buck the trend and declare oneself ‘politically incorrect’ was a bold and courageous move.

Even typing that made me feel ill.

The problem with the above spin is that it completely fails to address the reason why politically correct speech is necessary in the first place. Last Monday there was a lengthy discussion over my use of the word ‘hir’ – one word out of over a thousand, I hasten to add. I use the word partly because it is far more parsimonious than the awkward ‘he/she’ that English requires (and I find the singular ‘they’ cumbersome and flat), but also because it recognizes a major flaw that is embedded in our language – gendered pronouns prop up a false dichotomy between male and female. We are slowly learning that male and female are two possible descriptors of gender, but certainly not an exhaustive list. Our language must adjust to reflect our improved understanding.

There was a similar series of controversy over the correct phrase to use to address black people. We bounced from being Negroes to African-Americans to being just plain ‘black’ to being people of African descent to being People of Colour (a broader appellation) to being whatever the vogue phrase is today. All of these phrases were necessary because no single one was sufficient. Negro was pejorative, African-American failed to account for recent African immigrants who faced very different issues, ‘black’ could be applied to anyone from Aborigines to Indians, People of Colour casts the net far too wide… the point is that there was no way to properly describe who we’re talking about.

Here’s the issue though – there is no ’correct‘ way of classifying a group that is united by social convention only. When we build our understandings of race or gender on faulty assumptions, they crumble under the weight of anything more than the most cursory scrutiny. Of course we run into trouble when discussing gender – it is not a binary concept in any place other than our minds. Of course we run into trouble when discussing race – it has no consistent basis in science.

‘Politically correct’ language accomplishes an important task: it shines a light on places where our conceptual grasp of a topic is less than complete. Places where our ‘traditional’ understanding is leading us away from truth. Places where our privilege moves us to demand that reality conform to our expectations, rather than the other way around. By breaking down the language we use, by interrupting the comfortable flow of ideas borne of unthinking cultural narratives, by putting our words under a microscope, we can examine the extent to which those words buoy up conclusions drawn from faulty premises.

To declare oneself ‘politically incorrect’, once we understand why political correctness is necessary, ceases to be a bold declaration of one’s refusal to mindlessly follow social conventions. To the contrary; it is announcing one’s intention to courageously embrace those conventions and the pillars of privilege upon which they are built. It is stating unequivocally that the speaker is completely uninterested in understanding why it is necessary to adjust language to reflect reality. Rather than being an iconoclastic stance, it is a vainglorious assertion of one’s lack of interest in swimming against the tide of cultural prejudice; preferring instead to tread water in the flowing tide of public opinion.

If we recognize the existence of systemic discrimination against minority groups, then fighting for ‘politically correct’ language is not merely a semantic stance motivated by guilt and the desire to avoid hurt feelings. It is instead a tool that can be used to draw attention to places where what we’ve done in the past is interfering with where we’d like to go. When used judiciously, it can ignite thoughtful discussion in those dark places that our collective unconscious is all too happy to leave unexamined. When ignored, or worse derogated, it clamps the much-derided muzzle not around our mouths, but around our minds.

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31 comments

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  1. 1
    James Sweet

    There’s another aspect in play here in addition to whether or not the classifications are socially constructed (I’m liberally paraphrasing a passage from Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate here). Basically, when a given group experiences a significant amount of unfair prejudice, any terminology used to refer to that group will eventually and inexorably take on a negative connotation. This “treadmill” of sorts will last until the prejudice has mostly evaporated. Hence the constantly shifting terminology in regards to race: There was nothing wrong with the word “negro”, but since so many dickwads saw it as an inherently negative thing, it became derogatory. Then the same with “black”, etc.

    Those who are proud of their political incorrectness might be tempted to look at this state of affairs and declare that it’s futile, that just any terminology ought to be used. But that ignores that real perceptions and real people’s feelings are in play here. It’s not the word’s fault it’s become unsavory (um, shouldn’t that be obvious?), but it’s becomes unsavory nonetheless, and just basic human decency suggests we avoid using unsavory words. Can it be frustrating sometimes that what is considered unsavory changes over time? Well, yes. It’s also frustrating that “irregardless” has appeared in enough edited prose that it gets a spot in the dictionary these days. Language changes, get over it.

  2. 2
    James Sweet

    And by the way:

    Rather than being an iconoclastic stance, it is a vainglorious assertion of one’s lack of interest in swimming against the tide of cultural prejudice; preferring instead to tread water in the flowing tide of public opinion.

    This exact same quote could be used to refer to those who think they are so clever for declaring that they agree with neither the fundamentalists nor those angry new atheists. And a great many other things, too.

    There just seems to be this set of things where it is fashionable to phrase it as if you are breaking the mold, as if you are proudly breaking new ground into some outside-the-box way of thinking — and yet in reality it’s an incredible common position, perhaps even a majority position, with millions or even billions of other jokers also pretending they are breaking new ground.

    There’s nothing inherently good or bad about a thing being mainstream, of course, but holding a mainstream opinion and pretending that it’s some daring iconoclastic stance… bah, so irritating.

  3. 3
    progjohn

    Great post, thanks. You have made me think more about how I use words and why I should be more politically correct myself rather than complaining about it.

  4. 4
    Alex Songe

    I like the treadmill analogy here. But another one of the “problems” of political correctness (perhaps as an extension of the treadmill analogy) is seen as the creation of euphemism when people’s perception doesn’t change but their language does. You’ll be hard-pressed to find even racists saying “nigger” and bigots of another stripe saying “faggot”. It’s much easier to identify the racists/bigots when they don’t have to hide behind political correctness rather than euphemizing the politically correct term. You can definitely see that anti-gay conservatives in the US are using the politically correct terms with regards to LGBT folk as a direct euphemism and the effect is a kind of mainstream acceptability when you use the terms, even if it’s your ideas that are more offensive.

    In any event, I prefer to stay “PC” when I can simply because I want my speech to be as accurate as possible, and I don’t want to offend people when that is not my intent. I prefer the PC approach overall, and I’m really at a loss on how to stop this treadmill/euphemism effect.

  5. 5
    Crommunist

    I find calling people out on their coded sexism/racism works best. The other thing is to explain why the term is derogatory rather than just saying “you’re not supposed to say that” which is usually all the explanation anyone gets. That approach makes people look for the “right” way of talking about groups, rather than recognizing that the group is illusory.

  6. 6
    Ingdigo Jump

    It’s very politically sound to be politically incorrect. The base loves that shit

  7. 7
    julian

    Oh yeah.

    No better way to communicate that you’re a ‘straight talker’ and not gonna dance around the truth. :eyeroll:

    Fortunately it’s a clear indicator the anti-PC warrior has no fucking clue what xe’s talking about.

  8. 8
    Dalillama

    Indeed, in the older usage of the term, meaning going with the prevailing political winds or language which will not disadvantage you politically, there’s a whole school of right wing political correctness, which their commentators and politicians slavishly follow (Job creators, Darwinists, etc.)

  9. 9
    Natalie Reed

    Very, very important post.

    One thing I’ve found lately is that the term Politically Correct, PC, has been almost entirely appropriated by its use as a pejorative, and ONLY used with scare quotes to imply that someone is accusing you of thoughtcrime. Those of us who are actually interested in tackling the implicit biases, assumptions and discriminatory concepts inherent in language have LONG since stopped using the term, but yet those who get defensive about it and want to cling to privilege keep trotting out “political correctness” as what THEY claim we’re trying to enforce.

    I’m also reminded of “offense” and “offensive”. These terms also are primarily brought into the conversation by those who are defending the use of pejorative, discriminatory or inaccurate language. This seems to be like a red herring. Offensiveness is wholly subjective, and has no real substance. They make the conversation about “offense”, and paint our main concern as being that we (or somebody) is (or might be) offended. That, in turn, shifts responsibility away from the speaker and onto the listener. It’s not THEIR responsibility to think about their language, its implications, or the social consequences involved. It’s instead OUR responsibility to grow thicker skins. It makes the conversation about how “over-sensitive” and “whiny” the person raising the objection is rather than how inconsiderate, entitled, defensive or stubborn the person who used the f-ed up language in the first place is.

    So instead of offensiveness, I try my best to speak in terms of associations, implications, inaccuracies, social consequences, whether or not a term is discriminatory or unnecessary or problematic, etc. Those are far less subjective, and it keeps the responsibility where it belongs. But no matter what, people are still going to act like I’m just a histrionic PC thought-policing feminazi whining about how offended I am.

    Rawr. x1001. That’s 1001 Rawrs. For “political correctness” and “offensiveness” being introduced into the conversation as though those are our main concerns when they’re not really at all what’s important.

  10. 10
    Worldtraveller

    I read Dalillama’s post as

    there’s a whole school of fright wing political correctness,…

    And thought it was a brilliant characterization. Then realized that I’d misread. It’s a perfect descriptor, mind you, but sometimes, I hate my brain. =P

  11. 11
    jamessweet

    The other thing is to explain why the term is derogatory rather than just saying “you’re not supposed to say that” which is usually all the explanation anyone gets.

    Excellent point!

    Funny thing happened in a meeting I was just in, given that we were just talking about gendered pronouns in reference to a hypothetical person: I was meeting with a couple of guys to discuss an invention of theirs — since no patent has yet been filed, all I can say is that it involves education. I noticed that whenever the referred to a hypothetical student, they used “he”, and whenever they referred to a hypothetical teacher, they used “she”. It was extraordinarily consistent. The first couple of times they referred to a teacher, I thought maybe they were trying to mix up the pronouns they used, but then I realized it’s just because… well, you know why.

    I decided it wasn’t worth saying anything — it was a very brief meeting, and I don’t really know those guys. I’m sure they meant nothing by it, but of course it may have a subtle pernicious effect nonetheless. Just yet another reminder how pervasive this stuff is…

    Earlier in the day, in a completely separate context, a guy (referring to a printer that was being ornery) said something along the lines of, “She can be moody.” The woman he was speaking to called him on it: “Oh, so it’s a ‘she’ when it’s not working, huh?” heh…

  12. 12
    WMDKitty -- Survivor

    Basically, when a given group experiences a significant amount of unfair prejudice, any terminology used to refer to that group will eventually and inexorably take on a negative connotation. This “treadmill” of sorts will last until the prejudice has mostly evaporated. Hence the constantly shifting terminology in regards to race: There was nothing wrong with the word “negro”, but since so many dickwads saw it as an inherently negative thing, it became derogatory. Then the same with “black”, etc.

    Happens in the disability community, too. We’re now collectively referred to as “Special Needs” (something ABLE-BODIED PEOPLE came up with because THEY thought “disabled” or “handicapped” was “offensive”.) And now you hear people saying things like, “Oh, Mikey? Yeah, he’s a little… special.

    I, for one, don’t like to be told what I should (or shouldn’t) be offended at, and “you can’t say that.” And, well, that’s pretty much what Political Correctness is doing — telling me that I need to be offended by this word, but that one’s okay, oh, and that one over there, that one used to be okay, but now it’s a Bad Word. I just don’t believe in Bad Words — Bad Thoughts, Bad Intentions, yeah, sure, but there are no Bad Words. Just what you attach to them, by way of intent, and the thoughts you’ve associated with the word itself.

    I fully support people picking and choosing which words they prefer and are comfortable with using. That’s fine, that’s great, it’s your vocabulary — just don’t go telling me that I have to censor myself just to make other people happy, because I won’t do it. I refuse to compromise my principles for the sake of “politeness”.

    In return, I don’t tell people that they should be using this or that word, or conform to my principles. Why? Because that’s all I’m asking of them!

  13. 13
    Natalie Reed

    Although words have no inherent qualities whatsoever (other than certain arbitrary sounds and shapes), it’s not simply US that makes the associations. Social context and history make those associations.

    Language is a two-way street.

    Meaning = Intent + Context + Reception + Consequences

    You can’t privilege intent as what matters most, nor can you act like all responsibility for negative connotations is on the shoulders of whoever perceives them. It’s cooperative, and context plays a very significant role. And the ONLY thing I think we can really treat as more important that the other factors is the actual consequences… like dehumanization, discrimination, stereotype threat, asserting power, causing people to internalize categorism (internalized racism, internalized misogyny, internalized transphobia, etc.)

    Saying “pssh… words only have the meaning you give them” is shirking responsibility. They also have the meaning YOU give them. And that WE give them, collectively. And that history has given them.

  14. 14
    Natalie Reed

    P.S. You also introduced the concept of offense. See my comment below how I regard that as a red herring. Nobody here is saying there are Bad Words or that “someone might be offended” is the main issue. Those are strawmen. The primary issue is that certain forms of language enforce or perpetuate social inequality.

  15. 15
    Crommunist

    Proving once again that’s it’s easier to comment on a post than it is to read it.

  16. 16
    julian

    Saying “pssh… words only have the meaning you give them” is shirking responsibility. -Natalie

    It’s also flat out false.

    As you pointed out, there’s a distinct social dynamic to words. Not only does the group warp and change the meaning of a word or phrase, a word or phrase can sway the perception of a group prejudicing them against or for an attitude.

    Deciding ‘I will no longer be hurt by being called a spick’ may be fine from a personal perspective (I can imagine several situations where it would be better to let the slur slide) but group wise? Not a chance.

  17. 17
    Dalillama

    Oh, it is a perfect descriptor, and I’ve seen it elsewhere. If I could edit previous posts, I’d change it for you. :)

  18. 18
    Natalie Reed

    Terrific points, Julian.

    Further more, what we are or aren’t hurt by isn’t really entirely our choice. We CAN’T really “choose to no longer be hurt by X”… or if we can, it takes an immense amount of willpower and effort. And all for benefiting whom? The jerks who call you it?

    No matter how little respect I may have for someone’s opinion, or how little I value their perception of me, or how strong I may be as a person, it’s still going to hurt when I get called “shemale” or “cunt” or “faggot”. It’s still a reminder of where I stand in the world. It’s still a reminder that I don’t count as much as others. It’s still a reminder that I’m seen as hateful, disgusting, secondary, ridiculous, pathetic, unnatural, creepy, icky, sinful, a freak, etc. It’s still a reminder of the immense amount of hatred that permeates our society. It’s still a reminder that I risk violence every time I walk out the door.

    And NO WAY am I going to let someone heap shame and guilt on top of all that by making me believe it’s MY fault that those are the associations that come to mind.

    You know what I think of when I hear “shemale”? How many women we’ve lost to transphobic violence for whom that was amongst the last words they ever heard.

    You want some painkillers for that stab wound? Well sheesh, you should stop letting it get to you. By allowing it to hurt, you’re just letting them win. ::eyeroll::

  19. 19
    Leon

    Quite true Crommunist, the term has been hijacked by the Right as a means to beat liberals over the head AND continue to make insensitive comments at the same time. I do have one objection though, re. the following:

    The phrase ‘political correctness’ was common parlance in my upbringing during the late ’80s and early ’90s. By then, however, it had begun taking on a decidedly negative connotation – something akin to ‘thoughtcrime’. The spin on it was that whiny liberals were hopping up and down on semantics, getting hot under the collar over linguistic non-issues. Plain spoken folks were, as a result, forced to tiptoe across a minefield to make even the simplest of points.

    There was a grain of truth behind that stereotype, unfortunately. My first girlfriend (back in 1988) was exactly like that, always waiting to pounce on people for using the “wrong” terms, regularly focusing on form over substance: semantics, as you say. She told me–in so many words–that I was a sexist because I wouldn’t completely remove the word “b*tch” from my vocabulary. When I mentioned one day that one of my cousins is black, she responded “Oh, so he’s black first, and your cousin second?” (wtf where’d that come from?). She was VERY touchy about minorities being slighted, but oddly, as a devout Catholic, she suggested that religious minorities didn’t count, because they weren’t “visibly obvious” minorities.

    There was a surprising amount of this kind of nonsense going around at the time (or at least at UC Berkeley). Anyway, what I’m getting at is that this attitude wasn’t a caricature–it really existed two decades ago. It’s just that now it’s long past but it’s still being used to vilify us.

  20. 20
    Setár, Elvenkitty

    It’s not THEIR responsibility to think about their language, its implications, or the social consequences involved. It’s instead OUR responsibility to grow thicker skins.

    When I was bullied in school, I received this response from peers and a spin on it (“just ignore it”) from all the authorities, including the ‘counselor’ that was brought in by the school.

    Such, it seems, is life. Our society is one that loves to play lip service to niceties while in fact doing everything it can to aid and abet bullies in their bullying. At the end of the day, it seems that the niceties themselves are merely covers for bullies to scream foul when the bullied try to speak up.

  21. 21
    Stacy

    People forget that the phrase “politically correct” first caught on among leftists and various movement people to satirize themselves and their own occasional (perceived) excesses (i.e., what Leon said). It was self-parody, a form of self-correction.

    Those who brag about their own “political incorrectness” are not just jerkwads who take pride in their own privileged insensitivity because they can pretend it makes them brave iconoclasts. They’re jerkwads who don’t even get the joke.

  22. 22
    jamessweet

    On a side note, your old girlfriend was probably right that it is worthwhile to try and expunge “bitch” from your vocabulary. Not that I’ve been 100% successful in doing so myself, at least in casual conversation… but all of the meanings are either a) explicitly derogatory towards women, or b) have a very recent etymology which is implicitly derogatory towards women.

    On a side-side note, I have begun to eschew using “sexist”, “racist”, etc., as nouns except in the most clear-cut situations. Every single one of us occasionally engages in subconscious prejudices which could be labelled as such, so I find it’s not really useful to say something like “if you use the word bitch, you’re a sexist.” I think use of the word ‘bitch’ is implicitly sexist, whether speaker intends it or not; but saying that users of the word ‘bitch’ are sexist is just not useful.

  23. 23
    Nyarlathotep

    In my experience, people who proudly declare themselves as “Politically Incorrect” are really saying “I want to be an asshole and not get called on it”.

  24. 24
    Leon

    jamessweet, you’re right that it’s not a word that should be thrown around. I don’t use it lightly (or often) myself. But the thing is she saw everything as black or white (so to speak) on such issues, and the fact that I used the word even once got me pegged as a sexist. Her ostensible reason, btw, wasn’t that the word was abusive, but that there are no derogatory words that are used just for men (as if d*ck, a**hole, and S.O.B. are gender-neutral).

    I hope I didn’t come off as an insensitive prick (another word that I guess is also supposed to be gender-neutral) in my post. I was just working through an old rankling memory.

  25. 25
    Leon

    Spot on, Nyarlathotep! Nice catch.

  26. 26
    Natalie

    To be fair, “son of a bitch” is misogynistic in nature, it doesn’t insult a man for his manness. It insults a woman close to him. “Asshole” IS gender neutral. Dick (and related terms) are pretty much the ONLY insults that insult a man for being a man. The vast majority of insults directed towards men seek to insult him by comparing him to a woman or suggesting he’s feminine: “bitch”, “pussy”, “fag”, “sissy”, “get the sand out of your vag”, “grow some balls”, etc.

  27. 27
    Sunil D'Monte

    Great article. I also recommend this short summary of what “political correctness” means on the website Hoyden About Town:

    “Disdain for ‘political correctness’ is often positioned as a concern that some important truth is not being spoken for fear of offending someone. But that concern is nothing but smoke and mirrors. To invoke ‘political correctness’ is really to be concerned about loss of power and privilege. It is about disappointment that some ‘ism’ that was ingrained in our society, so much that citizens of privilege could express the bias through word and deed without fear of reprisal, has been shaken loose. Charging ‘political correctness’ generally means this: ‘I am comfortable with my privilege. I don’t want to have to question it. I don’t want to have to think before I speak or act. I certainly don’t wish to inconvenience myself for the comfort of lesser people (whoever those people may be—women, people of color, people with disabilities, etc.)’.”

  28. 28
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    Bitch = female dog.

    What’s the problem with that – at least using that correctly to refer to well bitches that are indeed canine in species?

  29. 29
    Lee

    just don’t go telling me that I have to censor myself just to make other people happy, because I won’t do it. I refuse to compromise my principles for the sake of “politeness”.

    Wow, that’s breathtakingly assholic.

    It’s exactly the problem I keep running into with people who brag about “not being politically correct” — it’s sort of synonymous with “I want to be able to say any rude and hurtful thing I want to anybody I want, anytime I want to, and never have to suffer any consequences for it.”

    Okay, you don’t believe in being polite to other people. I sure wouldn’t want to be any of your acquaintances, neighbors, co-workers, or family members.

  30. 30
    jonathanray

    There was a similar series of controversy over the correct phrase to use to address black people. We bounced from being Negroes to African-Americans to being just plain ‘black’ to being people of African descent to being People of Colour (a broader appellation) to being whatever the vogue phrase is today. All of these phrases were necessary because no single one was sufficient. Negro was pejorative, African-American failed to account for recent African immigrants who faced very different issues, ‘black’ could be applied to anyone from Aborigines to Indians, People of Colour casts the net far too wide… the point is that there was no way to properly describe who we’re talking about.

    The reason for some of these linguistic shifts is not vagueness, since the newer terms are no improvement over the old ones in that respect. The reason is the euphemism treadmill. The common term becomes more offensive (either generally or in linguistic-prescriptivist liberal circles), then a more polite term enters common usage, and the cycle repeats itself. The euphemism treadmill is an ubiquitous process affecting very many words that have negative connotations, throughout human history. The euphemism treadmill for describing race is not likely to stop until the referent of the words no longer tends to be thought of negatively in the minds of users of the language. That’ll happen just as soon as 90% of the USA is atheist. In the mean time “black” is the best tradeoff of parsimony and precision in describing a social category which is based on darker skin colors; it is currently the most widely used term and very few people of any skin color find it offensive yet.

    “politically incorrect” is in essence standing still on the euphemism treadmill and getting thrown out the back of it eventually when the words one has always used become offensive.

  31. 31
    Catchling

    jonathanray:

    The euphemism treadmill for describing race is not likely to stop until the referent of the words no longer tends to be thought of negatively in the minds of users of the language. That’ll happen just as soon as 90% of the USA is atheist.

    Whoa, whoa, that’s definitely not true. It’s a wide-open trap for anti-racist atheists to think “Racism is irrational, therefore atheists will not perpetuate it (consciously or unconsciously).” Maybe relgion pereptuates racism and maybe it doesn’t, but that’s tangential to whether or not atheists are capable of it. Which (alongside sexism or global warming denial or even homeopathy) they (we) definitely are.

  1. 32
    What I’m Reading Wednesday, January 11, 2012 | Rationally Thinking Out Loud

    [...] (And Of Related Godless Pieties) | Camels With Hammers (the emphasis is mine) Last month Ian had a terrific post which highlighted that being what is derisively termed “politically correct” is not a matter [...]

  2. 33
    No, a blog should not be like Wikipedia « The Hypothetical Bus Stop

    [...] where someone claims they are being oppressed for being politically incorrect. Ian Cromwell wrote about this on Freethought Blogs a while back, and he isn’t the only one. On her network, proclaiming [...]

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