Archive | May, 2013

George Pell. “These people.” Language. Yet Again.

28 May

This admission may not make me popular, however, as I watched Cardinal George Pell front the Victorian government inquiry into child sexual abuse yesterday, I felt an increasing pity for the man.

Pell can be found seriously wanting on any number of his attitudes and statements. It’s clear he has a minimum understanding of, or empathy with, those who’ve endured sexual abuse. The most that can be said for him is that he tries to the best of his extraordinarily limited ability, and that is damning him with very weak praise indeed. One would hope for more humanity, imagination and sincere regret from the country’s most senior member of the Catholic church.

However, it was a very simple phrase Pell used that provoked my deepest and most contemptuous reaction to the man. When speaking of survivors of rape and molestation by his priests, he more than once referred to them as “These people…” He even, at one particularly low point, suggested that “these people” were not always innocent of blame in the situation.

“These people” means people who are not like me, or us. Once again, as I pointed out in this piece on Clementine Ford’s use of “we” and “our” when discussing survivors of sexual and domestic abuse, language is (unconsciously) employed to manufacture a divide between those who have suffered and those who have not, casting the former as “other” who are, because of our experiences, linguistically excluded from the discourse of power and belonging, except as objects of sympathy or, in some instances, derision.

This attitude, widely held I believe towards victims and survivors of all kinds of situations, is what I think of as a vertical system of human relations, rather than a horizontal, or side by side system. Simply by virtue of finding oneself a victim of another, one is in some way made less equal to those who are without that experience. One is assumed to be weakened, and therefore lessened, by the experience of being injured.

Being injured is among many other things, a humiliating experience. It brings into stark relief our vulnerability and powerlessness. It makes obvious how easily our will can be overwhelmed by the will of another, leaving us impotent, weakened and ashamed, whether we’re adults or children when the injuries occur.

It occurs to me that one of the reasons some of the uninjured need to distance themselves from the injured, is that we frighten them. We confront them with the awful reality of the human vulnerability we share. This could have been, could still be,   you. The only way to avoid that reality is to make the injured different. Certain kinds of injuries only happen to “these people.”  Not to “we” or “ours.”

We also see this manifest in our treatment of asylum seekers.

It’s interesting, and rather disheartening, that two people with such disparate views as Clementine Ford and George Pell choose vertical language when speaking of victims/survivors of sexual assaults.

I felt surprisingly little anger as I watched George Pell deliver his inadequate responses to the Victorian government inquiry. I felt extremely weary. I thought I could see, not for the first time, the entire dysfunctional hierarchical system that allows this man, and others like him, to construct a narrative that is corrupt to its core. I don’t only refer to the Catholic church. I’m talking about the corrupt system of human relations that is based on the othering  of one group of human beings to separate them from another, no matter what the grounds. As is demonstrated in our language, this othering is endemic, even in the most apparently well-intentioned.

I’ll have to leave it to others to rage against Pell. I see a crippling, piteous ignorance that will imprison this man for the rest of his life. That this should be so publicly displayed is, to my mind, only to the good. We need to see the characters of men and women who wield power over us, of those who control our discourse and construct our realities. Victims and survivors, most of all, need to see that these emperors have no clothes.

 

What a pity Tony Abbott didn’t stay in the seminary;Tony Soprano, & Moby

27 May

I woke this morning thinking of Tony Abbott, a rude awakening in anyone’s book.

What a pity Abbott didn’t stay in the seminary, and use the  Catholic church as his political playground, I thought. The rest of us would have been spared his rampant ambition, and who cares if he’d trashed the College of Cardinals if they refused him a red hat?

What a pity also, that Abbott wasn’t moved to realise his perhaps most outstanding natural talent, that of thespian.

It’s become clear  as we’ve progressed through the tortuous months since the ALP negotiated government, and since the day the LOTO failed to sell his arse in exchange for a ring of another kind, that Abbott has played whatever role his directors believed expedient.

We’ve watched Tony play the part of a highly offensive, sociopathically aggressive ambassador from the planet of negativity, whose speech patterns gave one reason to ponder whether or not the man was severely linguistically challenged.

Personally, I don’t think that role was difficult for him. It seemed to hint at his nature. Now he’s facing a far greater challenge – maintaining the role of  reasonable, statesmanlike Prime Minister in waiting. The emperor has new clothes.

I’ve heard Abbott described as “complex.” I don’t see it. Rather, I’d describe him as deeply shallow, so bereft of depth and complexity that he can easily be refashioned into the character his advisors believe he needs to be in order to win power. Abbott is an accomplished progenitor of ersatz complexity. He belongs in a Baudrillard text. I have gazed long upon this man, and I cannot find anything of substance in him. He reminds me of nothing as much as the replicants in the classic film, Blade Runner.

Complexity may well be present in Tony, deeply repressed in the interests of ambition. And in all fairness, he is not alone in his uncanny likeness to a replicant: it seems as if the only way to get ahead in Australian politics is to appear as robotic and unempathic as possible. Complexity, that richly human state, is apparently incompatible with what the majority of Australians want to see manifested in their leaders.

I predict that after six months of an Abbott government, many of us will be begging to have Kevin Rudd back. Mark my  words.

I’ve spent much of this last week bed and couch ridden, and fevered with flu. I re-watched three series of The Sopranos, including the episodes in which Tony Soprano, shot by his Uncle Junior, lies comatose in intensive care.

Now there’s a complex Tony. Even his shrink, Jennifer Melfi, is more than a little bit in love with his mercurial personality, though her own shrink, played to perfection by Peter Bogdanovich, reminds her constantly of Tony’s psychopathology, and urges her to ditch him as a patient.

Given his role in the bloody, death-strewn world of The Sopranos, Bogdanovich surprisingly wrote in 2012:

Today, there’s a general numbing of the audience. There’s too much murder and killing. You make people insensitive by showing it all the time. The body count in pictures is huge. It numbs the audience into thinking it’s not so terrible. Back in the ’70s, I asked Orson Welles what he thought was happening to pictures, and he said, “We’re brutalizing the audience. We’re going to end up like the Roman circus, live at the Coliseum.” The respect for human life seems to be eroding.

As far as our politicians are concerned, the respect for some human life seems to be eroding, while respect for other human life seems to be increasing beyond all proportion.

I had forgotten the haunting Moby song used so effectively to convey Tony Soprano’s state of mind as he wanders alone in the space between life and death. I don’t know that enjoy is the right word, but anyways:

Voluntary euthanasia & the religious right

22 May

Tomorrow, May 23rd, the Rights of the Terminally Ill Bill introduced on May 2nd by Greens MP Cate Faehrmann, will be debated in the NSW Parliament. Ms Faehrmann’s Bill is similar to the Death with Dignity Act which has seen physician assisted dying operate safely and successfully in Oregon since 1997.

Chrys Stevenson, speaker, blogger and advocate for voluntary euthanasia, has written this piece on the extraordinary infiltration of Faehrmann’s private briefing on the Bill by Sydney GP, Catholic and committed anti-euthanasia campaigner, Dr Catherine Lennon.

Dr Lennon also has history with the RU486 controversy, in which she referred to the drug as “human pesticide.”

To find out how Lennon managed this gatecrash, and just how extreme her views are, do read Stevenson’s excellent unpacking of the bizarre events, and find out who is Lennon’s political relative by marriage.

What Stevenson importantly  demonstrates is the lengths to which the religious right will go in order to impose their fundamentalist ambitions on the entire community. This is something we probably all need to be aware of, if we aren’t already.

The religious right’s impudent meddling in the most intimate  and private of human affairs, from decisions about reproduction and contraception, sexual morality throughout life, and then death, never ceases to offend me. I have a terminal illness which has been in remission for some time now. I have, more than once, been very close to death. What I fear is not dying, but being forced to live in circumstances that are intolerable to me. Nobody else can decide what those circumstances are. Surely no other person has more right than I do to determine the hour of my death, if I am in a position to do that, let alone religious fanatics who are complete strangers to me in every possible way.

We need more conversations in our society about dying, and how we can prepare ourselves for that inevitability. This piece in the Canberra Times by journalist Jenna Price is a start, although I do question the notion of a “good death,” which can place unrealistic demands on the dying and their loved ones. There are many reasons why a death can’t be “good”, depending on one’s interpretation of that word.

In the meantime, it seems to me that the enemies of any kind of chosen “good death” are the zealous religious right, who apparently feel their god prefers to watch us suffer than to mercifully die. This makes no sense to me. If in dying we go to god, as they would have it, why aren’t we all throwing ourselves off the cliffs like lemmings, the sooner to attain the promised better life with god in the sweet hereafter?

The Good Feminist: Anarchic and slightly deranged

21 May

feminist

 

 

Helen Razer wrote this about feminism today.

In response, Clementine Ford wrote this about what Helen Razer wrote about feminism today.

Make of these differing view points what you will, that’s not my goal. What did catch my attention was Ford’s use of the words “anarchic and slightly deranged” to describe what she calls Razer’s “moments of incisive clarity” [on feminism today]

It seems Ford is using the term “anarchic” in a pejorative sense, which is interesting, as I’ve never thought of anarchic as a bad look for a woman, especially a feminist, to adopt.  It is a surely part of our job to do our best to transgress the hierarchical, patriarchal systems that repress and oppress us. Quite how one does that without a bit of anarchy, I don’t know.

“Deranged,” even slightly, is another kettle of fish. This is to do with insanity, psychosis, loss of contact with reality, a disturbed “normality.” It’s no different from calling a woman crazy, and we all know the power of that descriptor to hurt, intimidate, and silence when applied by the orthodoxy to the words of women it does not want to hear, or wishes to discredit.

Personally, I have no time for words such as “deranged” in a feminist vocabulary. They belong to the Law of the Father, as Cixous would have it. They are the consequence of a social process whose product is, among other things, concepts such as “sanity” and “madness.”  Part of our feminist task is, as Foucault would have it though he was not speaking specifically to feminism,  that we must disrupt discursive practices which establish meaning. Perhaps there is little more important than disrupting those established practices that create a narrative of derangement that has long been used to contain and oppress mouthy, disruptive, revolutionary women.

Has feminism now become so tamed that words such as “deranged” are required to invalidate commentary because its content may not be immediately accessible and its form extraordinary?  Strategies of excess can be used most effectively to challenge the binaries of patriarchal thought, but has feminism become so tamed it must now regard such strategies as “deranged?”

Women today would not have a fraction of the privileges we have were it not for radical, anarchic women who were frequently described as “crazy.” No successful political movement ever existed without radicals to initially break through the barriers.

There is practically no one influential in Western feminism today who can be described as radical. I wonder how much this is due to so many feminists becoming so much a part of the bourgeoisie with its safe, bourgeois values that radical voices are now inevitably named as “deranged,” and thus ridiculed, or silenced.

Naming is a political activity.  “…all expression is always indirectly political.” Cixous.

Privilege and imagination

17 May

Yesterday the word “privilege” was used a great deal in social media, mostly with regard to this post by Mia Freedman, in which she defends Delta Goodrem against charges of racism following an incident involving a white man dressing up as Seal by painting himself black.

I used the word myself in my last blog, though it isn’t one of my favourites. It has a good deal of currency at the moment, with people requesting other people to first consider their privilege before expressing opinions, making judgements, behaving in certain ways, prescribing and proscribing. It’s not a bad idea, but many of those amongst us who are most privileged find it tedious, silly, and that crowning insult, it’s political correctness, usually “gone mad.”

So if I were to say, as did Mia Freedman, that using blackface in this instance is not racist, not intended to be racist, and people who are offended need to get a sense of humour, I’d do well to consider the privileged position from which I am speaking before I open my mouth. As a middle class white woman who has never experienced racism, I am the least equipped to judge whether or not blackface is a racial insult. If I then tell brown people to get a sense of humour about it, I’m skating on very thin ice indeed.

It seems to me that the easiest way to avoid offence is to first exercise the imagination.  How would I feel…

If, as Clementine Ford acknowledged in her article on violence and sexual violence against women, the situation one is about to discuss is beyond one’s imagining, then one might do well to refrain from expressing opinions about it. I haven’t yet understood how it is possible to hold an informed opinion about something one cannot begin to imagine, or refuses to imagine, beyond the initial opinion that one finds it unimaginable.

Of course it’s possible to observe how awful a situation is, but that is not particularly insightful or helpful. With imagination the complexities and nuances become evident, and in situations as complex as racism, and domestic violence, the devil is in the detail.

For example, as I’ve noted many times, the simplistic gendering of domestic violence by some feminists and governments has done nothing to prevent any of it, and obfuscates the complexities of intimate relationships that turn very bad. I don’t know how it’s in the least helpful to frame this violence and our attempts at management in terms of gender, and until someone writes policy with a bit more imagination and a lot less ideology, nothing is going to improve.

I think that our primary responsibility to others is to use our imaginations about their circumstances. If we (and I mean anyone) are unwilling or unable to do this, the problem is ours, not theirs.

“Examining your privilege” might be better thought of as “using your imagination.” This latter opens up the possibility of stepping into the other’s shoes for a while, and seeing how it feels.  This is probably one of the most powerful expressions of respect one human being can offer to another. It acknowledges our common humanity, and the vulnerability we all share in our embodiment. It is impossible to perform this respectful act without engaging the imagination.

When individuals and groups fail to use their imagination about the circumstances of those who are in some way different from themselves, bad things start to happen, such as excising the entire country from the Migration Act and incarcerating others for indefinite periods in far from acceptable circumstances. If we (and by we I mean everybody) don’t imagine others as human beings with whom we have much in common, and perhaps add, there but for the grace of the gods we might be, then we can’t feel as badly as we should about how we treat them.

If we don’t use our imaginations about another’s suffering, we end up feeling little more than pity, although we might call it compassion and empathy. Without imagination, it is only pity. Pity allows us to distance ourselves from the other, while compassion and empathy demand we walk with her or him, figuratively speaking.

The most compassionate people I’ve known have not suffered in ways I have, yet have never made me feel different, less than them, or pitied. I doubt any one of them ever “examined their privilege.” They are all, however, possessed of powerful imaginations. They have no difficulty putting themselves in another’s place. They may not understand some things, but they accept and respect another’s right to her or his subjective experience. They don’t “take your voice and leave you howling at the moon.”

Imagination. That is all.

Dear Clementine Ford. How I feel when you talk about me.

15 May

 

us-them

 

The following are extracts from Clementine Ford‘s recent article “What Cleveland tells us about the cycle of abuse,” on the kidnapping and imprisonment of three women and a child in Cleveland, Ohio.

There’s no doubt that the facts of the case are horrific, both those known and those yet to be revealed to the authorities required to know them. (Despite our general fascination with salacious details, even those we find emotionally difficult to bear, this is not our story; the women involved are at last able to shield themselves from invasion, and that includes protecting themselves if they so choose from the world knowing to what depths the humiliation was that they suffered.)

What happened in Cleveland is horrifying, yes. It’s incomprehensible. To imagine the reality of those 10 years would cause too much distress, so we hover around its dark edges, not quite daring to look beyond the borders with anything other than quick glimpses in case our eyes lock on something we can’t unsee. But we should resist the temptation to consider it different somehow to the violence expressed on a daily basis in homes on similar suburban streets occupied by similarly “normal” people, domestic matters in which we imagine we have no obligation to get involved. 

What I am questioning in this piece is Ford’s use of the words “our” and “we.” For whom does she speak? Who is the “we” on behalf of whom, and to whom Ford enunciates? When Ford writes “our,” with what audience does she imagine she is engaging?

As a woman who survived childhood sexual and physical abuse on a scale that I still, and always will find “emotionally difficult” to bear, I do not feel included in Ford’s “we” and “ours.”

For example. I do not share our “general fascination with salacious details.”  Such details would plunge me into places I do not wish to go, because I have lived many of them. Having lived them, I am immediately framed as “not our,” and “not we” in Ford’s narrative, whose point of view, it seems to me, is entirely that of a “we” and “ours” who have not endured monstrous events.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with this perspective. Not everybody has to suffer torment. But there is something terribly wrong when it is presented as the perspective, excluding those of us who have a very different experience of life, while simultaneously  making us the centre of the discussion. This inevitably creates a binary of us and them. It positions women like me outside of the centre, as represented by mainstream writing and reporting.

Women such as myself are absent in this piece of writing that is also absolutely about us. Without us, this text would not exist, yet our voices are silenced by Ford’s appropriation of our lived experience , an appropriation in which there is no place for our presence. We can be talked about. We cannot speak.

We are made the object of Ford’s, and her readers’ gaze, no matter how sympathetic and empathic that gaze may be. We are positioned outside the social order, as represented by Ford’s use of “we” and “ours.” Women such as myself cannot possibly envisage ourselves as belonging in, and to this “we” and “ours.” It is against this “we” and “ours” that women such as myself must struggle to find a place for ourselves in a culture that through no fault of our own, casts us as outside its linguistic parameters of belonging.

There is a barrier between those who’ve known violence and those who haven’t. Because of this barrier, we are forever outsiders. Our secrets set us apart. Dark knowledge taints us. We’re sullied, dirtied, spoiled by our knowledge and we struggle to rid ourselves of this legacy. We are not the “we” and “ours” who fear seeing what we can’t unsee. We have seen the unseeable. We have lived the unlivable. We are the aporia, we are that which cannot be contained within the structures and logics of texts such as Ford’s. We are, by our experiences, made other, and we are further othered by hegemonic writings that exclude us, except as objects of the sympathetic gaze.

Feminist thinker  and writer Hélène Cixous suggests that we should not think of women such as myself as “victims,” but rather as “subjects of suffering.” …human beings, she continues, try to live through the worst sufferings. To make humanity of them. To distil them, to understand their lesson. We do this, those of us who can. Many of us can’t. Many of us die. Many of us live lives of unimaginable difficulty. Most of us never have a voice. We must put up with hearing about ourselves and our experiences from others, who shudder at the horror we’ve endured. This serves only to further marginalise us. This makes us spectacle.

What happened in Cleveland is not “incomprehensible” to me, as it is to the “we” Ford addresses. It is all too comprehensible.

Unlike the “we” Ford addresses, there is no temptation for me to consider what happened in Cleveland as “different” from what happened for years in my outwardly “normal” home on an ordinary street, except in some of the specifics.

The call for the “community” to take action to prevent such ruptures as the Cleveland events, or indeed my own sufferings, seems extraordinarily naive to me. How are we to depend on a “community” whose prominent feminist spokespeople see us as other, however empathetically, and exclude us from their discourse?

To imagine the reality of those 10 years would cause too much distress, so we hover around its dark edges, not quite daring to look beyond the borders with anything other than quick glimpses in case our eyes lock on something we can’t unsee.

These are the words of the privileged, who can choose to avoid the distress, who can hover, salaciously, around the dark edges, lacking the courage to cross the borders and walk with those of us who’ve had no choice in the matter, and who can never fully return from that dark country to the land of “we” and “ours.”

Those of us “subjects of suffering” who have survived enough to speak have much to offer, weighted with the authority given to us by our lived experience. We could tell you, for example, that there is a universe of difference between sexual harassment, and the violence we have endured. You may not care to hear that, but we can tell you that is so.

Given the horrific statistics for violence and sexual violence against women in this country, there must be many of our number among Ford’s readers. Yet writing such as this excludes us all. There must be many others who, like me, read this piece and think, I am not of this ‘we.” I am not of this “ours.”  This is not written for and to a woman with a life such as mine has been. It is written about women like me, but it is not written with me. It does not walk with me. It does not take my hand. It does not acknowledge me as an equal. It is writing that distances itself from me, and me from it.

If we are to intervene in the cycles of violence that bring abject horror to the lives of so many of us, we are first going to need a new discourse with which to do it. That discourse will  not create a barrier between those of us who have suffered and those of us who have not. There will be no excluding “we” and “ours.”  We do not need sympathy. We do not need to be isolated in our suffering. We need those who will walk beside us, equals in our shared humanity, no matter how varied our experiences.

If feminism cannot do this for women, it is a failed project.

This is how I feel when you talk about me.

 

On sexual harassment: Revisiting Helen Garner’s ‘The First Stone’

14 May

Helen Garner The First Stone

Published in 1995, Helen Garner’s account of the scandal surrounding the then Master of Melbourne University’s Ormond College, Dr Colin Shepherd, after allegations of sexual harassment were made against him by two female students, is agonisingly current all these years later, and ought to be read and re-read by anyone interested in feminism, sexual harassment, and power in human relationships.

The book opens with the transcript of Dr Shepherd’s first police interview, after the women lodged complaints of indecent assault against him. Ultimately, the charges against him were dismissed, it being concluded that it was a question of “oath against oath.”  Shepherd subsequently lost his job, became “too hot” for anyone to employ, and his wife and children suffered appallingly as a consequence of the media circus.

Throughout the book, Garner asks the question, why did the women take this matter to the police as a first resort?  Melbourne University did at that time have procedures in place to address complaints of sexual harassment. Garner interviews the outgoing Women’s Officer of the Student Union:

“I asked her my forlorn but crucial question: how and why did the police get involved in this case? She answered me with a firm statement.

‘The procedures here didn’t lead to justice…The procedures at the moment,’ she said, ‘are structured so that you get an apology and you get the behaviour to stop – and that’s all.’

‘Isn’t that already quite a lot?’

She looked at me narrowly. ‘I’m against people having to go through conciliation before there can be retribution.’

‘Retribution?’ The Old Testament word took my breath away. 

‘If you want some form of justice,’ she went on, ‘for the harasser to be punished, you’re seen as asking too much. You’re being “nasty.”‘

‘What sort of punishment would you envisage?’

‘In the industrial award for academics,’ she said, ‘there’s a clause that deals with serious misconduct. Dismissal is appropriate if the charge is found to be proven – and if it’s harassment that constitutes an assault.’

‘Assault?’ I repeated, confused. ‘Dismissal.’

The Women’s Officer, Christine G-, explains “icily” to Garner that young women don’t have the knowledge or power to control exchanges between themselves and harassing lecturers and tutors.

‘As you get older,’ [says Garner] you begin to understand that a lot of men in harassment situations are weak. You realise that behind what you saw as a force, all those years, there’s actually a sort of terrible pathos. Blokes who come onto girls are putting themselves out on a limb – their self is at risk. You start to learn that women have got a particular power of their own, if only they knew it.’

‘A girl in her first tute,’ she [Christine G] said stubbornly, ‘doesn’t know that.’

‘That’s true – but our job as feminists is to teach them this, surely. To a woman of my age, blokes who behave as Colin Shepherd was accused of doing aren’t scary, or powerful. They’re just poor bastards.

She bristled. ‘They may be “just poor bastards”, but they’ve abused their power. Sexual harassment is ultimately not about sex. It’s about power.’

Of course these problems are real, Garner writes. Every woman knows it. But this constant stress on passivity and weakness – this creation of a political position based on the virtue of helplessness – I hate it.”

Garner incurred great feminist wrath on the publication of her book. She encountered great feminist wrath throughout its writing: doors were slammed in her face by women close to the situation, and she was never able to interview the two women at the heart of the matter. As Garner makes clear many times, she wanted to understand the experiences of the two complainants. She wanted to hear their side of the story, and why they had acted as they did, for example, refusing to take the matter to the Equal Opportunity Commission until after it had been dealt with in the courts and dismissed, rather than before. At every turn, she is met with hostility, rage and icy dismissal. She writes:

“What sort of feminists were these, what sort of intellectuals, who expected automatic allegiance from women to a cause they were not even prepared to argue?”

During the writing of the book, Garner takes a job with Time Australia, reporting the trial of a man accused of having murdered his girlfriend’s two-year-old son. She writes:

“The horrors I heard in the Supreme Court each day threw the Ormond story into merciless perspective…it seemed the site of an absurd, hysterical tantrum, a privileged kids’ paddy.”

Garner is unable to obtain an answer to her question as to why the complainants:

“…charged past conciliation into the traditional masculine style of problem-solving: call in the cops, split off the nuances of character and relevant context, and hire a cowboy to slug it out for you in the main street at noon, with all the citizenry watching.”

Garner’s book sprang into my mind yesterday, after thinking about how the matter of the offensive tweets I posted yesterday was handled, and after reading commenters’ responses to that post. The situations hold different positions on a continuum: Dr Shepherd was charged with indecent assault after allegedly fondling a young woman’s breast. Garner reports that the young woman:

“…told the court that Dr Shepherd had got down on his knees before her. Which of them does the word humiliated apply to, here?”

Perhaps what needs to be said today was said by Garner at the end of her book, in 1995:

“…I know that between ‘being made to feel uncomfortable’ and ‘violence against women’ lies a vast range of male and female behaviours. If we deny this, we enfeeble language and drain it of its meaning. We insult the suffering of women who have met real violence, and we distort the subtleties of human interaction into caricatures that can serve only as propaganda for war. And it infuriates me that any woman who insists on drawing these crucial distinctions should be called a traitor to her sex.”

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