Lit Ignorance is Bias: The Diversity Manifesto

Discussion in 'Literature' started by CooperTFN, Sep 2, 2012.

  1. Mechalich Force Ghost

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    In what ways is Lord of the Rings racist? There's a bunch probably, if you really want to dig into the subtext, but it's pretty obvious in some places.

    The most significant pieces, at least that have always struck me when reading the series, are the descriptions of the 'Southrons' and 'Eastlings' given in Return of the King. They are clearly non-white humans and they are portrayed both as evil (serving Sauron), weak-minded (manipulated by Sauron), and weak physically (by being worth 'less' in battle than a Gondorian or Rohirrim). Likewise, there's a very clear hierarchy among the types of mortals, with humans being less than elves, and the elves having their own complex setup of sub-groups - with oddly the most powerful ones being the least ethical, but whatever. The dwarves are deliberately shunted off to the side - being created by a different god of all things.

    The demonizing of the Eastlings and Southrons and the contrasting glorification of the lifestyles of Gondor, Rohan, and the extinct Arnor, clearly has a influence on real-world culture, since those cultures proxy actual historical cultures. Tolkein was a professor of British literature, and as might be expected he glorified that heritage, but in doing so he exalted a lifestyle and a certain amalgamation of Northern European ethnicities as being flat out better than pretty much anything else.

    There's demonization of these non-white groups of men is, if I recall correctly (my Silmarillion recollection is rusty), justified by their service to Morgoth in an earlier age - so their weakness, and possibly even their appearance, if a result of this curse. Thus, to be non-white is to be cursed, and by an action undertaken by one's ancestors that you had no control over.

    Here's a difference with Star Wars on that front actually: while one species could, in-universe, claim some other species was cursed to be weak and hideous, they would be wrong, and there would be some other evolution-based explanation for why they actually appeared the way they did. In LOTR, if Tolkein writes that men were cursed by Iluvatar to be dark of skin with red tongues they're actually, you know, cursed. I think that makes a difference because, when reading, if we see speciesm in Star Wars, there can be other voices within the setting that reveal how deluded and outright wrong that speciesm is, using evidence. In LOTR, if you're cursed, you're cursed, and they are right to hate you - the setting structure itself justifies the racism.

    I think perhaps, another way of looking at what I meant is that sword & sorcery fantasy settings are highly prone to treat Species = Morality ie. 'All Orcs are Evil!' That is a viewpoint that is blatantly racist pretty much any way you slice it. Space operas are generally unlikely to embrace that viewpoint. There may be species that simply do not play nice with others or species that are highly socialized towards malevolent viewpoints, but being 'born bad' is far less common.
    Last edited by Mechalich, Dec 10, 2012
  2. Rilwen_Shadowflame Force Ghost

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    A portion of Sauron's human followers, including the folk the Ringwraiths were rulers over, were rebel Numenoreans. AKA, same type of people in Gondor.

    And the folk of the East? Two wizards were sent there, to help undermine Sauron's control. And it is explicitly in the books, one of the hobbits seeing a fallen man of those peoples and wondering what lies were told to him to bring him so far from home.

    And your Silm knowledge is a bit patchy there - they weren't cursed for that. What they were was tricked and then betrayed by Morgoth, who promised them for their aid lands he later refused to give them. Politics, not magic curses.

    Also, you actually could have a SW species cursed to be weak and hideous; Sith magic, and similar. Just look at Sithspawn creatures...
  3. Skaddix Force Ghost

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  4. Rilwen_Shadowflame Force Ghost

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    Minor addendum: It's not 'weak-minded' of people in those books to be manipulated by Sauron. Saruman, a Maia, was, and was corrupted far more profoundly than people who had the misfortune of living where Sauron decided to park his spiky armoured butt.
    Denethor, once strong and noble, was manipulated by Sauron - he was driven to despair and suicide by the things Sauron showed him.
    A chunk of the noble folk of Numenor were corrupted by Sauron to the point they had a Morgoth-directed cult, with sacrifices and things.
    And Celebrimbor, an Elf from a notoriously strong-willed line, was tricked by Sauron in disguise to make the Rings of Power.

    The Ringwraiths, Sauron's servants, leave horror and fear in their wake, sapping the spirits of even strong warriors.

    And Sauron's former master Morgoth was a Vala, whose gaze could break the wills of many, whose words swayed the minds of those who heard him.
    His curse upon Hurin's family destroyed them, and when he at last set Hurin free, that act led to the discovery and destruction of hidden Elven-kingdoms unwittingly exposed by the despairing Hurin.

    These are not the kind of villains who only affect the weak-minded. These are the kind of villains who can seriously mess you up with their presence alone, and who can persuade you to do a lot of things.
    Last edited by Rilwen_Shadowflame, Dec 10, 2012
  5. CooperTFN TFN EU Staff Emeritus

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    I don't know that we're meant to think they're the only two in all of Asgard, but we can say that Asgardian reproduction doesn't exactly follow the normal rules.
  6. cthugha Force Ghost

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    Now look where this discussion has gone while I wasn't looking...

    While I think Mechalich's ideas about "creationist" vs "evolutionist" diegeses is quite interesting in its own way, I don't think that distinction actually makes much of a difference when it comes to how a given piece of fiction is perceived by its audience -- and thus on its influence on popular culture and culture as a whole.

    What I was getting at in my LotR post is that in the 19th and early 20th century, adventure novels regularly featured (members of) "exotic" races, cultures etc, with the difference between these races and cultures often being essential to the plot. However by 1933 (when the Hobbit was first published) it was no longer really feasible to have your protagonists travel to exotic undiscovered countries, or to include stereotyped races (and other, e.g. class-based prejudices) for humor and driving the plot -- at least not in the British academic circles that Tolkien frequented. So what he did was basically revive the tradition of the 19th century B-novel, writing a children's book featuring a group of gold-obsessed Jews recruiting an honest British countryman to aid them in recovering their fortune, meeting brutish and stupid proletarians, swarthy subhuman creatures, noble savages and the like.
    The fact that these "races" whose supposed essential characteristics drive the plot (the dwarves' obsession with gold) and provide comic relief (trolls etc) were created by some God IU -- which isn't even mentioned in the Hobbit and no issue in LotR -- does not come into play at all. What this is about is that we finally can have fun with essentially differing races and cultures again, i.e. we play 19th century racist and culturalist ideology, only in a setting framed as "this is not the real world".

    And in a way, regardless of whatever underlying "evolutionist" principles (which also are not an issue in any piece of SW work I can remember), this is exactly what SW fiction sometimes does -- show us corrupt and bloated Hutts, cowardly Neimoidians and ferocious Wookiees, without any danger of anyone crying "racism!" because, after all, these are not real races. In the Star Wars universe, these just exist, and they just are like that, essentially (regardless of whatever evolutionist rationale for their being so we might construct after the fact) -- so it can't be racist, now can it?[face_thinking]
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  7. CooperTFN TFN EU Staff Emeritus

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    The funny thing is that in LotR, the other races ostensibly exist to make the primary, or protagonistic, races seem more normal and/or benevolent by comparison, but with SW, the vast majority of this diversity conversation has been about how the humans aren't even being done right.

    In other words--even if GFFA humanity were the absolute picture of diversity and inclusiveness, there'd still be a whole other conversation we could have about the extent to which the aliens embody racism... [face_plain]
    Last edited by CooperTFN, Dec 11, 2012
  8. Zorrixor Chosen One

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    To a large extent, I feel the difference between SW and LOTR mostly just boils down to how SW has just been allowed to grow beyond Lucas's singular vision and branch out to depict other characters -- some of whom stick with stereotypes, others that don't. I imagine had LOTR gone the franchise route too with its own never ending EU, the two series would probably be pretty much the same in terms of how many good Orcs or Hutts there were, or how generic most Elves or Twi'leks were depicted.

    SW has just had the benefit of having had more artists be able to play in the sandbox.

    Lucas himself though wasn't much different to Tolkien, with Sand People always evil, Hutts all gangsters, etc.
    Last edited by Zorrixor, Dec 11, 2012
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  9. The Loyal Imperial Manager Emeritus

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  10. Mechalich Force Ghost

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    Maybe, or maybe not. The never-ending-EU version of the Lord of the Rings goes by the name Dungeons & Dragons, and we can certainly compare that to Star Wars. I would say that D&D is far more rigid in its portrayal of differences between its various monsters (the best proxy we have for species) than Star Wars is among its species. Yes there are examples of beings going counter to the positions they have been created to occupy (including a famous one with purple eyes and two scimitars) but they are very, very rare and tend to attract negative attention on a cosmic level.

    Sure, we don't see species 'break type' in Star Wars incredibly often, though its more common than you might think and TOR has a couple of good examples (Broonmark's story for one), but when they do it doesn't mean they are angering the gods.

    Speciesism =/= Racism. Racism is a prejudice without a foundation, or based on a false one. Humans with dark skin and hailing from the African continent are not less intelligent than those with pale skin hailing from the European continent. They are not more prone to anger either, or any of the other tropes commonly thrown about.

    Two species, on the other hand, can have real and dramatic differences physiologically and psychologically. Gamorreans have neurological inhibitions that prevent them from successfully piloting starships it is something that they simply can not do. So never having a Gamorrean pilot would not be an act of prejudice within the Star Wars universe. Now that doesn't mean Star Wars cannot construct species as unfair caricatures (like the Mimbanites), or even display traits that make perfect sense from a scientific perspective but play quite prejudicial to an audience (Gungan speech patterns), or other unfortunate things, but it makes it possible to present those differences without being racist.

    This is hard to compare to a fantasy setting with elves, dwarves, and what have you, because in such a setting you can't really seperate racism from speciesm because, without the rules of biology holding in the universe, the two concepts blur (this is why, when playing D&D you choose a race at character creation, but in Star Wars you choose a species). Most fantasy 'races' are based off mythological or folktale concepts anyway and no effort to make a logical explanation of their traits is attempted or ever necessary.

    Now, it is certainly true that the public perception of racism and speciesism is often as if they were the same thing. Indeed media sometimes explicitly proxies one against the other, as in the film District 9, but this in some sense an ad populum argument. The idea that most of the public treats racism and speciesism as equivalent does not make it true, nor does it provide a demand that a setting like Star Wars should bow to that perception.

    I feel I should add that just because species may differ in conrete fashion in a space opera, that obviously does not justify mistreatment, abuse, or any other malicious action along species lines, but it does mean that species differences must be taken into account by society, such as before the law. Race is irrelevant to human law on Earth, species is not irrelevant to law in Star Wars.
  11. Rilwen_Shadowflame Force Ghost

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    Mechalich, are you familiar with the term 'the human race'? Because you seem to have decided that if people call it a race, it's bad, but if people call it a species, everything is fine.

    You also seem to have decided that if a group of people got to their state by magic, it is bad, but calling it evolution is fine.

    If anything, one could argue for the reverse to some degree: in that scifi setting, you Just Are That Way. There's no-one in-universe to blame, no-one you could point to and say "Wizard Gorbash there influenced this, and he was clearly biased when he gave the people he didn't like antlers." A group in scifi simply is whatever it has become. Immutable 'scientific' fact. Nobody did this to them. They simply are that stupid, or greedy, or ugly. And they cannot change that; you could get a token good one, but they can't fix their species. Nothing can.
  12. JediFreac Force Ghost

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    Last edited by JediFreac, Dec 11, 2012
  13. GrandAdmiralJello Moderator Communitatis Litterarumque

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    Knew about the first two thanks to the bluray special features, but I had no idea about the third one. Kind of annoying that all the white male humans seen in the Empire led to the idea in the EU that the Empire was prejudiced, but all the uni-gendered Rebel stuff didn't follow through.
  14. Mechalich Force Ghost

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    I'm quite familliar with the term 'the human race.' It's quite joyfully meaningless. 'Race,' as others have mentioned is a term of greatly nebulous meaning that has been stripped of any functional accuracy or precision over the last century plus. The 'human race' is a concept, it is defined only by perception, by the subjective viewpoint of the people using the term. Homo sapiens, or the human species, is an actual thing. It is something that has an existence irrespective to what people think about it. Species is a unit of biological measurement, like meters (though it is considerably less precise).

    I'm not focused on bad or good - my post above was loaded with notations to that effect - but the the concrete versus the subjective. Differences between species are real, they can be observed, measured, quantified. There are no differences between the so-called 'races' that have functional meaning - differences between traditional human ethnic divisions represent a small number of mostly cosmetic traits that are swamped by overall diversity between the groups (though certain tightly contained populations do retain a predisposition towards certain genetic traits, like sickle cell anemia, but this is not anything close to a species-level difference). This is not 'calling it evolution' - evolution is, it doesn't care whether or not you fail to acknowledge it. It is only within fantasy that we can wish it's impacts away and step into a world not bound by its logic.

    Such a setting is capable of circular reasoning - ex. Elves are better than humans because they are elves. There is no 'why.' There is also no possibility for change. if men of dark skin are inferior because god made them that way as a punishment there is no possible challenge to this. No evidence can be brought to bear to change that statement. However if the claim is that men of dark skin are inferior because as a group their IQ has a lower mean value (which is the sort of argument you see in things like the Bell Curve) that can be challenged by evidence, it can be disproven. In that case characters can be show to disagree in fiction, one can challenge the prejudice of another. If it is god's will that simply is not so.

    In LOTR god's will is known. There are characters in the series who have spoken to the godhead, there are numerous characters who have spoken to those who have spoken to him directly (which is considerably closer to the word of god than any writer of the Gospels ever was to Christ). Thus it is possible for characters to undertake actions that would, to an observer unaware of these truths, seem absolutely horrific while being in the moral right within the context of the setting. Xenocide of the orcs of Middle Earth would be a glorious thing of benefit to all. Turn that around to Star Wars, would xenocide of any species, even the worst you can imagine, be a good act? No, it would not, and indeed the NJO presented that specific scenario and explicitly rejected it.

    As to species in a science-fiction setting possessing traits that make them inherently unappealing, yes that is so. Indeed it is inevitable that different evolutionary histories and processes would lead to alien life that develops a psychology and a corresponding set of values that Homo sapiens find universally abhorrent. However, this is not a bad thing. It simply is something that happens. Every species will develop values that are acceptable to itself. There is no monopoly of moral philosophy by humans. The Western human ideology that the dominant human culture of Star Wars possesses is the most powerful, but that does not make it right. The moral perspective is subject to the views of all species, (perhaps mitigated at best by some sort of universal natural law presented via the Force in this case but that's a whole other philosophical debate). So yes, perhaps all Hutts are astonishingly self-centered and greedy in a human view. In a Hutt view all humans are shockingly naive and chaotically irresponible with regard to personal resource needs. The EU has made this point explicitly too: the Killiks Joiner process is neither good nor evil, it simply is, even though humans will find it universally horrifying.

    I will say that my initial choice of terms was less than ideal. I'm not sure there's any truly effective way to make this point without sounding judgmental. The overal point about the settings is that I see a masive difference between there being one, single, known truth to morality in a universe, and there being many perspectives with the truth either unknown, unknowable, or non-existent (Star Wars I would consider 'unknowable' moral truth, since the Force guides the galaxy but no one can ever be certain of what it is telling them). Neither approach is inherently better than any other - though I must confess I haven't seen many fantasies focused on tirelessly pro-diversity gods - but they present fundamental differences in how morality functions within a setting.
  15. TrakNar Force Ghost

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    They called the Wook "Wikipedia." For shame.

    As for why the women were cut... There's a possibility that it may have had something to do with the era in which it was filmed. At the time, women weren't permitted to serve in active combat roles. Other countries, beginning in the 70s, had begun to loosen up with this policy and more women were actively serving. In 1982, women serving active duty was still in its infancy, and it's a possibility that seeing women starfighter pilots in combat and being shot down was just a hot-button issue that the Powers That Be simply did not want to touch.

    Nowadays, women are cast as hardened military types more often, but in the early Eighties, still somewhat in the grips of the Seventies, it would have been rather controversial. Granted, Alien had Ripley, and Ripley was chosen to help the movie stand out in a male-dominated genre, but unlike in Alien, Star Wars is still relatively male-dominated and the female characters are still more or less defined by the male cast. Women were relegated to officer roles while the men went out and did the dirty work.

    While we're on the subject of diversity in the pilots... We had a Ten Nunb, a Sullustan B-wing pilot. He was the only alien starfighter pilot who had any semblance of an on-screen role (we'll ignore Nien, as he was a copilot, and the Mon Cals were officers). And for that matter, what about diversity in the ground troops? Aside from Chewie and a throng of Ewoks, we had a couple of Dresselians. The majority of the fighters were Human males.
  16. Ulicus Lit'ari

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    That's all well and good, Trak, but what does it have to do with LotR?
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  17. CooperTFN TFN EU Staff Emeritus

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    It's also ironic, given the PT's overall diversity record, that "the Naboo" are a seemingly exclusively human society. Even more so when you factor in the EU and the knowledge that they haven't even been there that long.
  18. GrandAdmiralJello Moderator Communitatis Litterarumque

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    Yeah, but they're from Grizmallt, which is a Core World. Therefore they're better than everyone.
  19. Mechalich Force Ghost

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    They've been there almost four thousand years. Not long in terms of the history of the Republic, but pretty long in human terms. Civilization on Japan isn't half that old.

    Perhaps it's a consequence of when the colonization occurred. The Great Galactic War happens only 200 years later, that might have cut Naboo off from the rest of the galaxy, or simply led to a movement to restrict immigration, leading to a society with strong planetary idendity. More generously, perhaps the Grizmallt refugees made an arrangement with the Gungans to restrict immigration - so that a massive influx of people, particularly of an alien species that unlike the humans wanted the same biomes as the Gungans did, would not overwhelm the planet's natives.

    This makes a certain amount of sense actually. The canon human population of Naboo is only 1.215 billion. That means if the founding population was 1 million, the annual growth rate was 0.18%. To put that in perspective the annual growth rate of the human population of earth in 2009 was 1.1% and significantly higher for much of the 20th century.
  20. Ghost Chosen One

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    The Naboo seem to be human-supremacists, anyways. And they had isolationist leaders until King Veruna was elected.

    Maybe not as badly prejudiced by the time Padme is elected Queen, after a few decades of opening up to the galaxy under Veruna's rule, but it's still there.
    Last edited by Summer Dreamer, Dec 11, 2012
  21. GrandAdmiralJello Moderator Communitatis Litterarumque

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    Wellll... yes and no. They were at the time of TPM. You know Panaka's attitude towards them, and there was a cut scene where Amidala objected to Jar Jar's presence on her royal vessel. More importantly, the two populations just don't interact. However -- and this may just be my memory playing tricks on me -- I do recall something in GBG suggesting that the Gungans and the Naboo used to get along better.
  22. Ghost Chosen One

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    Maybe back when the Naboo landed, and the Gungans saved them during the first winter, which was foreverafter known as the first Thanksgiving... wait, wrong universe. :p But it was probably something like that. And we know from "DARTH PLAGUEIS" that the Naboo were very isolationist until Veruna was elected, with Palpatine's father being one of the loudest supporters of it.
    Last edited by Summer Dreamer, Dec 11, 2012
  23. TrakNar Force Ghost

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    Boss Nass's remark about how the Naboo think "dey brains' so big" points to some degree of the attitude the Naboo had to the Gungans. According to him, the Naboo felt the Gungans to be lesser creatures, and really... Qui-Gon's comment to Jar Jar that "the ability to speak does not make you intelligent" was quite insulting. And even Obi-Wan's comment later, about picking up "another pathetic lifeform," even though it was in regards to Anakin, the intent was echoing his distaste for Jar Jar. As one of the movie's main representatives for species diversity, Gungans were regarded quite poorly by Humans in general.
  24. GrandAdmiralJello Moderator Communitatis Litterarumque

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    That's one of the main reasons why I wanted to see Jar Jar as an elder statesmen in the NR/Galactic Alliance period. :( I wanted to see him prove them all wrong.



    ....I mean, er, I hate aliens! Long live the Emperor! [face_worried]
  25. Valin__Kenobi Author: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Praji

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    I fail to see the distinction. Tolkien's dwarves, elves, hobbits, etc. are no more "real races" than Hutts, Wookiees, etc. despite the fact that they appear superficially human which confuses the issue. Nobody would complain if one swapped it out for "gold-obsessed Hutts recruiting an honest Alderaanian countryman to aid them in recovering their fortune, meeting brutish and stupid Gamorreans, swarthy subhuman Weequay, noble savage Wookiees" and in fact we see this type of thing in Star Wars, Star Trek, and other fantasy universes all the time, so why does Tolkien get picked on?

    As pointed out a few pages back, they all basically look like a bunch of white dudes but biologically they have completely different origins, and cannot interbreed with the exception of elves and humans. The elves are explicitly meant to symbolize "unfallen" mankind, e.g. pre-eating-the-forbidden-fruit, and throughout The Silmarillion there's a special relationship between elves and men that no two other species share, and Tolkien is more concerned with this thematic relationship than the biological mechanism by which this would really work.

    Saying elves are smarter and stronger than humans, hobbits are better at finding their way in tunnels, etc. is not racism or stereotyping, it's fact in the same way that dogs have a better sense of smell than cats but cats are better at climbing trees. To me, any sort of concerns about racism in Tolkien other than among the humans themselves is totally misplaced, and concerns about the Southrons, Easterlings, etc. only slightly less so, but I'll save that for another post.

    Besides the biology, dwarves and elves also have different cultures from humans and hobbits, and the meeting of contrasting cultures is one of the oldest and most basic elements in fiction and mythology. No need to drag the 19th century into this. :p The extent to which any of Tolkien's depictions track onto real-world ethnic stereotypes is easily overstated. The dwarves are obsessed with gold, sure, but Jewish stereotypes? When have Jews been stereotyped as master blacksmiths who live in huge cities dug under mountains? Most of the dwarf names in The Hobbit are lifted directly from Nordic lore, for Pete's sake. By the time one gets to LOTR, the dwarf language has picked up a lot more Semitic elements phonetically, but at the same time their cultural depiction has advanced well beyond the gold-hungry mine-dwellers to a more heroic portrayal, via the character of Gimli and the descriptions in the ROTK appendices.
    Last edited by Valin__Kenobi, Dec 11, 2012
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