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Yes, I Am “Judgmental”: An Overview of the Position of The Independent Whig

JSWagner, a reader of this blog, made a fair and well reasoned comment to the post in which I observed that Opennes Is Not A Moral Foundation. He said that I can be judgmental, and that there’s sometimes a negative tone to my writing about ideas I don’t agree with.  He said that I “castigated” the idea of openness. Here is his comment:

Regarding my use of the word castigate- that is a strong word, but I think an accurate one to use when characterizing your oft-expressed attitude about the behavior of those who use less moral foundations, and, now, those who display openness to new experience. We tend to be hesitant to say other moral viewpoints are wrong, bad, or evil, preferring to be kinder or more ‘correct’, when those negative words can provide a simple, accurate way to describe how a different set of morals feels to us- not just different in a neutral way, but as a violation of moral views we essentially hold to be objective truth. This is why I recoil a bit from Dr. Haidt’s metaphor of tastes when discussing morals, which can make them seem like preferences, or imply that one set of tastes is as valid as another. But being moral is more fundamental than that: morals define our judgment about right and wrong. Even if we can intellectually acknowledge that our moral view isn’t necessarily objective or accurate, it doesn’t change a moral outlook’s purpose of providing our own foundational framework for good and bad in our life. In my opinion, you are quite judgmental- negative, castigatory- about those who use less moral foundations. And I think that’s ok. That judgement fuels your efforts to extend the breadth of our moral outlook, and is a product of your strong moral views.

If I may, I’d like to use this as an opportunity to opine further on my judgmentalism.

This is a just blog.  It’s kind of a poor man’s written equivalent of a vanity album a garage band might make.  It’s my own occasional Op Ed.  It’s “my two cents” in the discussion relating moral foundations to current and historical events.  I try to describe how my brain connects the dots among many of Haidt’s ideas and between his ideas and the real world.

I may be wrong about everything I say here.  For example, at some point in the future Haidt may indeed add Openness to his list of moral foundations.  If he does then in that sense I will have been “proved” wrong.  But, in my own humble opinion, I think my argument has merit, and Openness is indeed not a Moral Foundation.

At any rate, I’m just a guy who likes to read about, think about, and talk about this stuff as a hobby.  None of it has anything to do with my profession. (Keeping this blog separate from my proffesion is a partial explanation, by the way, of why I write under a pseudonym).  I am not a social scientist or a statistician or in politics or in any field that could be remotely tied to these topics.  I’m an amateur hobbyist, nothing more. 

So please consider practically everything I say in this blog to be prefaced with something like, “I may be totally wrong about this, and I’m certainly not as well read as maybe I should be, and I definitely have not done any formal studies or research, but the way I see it is……”

But with that said, Mr. Wagner is correct.  I am judgmental. It comes from being human.  We’re all wired to be that way.  This fact is one of Haidt’s key findings.  It’s part of being The Social Animal that David Brooks describes in his book by that title.  Haidt has described how gossip – being judgmental – is one of the key glues that holds societies together.  So in that sense, yes, I am “judgmental.”  To say that any human is not judgmental is to deny human nature. 

The real question, then, is whether I am fair and honest in the things I say, and whether I’m a jerk in the way I go about saying them.  To that I say this:  I try.  I may not be perfect, I may fail in the attempt, but I try very hard to offer fair, well reasoned arguments for my positions.  I try very hard to avoid ad hominem attacks.  I try very hard to avoid name calling and direct or indirect insults.  Along the way I may step on a “sacred value” of one person or another, or to say it more mildly I may just rub them the wrong way.  What I see as calling a spade a spade, others may see as crossing the line into the realm of insults or “castigating.”   The line is in different places for different people.  It is literally impossible to be on the “correct” side of it every single time with every single person.

I agree with Mr. Wagner’s sentiment about Haidt’s metaphor of tastes. I’ll describe the metaphor I prefer in a minute, but first a little background.

Moral foundations are some of the core elements of fundamental human nature, instilled in us over half a billion years of natural selection so that humans can create “Moral systems [of] interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible. (The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt, page 270)

Of course, nothing is black and white.  Nothing fits an “ideal” definition in a pure way, but even Haidt says that for the sake of discussion the generalizations of liberalism and conservatism are very good first-order descriptions of the two primary world views, or “visions” that exist in the Western world today.  Thomas Sowell describes those visions quite well in his book A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles  Haidt recommends Sowell’s book to those who want to learn more about the differences between liberals and conservatives.

The description of the metaphor I prefer to Haidt’s is this:

1) Moral foundations are the color receptors of the moral eye. The more color receptors one employs the more of the building block of human nature one perceives.

2) Moral foundations are the intuitive senses of the elephant.  They work together to create the elephant’s “gut feel;” its instantaneous, automatic-process reaction of like or dislike, approach or avoid, fight or flee that results from half a billion years of evolution.

3) Moral foundations are the tools of the controlled-process cognition of the rider.  They are the hammer, saw, pliers, screw driver, et al, which the rider uses to process and understand what it perceives – to make sense of the social world around it – and to construct its reasoned arguments of persuasion.   Remember, reason evolved to serve the elephant.  Reason is for winning arguments, it is not for finding the truth (but under rare circumstances it can be used to work toward the truth.)  Only the tools associated with the intuitive senses of the elephant are available to the rider, and in the same proportions. 

In other words, Moral Foundations define the the scope, the limits, of one’s perception, understanding, and prescriptions of and for human nature and the social world.

Moral Foundations define our moral “vision” in every sense of the word.

Haidt and other social scientists – but mostly Haidt, in my opinion – have provided for us a Rosetta Stone for understanding how evolution has shaped human nature.  David Brooks used it to tell the story, in very accessible terms, of The Social Animal that we humans have evolved to become.

Here’s where my judgmentalism starts to come into play.

I honestly, truly believe that the more moral foundations one employs the better understanding one has of human nature and of the social world.  And since the social world is the one in which we humans live, I believe that the more foundations one employs the better grasp one has on reality, and the real-life consequences of our social constructs and interactions.

Successful societies are literally not possible without “all the tools in the tool box” of moral foundations. Throughout all of human history every attempt to build a society on something other than an equal balance of all the foundations has failed, sometimes horribly, genocidally so.  Even small societies like communes fail much more frequently and much sooner when they are built on some subset of moral foundations –usually leaving out the binding foundations – than when they are built on all of them.

We humans are wired to be torn between our individual desires to be autonomous, independent creatures and our need to “suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible” for our own mutual benefit and survival.   The former sentiment – the desire for independent autonomy – comes mostly from what Haidt callse the “individualizing” foundations of care/harm, fairness/cheating, and liberty/oppression.  He calls them “individualizing” because, by definition, they mostly focus on the individual.  The latter sentiment – regulating self-interest to make cooperative societies possible – comes mostly from the binding foundations of loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.   Human nature is a constant tug of war between the individualizing foundations and the binding ones.  Human society is, and always has been, a struggle to find the right balance point between the two.  History, events, advances in scientific and social thought, and technology constantly upset the balance, and we constantly struggle with each other to right it.

Throughout all of human history the societies which have succeeded the most, and which have offered the greatest quality of life to the greatest number of people have been the societies which found the best balance among all of the foundations, and especially between the individualizing foundations and the binding ones.  Societies fail when the balance is upset and one or more moral foundations is allowed to dominate the others.

The vast majority of the societies that have failed throughout human history have been based on the liberal world view; Sowell’s “unconstrained” vision, which is focused almost entirely on the individualizing foundations and essentiall eshews the binding ones (and thus the possibility of regulatign self-interest to make cooperative societies possible).  It is a vision that rests on, among other things, rationality, and “reason,” and the idea that society, and even human nature, can be “managed” to create a new man.  Examples are the French Revolution, communist Russia and China, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany; all of which were collectivist movements which attempted to proactively fashion a new type of society, a new man, based on some variation of the “unconstrained vision” of what human nature should be.

But there is an exception.  There is one society which was, at its creation, firmly grounded in all of the moral foundations; on a real and true understanding of human nature; on an innate understanding of the necessity for “check and balance” among all of the moral foundations if the society is to have any hope of long term survival; where “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

The founders of that society, based on their firm, realistic “vision” of all of the moral foundations, realized that the enemy of liberty is power, and that it was the natural tendency of us “groupish” humans to form into groups and attempt to concentrate power and “circle the wagons” to protect each group’s sacred values.  They also realized that when that happens, the liberty of the minority, of those without power, could be crushed, and so:

The great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. (Federalist 51)

This country, The United States of America, was founded on this firm and realistic “vision” of fundamental human nature; on Sowell’s “Constrained Vision.”  This society, precisely because it was founded on principles of balance among all the foundations, and specifically between the individualizing foundations and the binding foundations, became the greatest society the planet has ever seen, offering the highest quality of life, the most security, that has ever been achieved in the history of mankind.  It was no accident that the civilization which was able to achieve such greatness was founded on the concept of balancing all of the moral foundations.

But the concept of Gemeinschaft and Gesellshaft  is also part of human nature, and it too applies.  At some point, the quality of life afforded by the all-foundation Constrained Vision became part of everyday life.  It became taken for granted; the new normal; the baseline by which life in general was measured.  And it afforded the luxury for the people within the society to relax their focus on the binding foundations and concentrate on the individualizing ones.

Further, because of our values of politeness and respect toward one another and openness “We tend to be hesitant to say other moral viewpoints are wrong, bad, or evil, preferring to be kinder or more ‘correct’, when those negative words can provide a simple, accurate way to describe how a different set of morals feels to us- not just different in a neutral way, but as a violation of moral views we essentially hold to be objective truth.”  We give the benefit of the doubt.  We try to be civil, and let everyone have their say.  We try not to offend each others sensibilities.  We try to let “reason” rule the day.

And in this way the unbalanced, color-blind Unconstrained Vision of liberalism (in all aspects of the metaphor of “vision” I described above) gradually began to take hold, and tilt the balance society toward the left.

And naturally, because as Haidt describes this too is part of human nature, this tilt to the left violated many of the sacred values of the full-spectrum grasp of human nature of the Constrained Vision upon which this society was founded, and the people who subscribe to that vision “circled the wagons” and pulled even harder to their side. In a way, it was almost inevitable, this sorting out along ideological lines that is currently happening in this country, and indeed in the entire western world.

The all-foundation, experience-based, conceptual-minded, community-focused, full moral spectrum, reality-sensing, Constrained “Vision” of conservatism is right.  It is correct.  It is not only the best, but probably the only – as proven by the events of human history, including the combined financial crises of the current day – vision upon which a successful society can be built.   The partial-foundation, reason-based, literal-minded, individual-focused, morally color-blind, reality-challenged, Unconstrained “Vision” of liberalism is wrong.  And in fact, human history shows that policies, practices, and institutions that result from it tend to do more harm than good.

So, if calling a spade a spade means that I am judgmental, then yes, I am most certainly judgmental.


5 thoughts on “Yes, I Am “Judgmental”: An Overview of the Position of The Independent Whig

  1. I didn’t have in mind that radical = liberal. A radical *experiment* is a radical (extreme, fundamental) departure from traditional norms of experience to try something new, indicative of the openness to new experience associated with liberal personality. I’ve mentioned other traits of the Constitution associated with liberalism, including the greatly increased emphasis on the individualizing foundations (especially new or increased protections of liberty and the ideal of equality) and the new curbs put on binding foundations (no state religion or religious test, no mention of God or appeal to his agency, no nobility, etc). Of course there are conservative aspects too. My view is that the Constitution combines conservative and liberal traits. But my point above was only that it’s relevant and helpful to consider these things, not a distraction or bad form of argument.


    Posted by Sanpete | July 19, 2012, 7:46 pm
  2. Sanpete

    I appreciate that you consistently find nuggets of merit within my arguments. Further, as an admitted Haidt “groupie,” I also appreciate your often clear-headed rebuttals to many of Haidt’s critics on Amazon.

    It’s not lost on me, and in fact I very much appreciate, the civility of your critiques of my positions, and the general lack of hyperbole or polemics in all of your writing. I do believe that you exemplify the civility that Haidt admonishes all of us to strive toward. I think it’s no accident that that comes at least in part from the fact that even though you may disagree with many conservative views, you’ve absorbed Haidt’s lessons so that you “get where they’re coming from,” and are thus able to see their positions as resting in something real and legitimate, rather than interpreting conservatives as coming from “Dumb F***istan” as the graphic in Haidt’s first TED talk illustrated.

    Further, your current critique concedes many of my points, which means, in my view, that my main thesis holds.

    Be that as it may, in the spirit of honest critique, I’d like to offer a critique of my own about the parts of your comment in which you disagree with some of my claims. This is a critique of your critiques, as it were.

    A pattern seems (to me) to be emerging from your critiques, both here and on Amazon. Your critiques are amazingly consistent, and thus are becoming a bit predictable. It seems that you quite frequently select from a small number of lines of attack.

    It seems that one of your primary lines of attack is to minimize and trivialize the differences I point out between conservatives and liberals, essentially saying, “Everybody does what you’re talking about to pretty much the same degree, so the difference you see is really no difference at all, and thus you’re point is invalid, or at least weak.” To me, it’s as if you’re saying “Christmas and Hanukkah are both December religious holidays in which gifts are exchanged, therefore there’s really very little, if any, difference between Judaism and Christianity.” To me, this line of attack smacks of moral relativism. Differences matter. They’re not always trivial.

    A second line of attack seems to be to distract the discussion away from the main thesis by criticizing one or two of the sub arguments used to support it.

    Another line of attack seems to be hair splitting. You parse out the sub-argument into what you see as its component parts, (e.g., rationalism vs unconstrained vision), and then attack the component parts separately, ignoring that much of what goes on in the human mind, and in social interaction, and in the social sciences, is very clearly of the nature of “the sum is greater than the parts.” You attack the sub-parts, as if that somehow undermines the sum, when it’s really the sum that matters.

    A fourth line of attack seems to be to impugn interpretations of the facts by conservatives like me and Sowell when those interpretation don’t jibe with the liberal interpretation of, and conventional wisdom about, those same facts, which then leads you to conclude that the conservative argument is factually incorrect.

    A fifth line of attack seems to be to interpret the views you critique as being black and white all or nothing stances with little to no gray area rather than as tendencies and trends as my views generally are (as I’ve described here recently practically as nauseum).

    All of this, in my view, is consistent with what I see as the literal-mindedness of liberalism. There’s too much focus on semantics, supposed technical inconsistencies in logic (and thus implied hypocrisy), and word traps, all the while seemingly ignoring the larger picture; too much listening for opportunities for rebuttal, not enough listening to actually “get,” at a deep level, what the other side is saying.

    So, with those observations as background, rather than allow myself to get wrapped around the axle in a distracting side discussion with you about the veracity of Sowell’s interpretation of the facts, or about whether rationalism can be separated from liberalism, or either of those from the unconstrained vision, or about which foundations were or were not used in the various civilizations large and small that have failed throughout human history, or about whether Fascism is a leftist movement or not, (all positions which I still maintain are defendable with the facts of history) I’ll restate my thesis in broader terms.

    Full-foundation, balance-among-the-foundations (as in check and balance), constrained-vision people like Hume, Burke, Smith, the American Founding generation, Hayak, Friedman, and yes, Sowell have a better, deeper, more realistic understanding of human nature, and thus of reality, than do partial-foundation, unbalanced-among-the-foundations, unconstrained-vision people like Rousseau, Condorcet, Dworkin, Rawls, Keynes, and Krugman.

    The institutions, traditions, customs, habits, laws, and policies which result from the full-foundation world view do more good than harm, and bring a higher level of security and general quality of life, than do the institutions, etc. of the partial-foundation world view, which does more harm than good.

    Hume, Burke, the founders, et al, and conservatism in general are right.

    Rousseau, Rawls, et al, and liberalism in general, are wrong.

    I submit, that in the same way some of the views of Dan Quayle, Larry Summers, and David Sloan Wilson were castigated when first uttered, but later shown to be mostly right (*), I believe that if social scientists are allowed to follow the evidence to the truth and historians are allowed to honestly examine their subject in light of that truth, then my thesis will eventually also be shown to be mostly correct.

    (*) Quayle: (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1993/04/dan-quayle-was-right/7015/),
    Summers (http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt11/haidt11_index.html),
    Wilson (http://www.thisviewoflife.com/index.php/magazine/articles/more-phobic-about-science-conservatives-or-liberals1)


    Posted by TheIndependentWhig | July 5, 2012, 8:59 pm
    • TIW, I think full-foundation, balance-among-the-foundations people have a better, deeper, more realistic ground for understanding those aspects of human nature than do partial-foundation, unbalanced-among-the-foundations people. There’s a lot more to human nature than that, of course, and factors like high partisanship or lack of knowledge of other relevant points can effectively block or limit understanding one might have otherwise, so this advantage has limited implications.

      I don’t think it implies that, say, Hayek or Friedman understood economics better than Keynes or Krugman, which would be the most salient point where they’re concerned. Similarly, it doesn’t follow that full-foundation policies in general, which would have to fit many kinds of facts, would be generally right or better, though they stand a good chance of being better in some particulars. It follows even less that *conservative* policies in general would be better.

      Hayek may be a useful example to illustrate part of what I’m saying. It appears to me he was basically a libertarian in his moral outlook, and from what I’ve seen was much like most other libertarians in being even less balanced than contemporary liberals in regard to moral foundations. If he had insights into economics, it was probably despite his balance of moral foundations, not because of it.

      I don’t think your complaints about my argumentation show any defects in it as it relates to determining truth. The ways I reason are common among conservatives, including you (thankfully), where you find no fault with them.

      As I said at Amazon, and I explained with numerous examples, you see relativism in what I say where there is none. I think your preconceptions about liberals are coloring your perceptions. (Your Hannukah/Christmas analogy doesn’t fit my arguments. I don’t conclude there are no important differences between liberals and conservatives–as you’ve seen, I say vive la difference! Rather I conclude that a particular behavior in question isn’t or may not be a big difference. My conclusion in each case is a claim about objective reality that I base on experience and other facts.)

      I should hope that when I think a conclusion is wrong, and I want to explain why, one thing I do is say what’s wrong with the arguments given for it, including any faulty parts the arguments depend on. Assuming you and others give arguments and their parts for good reasons, i.e. that they aren’t distractions but accurately represent your reasons, my showing why they don’t support your conclusions isn’t a distraction or hair-splitting. I’m not aware of using word traps, and you give no example. My argumentation is analytical, as yours typically is too, but in general that’s not a fault as it relates to objective fact-finding. It may not appeal to everyone, and one can wonder whether fact-finding is always the best thing (for instance in regard to faith). If you think it’s a fault in some particular argument I’ve given, please explain more what you have in mind with that example.

      Regarding some particulars you do mention, your point that fascism is leftist would necessarily involve semantic arguments about what “leftist” means, but my point that the fascist and communist states you cited were excessive in the binding foundations and extremely weak in the individualizing ones has nothing to do with semantics. And it’s directly relevant to your argument. Sowell and Haidt don’t mesh in the way you think they do.

      It’s perfectly legitimate to point out that liberals in general simply don’t have the beliefs Sowell attributes to them. I think liberals are in better position to judge whether they believe something than their conservative critics are, and vice versa. If you think I’m incorrect about what I and most other liberals think we believe, though, please give your factual evidence, or Sowell’s. I think you’ll quickly see that it’s only by focussing on moderate examples for conservatives and extreme examples for liberals that views such as Sowell’s can appear correct. As I pointed out at Amazon, that’s not a fair procedure, and therefore leads to unfair and incorrect results.

      If you say the US Constitution is a conservative document, it’s directly relevant and helpful to point out ways in which it clearly isn’t. It’s not controversial, for instance, that the Constitution was regarded by the founders as a radical experiment. They said so, and everyone else said so.

      I don’t recall when I implied your views are black-and-white. When I said in the previous discussion, “I agree that everyone has some degree of openness, just as everyone values the binding foundations to some degree,” you had just said, “But for the record, openness is a personality trait that everyone has to some degree. Data shows that liberals have it more than conservatives but everyone has it to some extent. A graph of that data would therefore look like the graph of “Care;” higher on the liberal side than on the conservative side but still at healthy levels on both sides.” My point: the graph for openness might well look more like the graph for the binding foundations, with the partisan labels switched.

      What have you said about substantive issues (as opposed to style) that you think I still don’t get? I’d like to get it. I should say I’ve pointed out over time things I’ve said that I didn’t think you got, but I haven’t interpreted that as some special fault of being a conservative. It’s natural in this kind of discussion.

      Liked by 1 person

      Posted by Sanpete | July 15, 2012, 1:21 pm
      • Just a quick comment about one of your statements:

        RE: “If you say the US Constitution is a conservative document, it’s directly relevant and helpful to point out ways in which it clearly isn’t. It’s not controversial, for instance, that the Constitution was regarded by the founders as a radical experiment. They said so, and everyone else said so.”

        It seems that you believe radical=liberal. This is a common misperception.

        The word radical means departure from the norm, which the American Revolution certainly was.

        But even a cursory review of the beliefs of the generations before and after the Revolution, and the principles upon which it was based and upon which this country was founded, reveals all six foundations in more or less equal balance. It also reveals conceptions of equality, justice, and fairness coincident with contemporary conservative conceptions of those ideas. Further, it reveals that “experience was the surest guide” during the Founding.

        For all three of these reasons, and probably more, The American Founding was a conservative movement, and the concept(s) upon which the nation is based are conservative. They also were departures from the norm (i.e., from patronage and birthright) and thus radical.


        Posted by TheIndependentWhig | July 17, 2012, 4:14 pm
  3. I don’t think lack of plain speech is a reason liberalism comes to the fore. Both sides in this country have always been plain in expressing their view that the other side is wrong in every way possible. I agree with you that in times of security the binding foundations tend to be taken for granted, which can lead to a rise in liberalism. I also agree with Haidt that there should be a move in the liberal direction in such periods, to the extent it’s practical. But I don’t think we should take the binding foundations for granted, of course. Teaching some version of MFT in school, as you suggest, might help with that someday.

    Sowell’s historical application of his heavily partisan, unfair and consequently flatly inaccurate notion of liberalism as the “unconstrained vision” doesn’t align with Haidt’s theory of moral foundations in the way you say it does. The fit is actually very bad. The communist and fascist examples you cite all had exceedingly high reliance on the binding foundations, and they were mostly highly deficient in the individualizing foundations. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere (I suppose you saw my responses to you at Amazon), Haidt appreciates Sowell’s critique of rationalism, which is essentially equivalent to the “unconstrained vision.” But liberalism as Haidt explains it, and as it actually exists in history and my direct experience, simply and obviously isn’t equivalent to rationalism or the “unconstrained vision.” Rather rationalism is an extremity liberals are more prone to.

    That distinction is as essential to understanding liberalism and politics as is understanding that conservatism isn’t defined by Jerry Falwell.

    Based on the above, this claim is not only wrong but generally opposite to fact: “The vast majority of the societies that have failed throughout human history have been based on the liberal world view; Sowell’s “unconstrained” vision, which is focused almost entirely on the individualizing foundations and essentiall eshews the binding ones . . . .”

    I agree with this (with the caveat that “best” is necessarily subjective): “Throughout all of human history the societies which have succeeded the most, and which have offered the greatest quality of life to the greatest number of people have been the societies which found the best balance among all of the foundations . . . .”

    I agree with Haidt that this balance requires both conservative and liberal impulses. I agree with his invocation of openness as a moral foundation in every way but name to explain that. And I agree with his implication that liberals who don’t reject the binding foundations are and always have been liberals nonetheless. I can support these views with facts as needed, as I do from time to time!


    Posted by Sanpete | July 5, 2012, 3:29 pm

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