Tag: rhetorical coersion

Constructivism, Social Psychology, and Interlocking Theory (III)

From https://www.zazzle.com/

This is the last in a series of guest posts by Stuart J. Kaufman of the University of DelawareStuart advances a long-running dispute with PTJ about whether “what goes on inside people’s heads” is relevant to social constructionism. PTJ doesn’t think so; Stuart disagrees. The first post can be found here, the second here. You may also download a complete PDF.


None of this is intended to deny the importance of structural insights offered by constructivist analysis. The argument, rather, is that “psychology provides the microfoundations for the motives behind normative behavior and identity change” examined by constructivist analysis (Shannon 2012, p. 14). Rhetorical coercion is an important mechanism, one I suspect underlay the inability of liberals and thoughtful moderates to articulate a resonant alternative to Bush’s “war on terror” narrative. But it is not the only mechanism of importance. As Kowert (2012) argues, norms are socially constructed, but they require that norm-holders both believe that something is right or wrong, and that they care about the outcome at stake. Understanding norms therefore requires understanding the “ideational triangle” of cognition, norms and social construction. I would be inclined to make it a “quadrangle” to include the pivotal influence of emotions.

Furthermore, for many of the issues in which discursive norm-production is important, there is yet another mechanism whose impact cannot be overlooked: the role of social networks. Neither constructivist discourse analysis nor individual or group psychology is very useful for explaining who becomes active in social movements and who does not. To explain who is likely to join a protest movement or a rebellion, we must look to social network theory as articulated most prominently by Tilly (2005, e.g.). The people who join social movements or rebellions are not consistently the people who feel most strongly about the issue at stake a priori; it is the people with the closest personal ties to those already involved. Explaining the rise of social movements, therefore, requires following Tilly’s insistence on looking to the “social appropriation” of existing institutions for social mobilization; to the brokers who create links between diverse social networks; and other similar mechanisms.

The result of taking seriously the importance of all of these different literatures would be a set of interlocking theories in which each piece of the puzzle fit into its neighboring pieces, each mutually supporting the other. Individual-level psychology would provide foundations for assumptions about human motivation and action tendencies—or, more precisely, which motivations are important when—but would then fade into the background as the focus of analysis shifted to social (including rhetorical, social psychological and sociological) mechanisms involved in political life. The role of the theorist is creatively to link the findings of these disparate fields into more or less coherent explanations of specific phenomena, instead of starting from ad-hoc assumptions considered risible in other disciplines. This approach is not too different from what constructivists typically do now, bracketing issues of agency to focus on discursive structure. I am only calling on constructivists to be more psychologically aware in the assumptions they make.

The centerpiece of this approach, then, is to identify when different modes of analysis are appropriate. For example, from a psychological perspective, the hypotheses of bureaucratic politics theory (“where you stand depends on where you sit”) is easily explicable in terms of the well-known mechanisms of socialization, commitment and role assignment. Bureaucrats advocate their organizations’ interests, that is, because it is their job to do so (role assignment), because once having done so, they feel committed to those values (commitment), and because they come over time to be socialized into those values by their senior colleagues.

Furthermore, attention to these psychological mechanisms helps to explain not only when bureaucratic effects are most important, but also when they are less so. For example, Rhodes’s (1994) finding of the insignificance of intra-service rivalry within the U.S. Navy (between airmen, submariners and surface warriors) should come as no surprise, because naval officers’ primary socialization (and training) is into the navy, not any particular “union” within it. Furthermore, Rhodes is analyzing the behavior of Chiefs of Naval Operations, whose role assignment is to advocate the interests of the entire Navy, not their “union”. On the other hand, these same mechanisms suggest that, especially before the 1986 reorganization, the Joint Chiefs of Staff should have fought like cats and dogs along bureaucratic lines, because the mechanisms of socialization, commitment and role assignment all pointed in that direction, yielding in turn cognitive biases and motivated biases all pushing the Chiefs each to defend his own service’s interests and values, as bureaucratic politics theory would suggest.

The same holds true of rational choice theory. While the assumption that people are rational utility-maximizers is almost always false and is often unproductive, there are circumstances in which social psychology would predict such behavior. Institutional behavior is again the clearest example. The mechanisms of socialization, commitment and role assignment yield the expectation not only that bureaucrats will pursue their institutional interests, but that lobbyists will lobby for their employers; and, indeed, individual self-interest is likely to point in the same direction. When individual self-interest does not align with institutional interest, rationalists rightly point out, greed or ambition may trump socialization, leading to shirking or corruption. Rationalists don’t talk about greed and ambition, but as long as those motives accord with assumptions of individual self-interest, the difference does not matter.  Assuming bureaucrats will behave like bureaucrats is not psychologically dubious.

Outside institutional bounds, in contrast, people usually do not act to maximize their material interests in politics because their judgment is at different times driven primarily by fear (explained terror management theory), group identity (explained by social identity theory), bias or prejudice (explained by cognitive bias or prejudice theory), motivated bias (explained by motivational theory), personal connections (social network theory), the desire for self-expression, or a host of other motives.

It seems plain, then, that interlocking theory provides the only way to move forward in international relations and political science, based on using the findings of allied disciplines. In international relations, the answer to the paradigm debate lies in determining under what conditions key actors behave like realists, or liberal institutionalists, or domestic politics liberals. What are the conditioning hypotheses for each theory? Again, a number of different factors play a role, each explaining a different piece of the puzzle. From this point of view, constructivism in international relations functions as a partial metatheory, pointing out that sometimes international actors behave like realists (“Hobbesean” systems), sometimes like international liberals (“Lockean” systems), and sometimes more like liberals in a domestic setting (Kantian systems). The trouble is that constructivist analysis is terribly thin in identifying when each sort of behavior should occur.

Again, social psychology provides a host of suggestions for how to sort these questions out. Realists note that for their theory, fear is the driving force, and indeed, terror management theory essentially explains why people behave like realists when they feel under threat. But when do they feel under threat? Personality has something to do with it, with trust playing a huge role: only relatively trusting people are inclined to behave the way liberal institutionalism would predict (Rathbun 2011). On the other hand, those who are less trusting tend to see the world as a competitive place—a syndrome identified as “social dominance orientation” (Sidanius)—and to respond aggressively to challenge. Ergo, the hypothesis: states led by people with social dominance orientation are likely to behave in realist fashion; those led by more trusting individuals are more likely to act as liberal institutionalists predict. Prejudice also has something to do with it: people are more likely to perceive threat when they hold negative stereotypes of the source of potential threat, and when they have negative emotional feelings about that outgroup. This approach also helps to explain why past behavior matters in some cases but not others: prejudiced leaders will tend to discount evidence of moderation on the part of the target of their prejudice (e.g., Cold War anti-Communists), and therefore act competitively.

To break down a more specific example, asking why the U.S. behaved like a neoconservative sort of realist toward Iraq in 2003 is actually asking a set of distinct questions, each of which has answers in a different area of theory. From an institutional perspective, there were at least three veto players regarding a war with Iraq: the President, his party, and Congress, with Congress’s position in turn partly dependent on public opinion. Therefore, to explain the war, we must explain the positions of all three veto players. First, George W. Bush decided he wanted to invade Iraq for a variety of reasons explained by personality theory (such as his ethnocentrism) and small-group dynamics (e.g., groupthink). Second, his party enthusiastically supported this course due to a combination of prejudice, institutional incentives in the party, and calculations of electoral advantage. The calculations of electoral advantage, in turn, depended largely on intuitive understanding of prejudice and terror management theory—how threat perceptions and anti-Saddam bias after 9/11 drove public opinion to the right on the issue of the war. Finally, as discussed earlier, a combination of constructivist and psychological factors explain why Democrats in Congress felt they had to go along with the Bush “War on Terror” narrative and vote in favor of the war—and why that course was popular with voters.

The final element of truly progressive theorizing, as suggested by these examples, is attention to the balance of counteracting forces. In the astrophysics of stellar stability, all of the interest is in the balance between the gravitational forces holding the star together and the countervailing forces pushing its mass outward. Similarly, almost any problem in contemporary international relations is likely to be driven by some factors emphasized by realism, some emphasized by liberal institutionalism, some by domestic politics liberalism, and some by constructivism. In the battle for public opinion over the Iraq war, for example, international institutional constraints—notably the position of the UN Security Council—were manifestly significant in constraining the march to war, yet were ultimately swamped by other factors pushing the other way. Meaningful theory means thinking about how to measure these counteracting effects, not simply assuming some of them away.

Parsimonious theories of politics are possible, of course, but not parsimonious theories that work. If we want to achieve anything like scientific progress, we need to put aside debates about which paradigm is best, and begin focusing on when each paradigm best applies, to what degree and in which circumstances.

Works Cited
Benford, R. D., and D.A. Snow. (2000).  Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment.  Annual Review of Sociology 26, 611-639.
Cohen, Florette, Daniel M. Ogilvie, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski (2005), “American Roulette: The Effect of Reminders of Death on Support for George W. Bush in the 2004 Presidential Election,” Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 5, no. 1, pp. 177-87.
Cuillier, David, Blythe Duell and Jeff Joireman (2010), “The Mortality Muzzle: The Effect of Death Thoughts on Attitudes toward National Security and a Watchdog Press,” Journalism 11(2): 185-202.
Greenberg, Jeff, Tom Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon, Abram Rosenblatt, Mitchell Veeder, Shari Kirkland, and Deborah Lyon (1990).  “Evidence for terror management theory II: The effects of mortality salience on reactions to those who threaten or bolster the cultural worldview,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58, 308–318.
Haidt, Jonathan (2012)  The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion (Pantheon).
Kaufman, Stuart J., Richard Little, and William C. Wohlforth, eds. (2007), The Balance of Power in World History (Palgrave Macmillan).
Kowert, Paul A. (2011) “Completing the Ideational Triangle: Identity, Choice and Obligation in Interntional Relations,” in Vaughn P. Shannon and Paul A. Kowert, eds.  Psychology and Constructivism in International Relations: An Ideational Alliance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), pp. 30-56.
Ronald R. Krebs and Patrick Thaddeus Jackson (2007), “Twisting Tongues and Twisting Arms: The Power of Political Rhetoric,” European Journal of International Relations 2007; 13; 35
Ronald R. Krebs & Jennifer K. Lobasz (2007): “Fixing the Meaning of 9/11: Hegemony, Coercion, and the Road to War in Iraq,” Security Studies, 16:3, 409-451.
Larson, Deborah Welch (1985)  Origins of Containment: A Psychological Explanation (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
Rathbun, Brian C. (2011) Trust In International Cooperation: International Security Institutions, Domestic Politics, and American Multilateralism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Rhodes, Edward (1994) “Do Bureaucratic Politics Matter?  Some Disconfirming Findings from the United States Navy,” World Politics vol. 47, no. 1 (October), pp. 1-41.
Shannon, Vaughn P. (2011), “Introduction: Ideational Allies: Psychology, Constructivism and International Relations,” in Vaughn P. Shannon and Paul A. Kowert, eds.  Psychology and Constructivism in International Relations: An Ideational Alliance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), pp. 1-29.
Tilly, Charles (2005) Identities, Boundaries and Social Ties (Boulder : Paradigm).
Westen, Drew (2007) The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation (New York: PublicAffairs).
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Constructivism, Social Psychology, and Interlocking Theory (II)

This is the second in a series of guest posts by Stuart J. Kaufman of the University of DelawareStuart advances a long-running dispute with PTJ about whether “what goes on inside people’s heads” is relevant to social constructionism. PTJ doesn’t think so; Stuart disagrees. The first post can be found hereAfter the final post, we will make the entire piece available as a PDF — consider it our first true “working paper” publication.

Since each theory begins with a metatheoretical judgment about human nature, I think the place to start looking for insights is in psychology, which focuses on the empirical questions of how people actually think and feel under what circumstances, and what they tend to be inclined to do. For an example of how psychology can inform constructivism, let us return to Krebs and Jackson’s “Twisting Tongues and Twisting Arms,” which suggests a constructivism based on the notion that rhetoric operates as a sort of coercion. In this very creative piece, they lay out a model in which much of the action of politics comes in the form of rhetorical competitions in which competing forces try to frame issues in terms of societal values that favor their argument. One side wins if the other runs out of plausible responses to refute the implications of its opponent’s frame.

One gap in this argument is that the plausibility of arguments depends fundamentally on pre-existing “rhetorical commonplaces” familiar to the public audience, but in their empirical illustration Krebs and Jackson do nothing to show what the relevant rhetorical commonplaces were before the debate they analyze. In principle, constructivists can do this by sampling the discourse prior to any particular debate to get a sense of what those commonplaces are.

What constructivists cannot do, however, is measure how widely believed and strongly influential those commonplaces are with the relevance audience. This audience is always multiple—divided into subgroups by myriad cleavages. How is the constructivist to know which rhetorical commonplaces are the ones that most powerfully influence the relevant audiences, and therefore demonstrate the power of rhetorical jiujitsu? Krebs and Jackson do so by assumption, picking out one particular rhetorical commonplace in Israel—the notion that those who serve in the military have thereby earned equal rights—to explain why Druze Arabs, who do serve in the Israeli military, have been granted rights other Israeli Arabs have not.

The trouble with this argument is that, even if one retains a constructivist methodology, Krebs and Jackson fail to consider other discourses that may better explain the outcome. For example, perhaps the key point in Israeli discourse is not that the Druze have earned citizenship, but that they have proven their loyalty—their military service proves that they are not a security threat. Much Israeli discrimination against Arab citizens is justified on security grounds. How do we know that the more important reason for the outcome was not that the notion of earned citizenship was unanswerable, but that the notion of Druze as a threat was a non-starter?

The deeper problem is that even if Krebs and Jackson had considered both discursive effects, constructivism offers no way to assess which one was more important, if both were present and prominent. The only way to assess these competing hypotheses is to think more systematically about the interaction between discourse at the social level and attitudes and beliefs at the individual level. In other words, one must resort to the methods of sociological framing theory (e.g. Benford and Snow 2000) that Krebs and Jackson reject—examining the pre-existing beliefs, values, attitudes and perceptions of the audiences (including their perceptions of the credibility and other qualities of the leaders proposing alternative narratives) to explain why some rhetorical moves resonate with different audiences while others do not.

The study of pre-existing beliefs, values, norms, attitudes and perceptions, in turn, leads us back to the realm of political psychology. It is political psychologists who have studied these issues most carefully, and have come to some important conclusions about the power of different discourses with different audiences. One of the most important of these findings is the importance of emotional or symbolic predispositions in influencing attitudes. Some stark examples are in the work of Drew Westen (2007, pp. 107-8). For example, when a group of respondents were asked their views about whether President Clinton deserved to be impeached, 85% of the variance in their answers was predicted by their emotional feelings about the political parties, Clinton, infidelity and feminism as measured in those same respondents six to nine months earlier. When cognitive constraints were added to the model, they increased the explanatory power only to 88%. Obviously these respondents had been exposed to some combination of pro- and anti- impeachment discourses, but their responses varied with their symbolic predispositions.

The basis for my hypothesis about the role of security fears in Krebs and Jackson’s Israeli case comes from another strand of political psychology, the unfortunately named “terror management theory” (see., e.g., Greenberg et al. 1990; Cuillier et al. 2010). In a series of experiments, these scholars have shown that subconscious concerns about death systematically drive political opinions to the right, making respondents more respectful of their own national and religious values and symbols, more favorable to those who praise such values and symbols, more unfavorable toward those with different values of any sort, more punitive toward moral transgressors, more physically aggressive toward those who differ politically, and less concerned with incidental harm to innocents. In a particularly striking study, Cohen et al. (2005) found that respondents who were asked to think about death preferred George Bush over John Kerry by 45% to 20%, while respondents in the control condition preferred Kerry to Bush by 57% to 13%. If this pattern holds up in Israel, then it seems plausible that security arguments against Arab rights are more important than failure-to-serve arguments regarding Muslim and Christian Arabs. Therefore the lack of credibility of such arguments regarding Druze Arabs should similarly be more important than rights-for-service arguments.

The reason that systematic attention to audiences’ actual beliefs and values (as measured in survey research) is so important is that failure to do so makes it too easy for the analyst implicitly to impute his or her own values to the audience. For example, in a generally persuasive and well-executed study, Lobasz and Krebs (2007) show how Democrats were “rhetorically coerced” by the “war on terror” discourse into acquiescing in the Iraq invasion that many of them were uncomfortable with and later opposed. While this positive argument is persuasive as far as it goes, the counterfactual argument is not: the suggestion that the most promising alternative discourse would have been a “jeremiad” arguing that the 9/11 attacks were a reaction to American behavior, and that the U.S. should reform itself rather than launching a crusade in the Middle East.

Lobasz and Krebs, not inattentive to findings in political psychology, note that there are some psychological obstacles to acceptance of the “jeremiad” discursive mode, mentioning in particular the fundamental attribution error. However, they vastly underestimate those obstacles, in particular by overlooking the values widely embraced by conservatives and moderates but not liberals or leftists (Haidt 2012). Most important of these is the value of loyalty. The trouble with the jeremiad narrative is that it leaves the would-be Jeremiah vulnerable to the question: “Whose side are you on, ours or the terrorists’?”

The power of the “war on terror” narrative is further boosted by other psychological effects Lobasz and Krebs overlook. First, any “us against them” narrative draws its power from the ingroup-outgroup effect demonstrated by decades of experiments in the social identity theory tradition. Just making the ingroup-outgroup distinction salient leads to increased stereotyping of the outgroup and increased pressure for ingroup cohesion (adding to the power of the “whose side are you on” question). Second, the credibility of the “war on terror” justification for the Iraq war was enhanced by prejudice—both cognitive stereotypes of Arabs and emotional dislike for them—that was prominent among an important subset of the American population. Third, the terror management effect from the lingering fear of terrorism was simultaneously driving attitudes toward the right on issues of nationalism.

Finally, the jeremiad narrative lacked credibility on the issue of 9/11 itself: even if I believe that most Arabs dislike the U.S. for what it does, not what it is, that does not invalidate the logic of a war on terror. If I make that distinction, I must also make another: most Arabs were not involved in the 9/11 attacks, either. Those that were—the militants of al-Qaeda—were violent extremists who did need to be fought. The only plausible alternative to Bush’s War on Terror, then, was Obama’s later war on al-Qaeda. Many plausible discursive traditions were available to purse this argument against the Iraq war, most importantly the security discourse itself, perhaps stated frontier-style: “You’ve got the wrong man (Saddam) there, Sheriff. We can’t let the real culprit (bin Laden) get away with this”.

My argument, then, is that responsible theory-building requires that we build not only on the findings of those within our narrow academic niche, but much more widely beyond it. For the relationship between psychology and constructivism, there is a whole host of psychological mechanisms—in social identity theory, terror management theory, prejudice and ethnocentrism theory, cognitive dissonance theory, cognitive network theory, etc.—that provide important insights into which rhetorics are most likely to resonate with which audiences and in which conditions. Sociological framing theory additional insights regarding the importance of the credibility of the leader offering a particular frame or narrative, among other factors. All of these considerations widen the scope for agency in constructivist analysis, not only by identifying the psychological tools available for leaders to manipulate, but also by identifying the psychological resources available to audience members in deciding how to respond.

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You Can’t Appease Chris Matthews

If you haven’t heard about or seen the clip of Chris Matthews dressing down one of his guests, a conservative talk show host, you might wan to take a look. Aside from the sheer entertainment value of the thing, it might, maybe, be a turning point for the fall election.

Matthews was in his regular Hardball segment where they have a conservative and a liberal radio talk show host to spin the issue of the day. They were discussing the Foreign Policy back and forth between Bush and Obama. The conservative guest launched into Obama as soon as Matthews started the segment, talking about how Obama would be horrible for the country because he was an “appeaser.” Annoyed, Matthews asked him if he knew what appeasement meant—in particular, what did Chamberlain do that was so wrong in 1938? The guy finally had to admit he didn’t know, and Matthews schooled him on some pre-WWII history. I don’t think the liberal guest got to say any more than when you’re in a hole, stop digging. It is high political theater, or, cable news at its worst.

At the core of the discussion was the deployment of “Appeasement” to delegitimate the foreign policy of an opponent. In this case, the accusation was that Obama’s position to talk to foreign leaders with who the US has policy differences would appease them, weakening the US and emboldening America’s enemies. Appeasement, as the Lesson of Munich, has a long been one of the most important analogies used in defining, evaluating, and legitimizing foreign policy choices. Rodger’s post has an excellent discussion of the use and mis-use of the concept, and I recommend you check it out.

What Matthews did was to call the conservative on his mis-use of the term. Rather than simply allow his deployment of the appeasement trope remain unchallenged, Matthews asked: what was it that Chamberlain did that was so objectionable? Its comical to watch the guest stammer and stall, like a student who hasn’t done the readings for class, before Matthews finally gives the class the answer: Appeasement came not from talking to Hitler, but from giving him half of Czechoslovakia. Talking to the enemy is not appeasement. Giving the enemy what he or she wants with no significant concession in hope that the enemy is thus satisfied, that is appeasement.

The Matthews moment means that it may be, might be harder in the future to use such analogies so far out of context. He created an opening to challenge the deployment of such broad analogies and labels, and has forced those who want to use labels such as appeasement to augment their statements by adding the offending act. Now, this could all be for naught, if everyone lets it drop, but it could also be a subtle but important shift in the way this powerful label is used. To pass the Matthews test, anyone on his show now needs to show the dangerous concession. Matthews had defined a rhetorical space in which simply talking to another actor cannot constitute appeasement, and anyone who tries to suggest as much will look like a fool.

Now, this is by no means guaranteed. Matthews could let it drop (but I doubt it, given his tenacity on issues such as this). Moreover, MSNBC has become a much more important player in election coverage (really, its gotten quite good. Olberman is in rare form, Matthews is always fun, and its impossible to top Rachel Maddow). So, if Obama’s opponents want to deploy the appeasement label for him, they are going to have to figure out how to go on Hardball and make it stick. Otherwise, the attack loses some of its steam.

Yet another reason that MSNBC has become must-see TV.

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Winning the other War of Ideas

Sorry for the lack of posts recently, I’ve been sick all week and finally feel like myself again this afternoon, so I’m going to try to catch up on a few things that I had meant to mention but….

First off: A must read from last Sunday’s NYT (I had actually started the post earlier, but only typed 2 lines before I started coughing).

So, to all those who thought that the US needed to do a better job in winning the “war of ideas,” it turns out that the US is doing a fantastic job—just targeting a different audience. Last Sunday’s NYT has a fascinating bit of investigative journalism on the cozy to insidious relationship between expert military analysts employed by major media organizations and the Pentagon’s public affairs team. In a nutshell, the Pentagon treated the retired senior officers acting as media analysts as its behind enemy lines information warriors, in place to shape the story of Iraq. Whenever bad information was reported, the Pentagon fed these analysts talking points which were then repeated on air or in print. What makes it really seamy is that these analysts were treated to first-class access to the upper echelons of DoD and used that access to advance their consulting gigs, helping to win contracts. DoD also paid big bucks to a media monitoring firm to track each and every media appearance of its team of analysts to monitor its efforts.

Now, a military friend of mine was not at all surprised by this–his reaction was duh, why wouldn’t they at least try this. I think the surprise is the extent of the effort, the blatant payoff in contracts for customers (sort of a play to get paid), and the monitoring and resulting swift retribution for those going off message.

Some seem to think this is more arrogance by the Administration, but my reaction was that smacks of insecurity even more.

Bush likes to analogize himself to Truman—a president who did what he thought was right, ended up rather unpopular as a result, but was vindicated by history. The key difference now exposed is that Truman never wavered in his forthrightness with the American people. Truman was vastly unpopular in 1948 as well, and yet still managed to defeat Dewey (famous photo to the contrary), because when he campaigned on the merits of his actions, his honest, forthright, and persuasive arguments carried the day. What we now see is that this administration has no honest, forthright, and persuasive arguments to offer the American people on the war with Iraq. Rather, it seeks to define the rhetorical terrain in the media in its favor because it knows that it can’t win on a level playing field, as its unvarnished arguments have little merit and even less persuasive value to the public at large.

Really, though, you should read the article and judge for yourself.

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