Activism, and Whether I Do It

My pal Monica Byrne (who is, incidentally, a fabulous writer), asked me the other day if I would consider myself an activist, and if so, would I call myself one publicly. It was an interesting question, especially since I’m at least partly known for having strong political and social opinions, and sharing them via this blog and other outlets.

My answer to her was no, I don’t really consider myself an activist. The reason I gave her was pretty straightforward: I’m too lazy. Which is to say that while I have my beliefs and principles and largely follow them (sometimes imperfectly), and will happily tell others what those beliefs and principles are, the sort of committed action that to me defines activism — and the continued proselytization for a belief that activism often requires, including the desire to inspire others to take moral action — is not something I usually undertake.

There are other reasons for this besides laziness, including work and the desire to have other interests in my life, but laziness really is a large part of it. Activism is work. I’m glad other people do it, and admire their effort. But it’s not something I put much effort in.

But you write here all the time on political and social topics! Yes I do. But this is not a blog for activism, it’s a blog for whatever I feel like writing — or, when I’m writing a book as I am now, what I have time for writing. The blog is like me; all over the place and a bit pixelated. This is not to say people I would consider activists only do activism. They do other things too, of course; the people who only do one thing all the time are (I would submit) maybe a lot to have to deal with. But I would certainly say activists commit more of themselves and more of their time to activism than I do. Blog posts and retweets do not an activist make.

After my chat with Monica on the topic, I came up with another reason why I don’t call myself an activist, which is that many of the causes I find myself agreeing on and writing about are ones that I don’t consider my primarily fight to fight. For example, for more than a decade, here and elsewhere, I was (and am!) a vocal proponent of same-sex marriage in the US, and I was thrilled and happy when it was made the law of the land. Was I an activist for the cause? Well, as a straight person, I’m not sure it was my place to be so. I can say I was active for it, surely. But declaring myself an activist for it (aside from the fact of the laziness mentioned above) seems sort of usurp-y. I didn’t need to be seen leading or directing the course of that particular parade. It wasn’t my parade to lead. I was just happy to march in it.

Likewise for women’s issues, or issues involving people of color, or trans issues, as examples, all of which I’m interested in, and have opinions on, but which ultimately don’t have me as their focus as a white cis male. I have an ego, to be sure. But I don’t think I need to pull attention to myself in these fights. I’m happy to stand with, not in front of (and hopefully not get in the way of, which could be a thing if I’m not paying attention).

Which brings up another point, which is that very often activism seems to come out of the well of having no other choice — that in some cases if you’re not an activist, you’re going to get steamrolled by the dominant culture. And, well, you know. I’m pretty much aware that in the US, I’m in the dominant culture, and quite bluntly I get to pick and choose what political and social issues I get to be involved in, and how deeply. And when I get fed up, I get to say “later,” and go write or play video games or just disappear. I have the luxury of engagement, or not. I suspect that for a lot of folks, to declare myself an activist when I can bail whenever I feel like it would be exasperating.

(There are activist issues not specifically related to racial/gender/sexual identity, of course — tech and politics and religion and so on and so forth, where your average white straight male isn’t necessarily pulling focus. Very few of these engage me to the extent that activism on the subject calls to me.)

I’d note that this is all about whether I would consider myself an activist; other people might have other opinions, either in a positive sense, or in a negative one. Surely every time someone labels me a “social justice warrior,” for example, they pretty much implicitly accuse me of being an activist, and one for issues they don’t like. And three things here: One, I don’t mind; two, fuck ’em; three, it still doesn’t make me an activist in my own mind.

If someone else wants to consider me an activist, for whatever reason, I couldn’t stop them if I wanted to, and I don’t. I do hope whoever they are, they know I’m destined to disappoint them somewhere down the road. I’m inevitably going to fail whatever standard they have for activism, in no small part because I’m not even achieving my own standard for it.

Again, it’s not to say that I’m not often engaged on many issues. I am. At the end of the day, though, to my mind, what makes an activist is commitment to a cause and the commitment to change the hearts of others, and possibly the course of history. I’m happy to speak my mind and if my words make people think, and sometimes even think differently than they did before, then that’s great. But I don’t know if that’s enough to consider myself an activist for any one cause. I think I’d have to do more than I do. And who knows? Maybe one day I will. We’ll see.

39 thoughts on “Activism, and Whether I Do It

  1. thomasmhewlett:

    Possibly, although I think that’s a word that you don’t get to give yourself; the people you ostensibly ally yourself with have to give it to you.

  2. I often wondered reading history if I’d be a person who marched for other people’s rights. Now I know that I’m not. Laziness is part of it, but the majority of it is fear. Maybe I would have been less fearful as a college student, but now I have children and I’m just not brave enough.

    So the only small activism I do these days is writing letters to congresspeople who won’t listen and giving money to causes that I hope will do my fighting for me. It’s not enough.

    It is, of course, privilege, that allows me to be more fearful of the consequences of putting myself out there than the consequences of not doing so. But if I had even more privilege, I wouldn’t have to fear the former either. It’s a horrible irony that those who are in the most danger are the ones who do the most activism, because they’re the ones most at risk from the problem to begin with.

    It’s not fair.

  3. John, I understand completely. I have thought the same thing about myself. I certainly can’t give the commitment that would be necessary for me to consider myself an activist. I will have to stick with giving whatever support I can, when I can.

  4. I see your point about not wanting to grant yourself the title “ally.” Like beauty, allyship (alliance? not sure which variant is right) is in the eye of the beholder.

    That said, I do think you could absolutely describe yourself as “aspiring to be an ally” or “striving to be an ally” with complete accuracy. Because that’s what I see you doing, and to be honest, that’s the best I can say for myself.

    I’ve participated in demonstrations and marches, have orchestrated letter-writing campaigns, and I regularly donate to activist organizations, but that doesn’t make me an activist. I try to use my privilege to leverage outcomes that other less-privileged folks encounter greater challenges to achieve, but at the end of the day, I still go home to my safe house and my safe bed and my comfortably-filled larder. I don’t take the risks that a true activist does.

    But I can and do strive to earn the title “ally,” just as I see you doing, both in your words here and in your actions. And if we’re not cut out to be activists, aspiring and working to be a good ally is still a worthwhile goal.

  5. How about writers’ rights? You went out of your way to run for SFWA President and put up with a lot of guff, without pay, to lead and advance the position of that organization on digital rights into the 21st century.

  6. And yet, I devoutly maintain that our sophisticated society was built by lazy men. Yes. Lazy. Men. Why? Well, sometime in the distant past some lazy man was sitting in the shade complaining about being asked to go get more water from the river. He said “The river? It’s far, and it’s hot and I just went like… two days ago.” Then he sat around in the shade a while longer muttering “There’s gotta be a way, like maybe a long hollow bone or tube or something…” Then, because he was lazy, he went and built some crazy overly complicated mechanism to bring water to the cave, and everyone else immediately said they could do it better, ripped off the idea, actually made it better, and developed a bunch of variants. Upon discovering that his own laziness had been surpassed, the lazy man invented Intellectual Property lawyers and they spawned bureaucrats and then there was something about a Great Flood to destroy all of that.

    But lazy men couldn’t be bothered to come down off their porches, so they survived even without an Ark. And that’s how we got to modern technology.

    So I say: revel in your laziness sir! You are on the path to building a Better World ™!

  7. I think this is a pretty mature and accurate self-assessment. I say that as someone with a lot of opinions and a lot of laziness myself.

  8. This is pretty much where I’m at as well. I did attend some peace activist rallies in DC in my college days (mumblety) years ago. Since we weren’t fighting any actual wars at the time, they were pretty low key affairs and I was hardly the only student who’d show up, mingle a bit, talk to some of the other folks there, express support and then take off to go sight seeing.

  9. Not an ally? Not an activist? @Scalzi, I see what you’re saying, and yet I think you’re giving yourself (and others) a disservice or a misnomer. See, you’re willing to speak out publicly, to stand up for something. Many people never do that. OK, I’m not an activist either, by the same reasoning you give. But I make occasional comments to others, in person or online, about what I believe in. Often, this is because I’m frustrated at the status quo and want change. Often, it’s because I’m affected, or someone I care about is affected. Am I an ally? Oh, gosh, I hope so.

    @Scalzi – John, I think you know that being an ally, striving for something you believe in, speaking up about it, standing up, publicly by your speech and writing – that’s important. It’s one of the reasons to become a writer or a journalist, an English major, for instance. But more to the point – It’s urgent for some people to have allies, folks who are friendly and speak out, even if they themselves are not part of that community. It helps immensely to change opinions, if someone outside that group can speak up for them.

    We’ve seen, just this month, how very far we still have to go on many of the issues you said you’re concerned about. Equality for folks who are not so white. Acceptance and equality for folks who are not so straight. Religious tolerance within and outside of some religion or other. Equal rights and wages for women. A fair chance for people who are poor or working class, single parent families, and so on. Accessibility and equality for folks who are “differently abled.” (Yes, I’m handicapped. Yes, I’m differently abled. There never seems to be a good enough euphemism to cover that, or my particular handicap.) This month alone, we’ve seen so much that still needs to change, in order for our country and our world to be fair and equal and at peace.

    More than one of those issues affect me directly, as I’m part of this or that group. It worries me to have seen progress in my lifetime, yet recently, regressive backlash. Therefore, we need people who are friendly, who are allies, who are willing to stand up, speak up, write and challenge others, who might not be in that affected community, but who understand and support folks in that community. By doing so, allies help change the minds and feelings of others outside a given group and influence others to change their views and act, either in their personal and professional lives, or by supporting social changes in the community at large, policies, laws, customs, whatever there is.

    As long as there are people going through the same hardships and nonsense, the same emotional, physical, financial troubles that people like them did 50 or 25 years ago, then we still really urgently need allies and people within the community to work for change.

    I hope I’m an ally. I don’t really consider myself an activist. But I do try to speak up from time to time. In a world that gets so dysfunctional, so messed up, we really need people who try to make it better.

    Is being friendly, an ally, enough? Well, it’s a heckuva lot better than being hostile, hateful, and destructive, lemme tell ya.

    Also – I don’t know for sure what my parents would have made of some of the changes in our world since they’ve been gone. But I do know this: They were very right on some things, and very wrong on others, and I still live with that, in how they raised me, the successes and mistakes they made in that, and how I try to overcome those things, good or bad, in my own life today. That too is how we change. I struggle with this one personally a lot, because that’s my own personality, and it’s how I was raised, and yet, I see the need to be different than that, because that’s what I believe is right. And I admit, there are times I struggle with figuring out what is right or wrong, what to believe. But that is part of change too.

  10. In many countries, simply speaking your mind is considered activism. The inquisition used to prosecute people saying the earth was round.
    So maybe it’s just a different form of activism?

  11. Even if you have an attribute that puts you in particular group that needs activism, and even if you agree that it needs activism, it doesn’t automatically turn you into an activist.

    Most have the option to commit to the cause, or take a less active role. And being an activist isn’t necessarily “hard work”. Some times it’s the fun stuff you do because your friends are doing it, and it lets you spend time with them. You remain tethered to your “real life” (and activism isn’t it). Once the situation changes, and your friends are no longer there to draw you in, you may find that what seemed like fun before really is work.

    Back in my activist days, I got my name in the paper a few times. In the university yearbook, too. I collected a lot of mementos of my days near the center of some important local events. I can visit my alma mater and see evidence of profound positive changes beyond my wildest imaginings that rippled from those events. I recently packed up my collection of documents and artifacts, and I donated them to the university library.

  12. Well argued as always. Speaking personally your articles on ‘lowest difficulty setting’ and poverty redefined the way I thought about those things. So though not an activist you certainly have a strength in influencing. Long may it continue.

  13. I have been an activist on some stuff, for the reason you gave, and I would say you are an activist for anti-poverty issues, for LGBT rights in America, and for feminism (and definitely an ally) but you are on the low end of the activity scale. You raise awareness, you are politically engaged and thus give visibility of these issues to your local politicians (even if they subsequently ignore most of it, but that is on them not you) and you provide a safe haven on your website for people who do have to step up and fight because there is no choice. None of that should be discounted as activism or ally-dom. I mean, sure you are not going to the barricades over it, but not everybody has to (be nice if everyone did once in a while, but it’d be nice if I had a pony too) and there are other ways to make a difference. There is nothing wrong with being a low activity activist either, because frankly most people out there are a no activity person. In my country, if we could get even half the population to do as much as you, we’d be most of the way there to solving a lot of problems. IYSWIM.

  14. As with other forms of identity, no one gets to say whether or not the label applies except oneself.

    And, as with other forms of identity, whether or not a person chooses to identify that way isn’t a relevant criteria for most situations.

    For example, I don’t identify as a woman (but could if I chose and that would be my choice to make); but whether or not I do, it isn’t relevant for whether or not I can look after children, or run for office, &c.

  15. I can very much identify with the “Not an activist; too lazy” view. Activism seems to me like something that requires a lot more dedication and time than simply holding an opinion and mentioning it occasionally. Activism seems to define, well, activity. And I make my life choices, and “devote a lot of time and effort to advancing an important political cause” is something I’ve decided against, at least for the present time.

    I’m less down with your view that you need to be personally at the center of a cause in order to be able to be an activist for that cause. That one doesn’t make much sense to me. Can an ally not help out in a Pride Parade? Can a man not help write or design or publicize anti-harassment initiatives? Were there no white abolitionists?

    It’s very true (and I think this is a fairly recent insight, relatively speaking) that allies need to take care not to overwhelm, undermine, or supplant the voices of the actual people they’re trying to help. That might make it harder to be an activist; specifically, it means that to be a good activist, you need a lot of caution, awareness, and humility.

    But to say that you can’t be an activist if the cause isn’t about you seems… wrong.

    You can be an activist who sticks to the sidelines. You can be an activist who specializes in making use of allies to make inroads where the people you’re helping can’t yet tread on their own. And, hey, you can be a bad activist; that’s a thing too. The point is, I wouldn’t rule it out of the definition, because I don’t really see how it makes sense to define whether or not you’ve done something by whether you’ve done it for your own cause, or for somebody else’s.

  16. You’re an activist if you’re wiling to be arrested for the cause. If that’s a step too far, then you’re a sympathizer and possibly a donor. And that’s fine. But it’s important to realize the difference.

  17. John, you raise the really thorny issue of appropriation* versus activism. Not a simple one or one with a simple answer, but perhaps a simple answer will point us in the right direction: Appropriation is when the action is really all about you, and puts you front and center at the expense of those who will benefit from the activism.

    * Literary appropriation is something else entirely, and I’d love to see your thoughts on that matter in a future essay. Or import someone to write about the topic from their perspective.

    If it’s not about you, then you’re being an activist and an ally, and allies are important: those who benefit most from activism are often disempowered and cannot hope to have their voices heard without help from white male cis hetero etc. etc. members of the majority like me and thee. Our role, as the privileged ones, is to fight hard to make space for the voices of those who otherwise would not be heard… and then step aside and let their voices be heard**. That fighting can be literary or it can be getting out to the barricades and getting arrested… or a wide range of activities in between. From each according to their means…

    ** You do this with your “big idea” space in this blog. I can imagine you offering space to brilliant and eloquent voices like Mikki Kendall who could benefit from a larger audience.

    You’ll still be castigated by the more extreme voices on the appropriation side of the debate, but as you note so eloquently, “fuck ’em”. Do the right thing and let the sensible majority judge you on that basis.

    Meanwhile, lately I’ve been thinking of maybe resurrecting the Underground Railroad, in which my home city of Montreal was a prominent terminus. I can’t imagine how Black men in the U.S. wake up every day wondering whether they’ll be gunned down by an agent of the state for the crime of being Black, and it breaks my heart every time I try. Or how Black women cope with the fear that their male loved ones will be the next headline. But that’s all about me. The Railroad? Sign me right up; I’ll shovel coal for the steam engine if need be. Not like we’re perfect up here, of course, but at least we’re trying.

  18. In my mind, writing the occasional righteous blog post doesn’t make you an activist. Giving significant resources (money & time) to a further a cause does.

  19. Magda says “You’re an activist if you’re wiling to be arrested for the cause.” I would agree.

    “Advocate,” perhaps, speaking as someone who has been more than slightly influenced by some of what I’ve read here…

  20. I was just thinking through some of the implications of the words “activist” and “ally” the other day, and it’s fascinating to read your take on it. I think you’re dead right that there are some fights where, being a part of the dominant culture, it feels like appropriating someone else’s voice to get too loud about it. Not to say that we shouldn’t lend our voices, but allowing the ones actually implicated in the fight to lead it feels important.

  21. Far from being an activist, I am a middle-of-the-herd guy who doesn’t even notice things until several around me toss their heads up and begin snorting. Let me talk just a sec about motorcycles and how the wind affects us riders (oooh, and how I love to mix metaphors to death!)

    You ride with a high wind to your back? Life is great: perfect gas mileage, the world moves with you, and you sing with the tumbleweeds. Ride against the wind? You’re in hell: gas tank goes a quarter of the distance, wind beats you, I’ve even had my side mirrors blown loose driving into habibs. So riding is pleasant or brutal depending on the fickle winds. Here’s the thing though: we motorcyclists always wave at each other (even police bikers). Maybe its a herd thing but that’s my point.

    I’m not trying to trivialize but to me riding with the wind seems something like white male privilege while riding against the wind seems something like what most everybody else gets? I’m not happy saying this, I’m just communicating by points I understand. Riding with/against the wind allows me see things from different points of view, but all of us motorcyclists wave at each other anyway, maybe to be more healthy.

    Activist or ally, its why people at the very least need to communicate. Perhaps activist means communicating with a megaphone instead of lying down and taking it, and perhaps being an ally means waving a hand and believing/sharing with what the other must be experiencing.

  22. I think “activism” is a spectrum and agree with the comment above re: low-activity support still qualifying. That’s all I can manage myself – a slight push here and there to help raise the visibility of causes I support, and sending money when I can. It is akin to signing an online petition or responding to an automated “write your congressperson” campaign. It is one step, or at most two, up from merely retweeting or “liking” somebody else’s post.

    Giving money to the State Parks association is low-activity, participating in a parks clean-up day is high activity, but both qualify as support. To me, if someone is zero-activity and ONLY does the retweets or the “likes” that person is not an activist; she just wants to be seen as being an activist. Someone who actually puts time or money on the line is a legitimate activist.

  23. John, I’m a political scientist who, among other things, studies both political behavior and social movements. I find your question fascinating. Studies (even some of my own!) have shown that there’s certainly a discrepancy between self-identification as an activist in a given cause and actual activism in that cause. By my count, you’ve contributed money to several causes and—even more significantly—prompted donations by other people to causes you’ve supported. That alone would make you an “activist” by standard political science definitions of the term. Further, you’ve used this platform to argue for/against particular political issues. That’s also a marker of activism according to political scientists. Chaichai is right that activism is a spectrum rather than a binary variable. But I suspect that people are likely to see activism as dichotomous. One is or one isn’t.

    I’m interested in understanding why some people consider themselves to be activists and others do not—even when they’ve all performed activities designed to advance a particular cause. I suspect that some types of political behavior are more likely to be understood as activism than others, notwithstanding what political scientists have to say. (Because who really cares what we think, anyway?) But your conceptualization of insider-outsider may also play an important role.

    This question has been floating around in my head for a while now, but I think I’ll move it up on my list of projects. So thank you for inspiring me! Now, though, I need to get back to thinking about transformative events in social movements….

  24. I agree that being an activist requires doing something besides just talking. For the most part, at least. I know of some sites and establishments that help some group by doing nothing but providing a safe space to talk or to speak to their plight. If they did nothing else, I would still consider them activists. They often do more, but sometimes “doing something” for a group can be as simple as talking with them or facillitating communication among them.

    I dont agree with the idea that you have to be a member of the wronged group to be an activist fighting for that group being treated equally. Its certainly common that it works out that way, but, certain minorities are such a small sliver of the population that if only members could be activists, they would not be able to achieve nearly as much as they could compared to if they have open ranks.

  25. I feel like there’s a huge difference between an advocate and activist. I consider myself the first, but not the second. I advocate for a lot online and at conventions, but rarely go outside of writing, social media, and public speaking. I think advocates are just as important though. :)

  26. I’m not an activist for the same reasons: I’m lazy, and I’d rather spend my time doing other things (like reading and writing). If anything, I feel it’d be disingenuous to call myself an activist.
    Perhaps I might also add that I don’t think members of certain communities (POC, women, LBGTQ+, disabled, etc.) should necessarily HAVE to be activists, although I – an autistic, anxiety-ridden, pagan-ish, mostly-lesbian transgender woman – am certainly grateful for those who are active for my rights and for those others. I just don’t see it as an obligation, because I personally would rather write and create other forms of art than spend the time required by activism.

  27. You’ve pretty well described my own position. I don’t consider myself an activist just for signing online petitions and donating money to causes. At best, that makes me a sympathizer or an advocate (both terms I like from commenters upthread).

    Ally? I just found a pretty good illustration of that — a white man who saw 5 cop cars surrounding one black man in a car, and he pulled over and stopped and watched, cellphone in hand, and the cops one by one got back into their cars and left. That fits one of my definitions of being an ally: being willing to put yourself at some risk to witness for a person in danger.

    Lately I’ve been engaging in pushback on social media when people I know say something problematic, or post a questionable meme. (“All lives matter”? REALLY? You know better than this!) I still don’t consider that activism, but I do consider it no longer letting my silence fool people into thinking I agree with them, and that’s something.

    I used to have an ongoing fight with my parents back in the 70s, where they’d say, “You can’t change the WORLD!” and I’d say, “No, but I can change the little bit of it that touches me — and if enough of us do that, the world WILL change.” I still believe that.

  28. You’ve pretty well described my own position. I don’t consider myself an activist just for signing online petitions and donating money to causes. At best, that makes me a sympathizer or an advocate (both terms I like from commenters upthread).

    I’ve seen this referred to as “clicktivism”,

  29. I have the luxury of engagement, or not. I suspect that for a lot of folks, to declare myself an activist when I can bail whenever I feel like it would be exasperating.

    I had a professor in college who said something similar about whether a man could truly be a feminist. His perspective was that without the personal ‘skin in the game’ men couldn’t fully be a part of that movement, no matter how much they agreed with the principles or that feminism was good for everyone.

    I’m kind of on the fence about that, same as I am the above claim that you’re not an activist unless you’re willing to get arrested. There’s something for measurements with a bright line about personal sacrifice, but I think that one is a little too basic. There’s a pretty broad spectrum of experience when it comes to getting arrested. What it would cost me to get arrested at a protest, as a well-off middle-aged white dude in a desirable profession, is a lot less than it would a person of color. So even there our engagement isn’t the same.

    Plus, why should entering the justice system count for more than, say, taking a less lucrative career path to work on an issue? Is someone who forgoes a six figure partner salary to be a public defender less deserving of ‘activist’ than I am if I go out one day and sit in the middle of a road then post bail which I can easily afford? John Lewis may never get arrested again now that he’s a Representative; do old arrests stop getting you credit at some point? Was his recent sit-in, which it was almost impossible for him to get arrested for, not activism?

    Labels are interesting, if limited.

  30. A blut truth. I like that. I know that there are so many of us who love to speak out their opinions, but truly just don’t feel like getting into it that much. It’s more about expression than action.

    Your post got my eye straight away! It was an interesting read.

  31. For another take on the notion of appropriation, I’ve stopped calling myself a “feminist”. Most people evaluate me based on how they perceive my behavior, without prejudging, and that’s the way I like it. But I’ve experienced (in person or in writing) enough feminists who don’t like men calling themselves feminists (because of issues of appropriation or “no skin in the game”) that I’ve simply stopped. If forced to label myself, I now use the phrase “female chauvinist” if I’m looking for a laugh or “feminist ally” if I’m trying to be serious*. Both largely mean the same thing as “feminist”, but don’t push the “appropriation” button and therefore allow dialogue that might otherwise not happen.

  32. There’s a saying that ‘you don’t take an interest in politics, politics takes an interest in you’.

    Typically, if you don’t have the fire in your heart to step away from your computer, it’s because politics hasn’t taken an interest in you. Not everyone is that lucky.

    Also, you don’t need to be fighting the good fight over large-scale social change. You can be an activist in your local community, whether at a child’s school or even over a dangerous traffic light. These are the sorts of issues where politics takes an interest in apolitical people, and where one small campaign can make a big difference.

  33. This post makes me want to do two things.

    1. Petition and lobby the town of Bradford to add a 1%er surtax (well high enough so its only Scalzi) of 20% or so on income. Support the underprivileged and poor people in rural Ohio. Tax the 1%.

    2. Hack Pokemon Go and put vast numbers of Pokemons on the Scalzi compound then make it go viral. Then in the viral posting say that anyone who catches a Pokemon on or near the Scalzi compounds gets a free autographed copy of Scalzi’s latest ARC.

    Lets see if we can get him to be an activist then.

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