1. Feo Takahari
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    Feo Takahari Active Member

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    Complexity, stereotypes, and variation (spun off from "relationship dynamics" thread)

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Feo Takahari, Jan 24, 2016.

    @LostThePlot said in another thread that a complex character cannot be a stereotype. This is a very interesting statement, one I both agree with and think can easily be misused, and rather than derail the initial thread, I wanted to fully discuss it in another one.

    To begin with, I want to give a personal example to show where I agree with LostThePlot. I have one character, a college student studying filmmaking, who has an evil spirit living in her head that feeds off her fear. She can't prove this to anyone else, and the spirit itself contributes to her fear that others will think she's crazy, so she spends most of her time alone and doesn't really know how to talk to other people. The spirit is intimidated by older and larger spirits, so old-growth tree groves are among the few places where she's relatively safe from its manipulations. In her attempts to figure out what this thing is, she's studied and combined a wide variety of mystical traditions, trying anything that might provide her some relief. She also falls in love with both the boy who wants to help her and the mysterious girl who keeps appearing in her dreams, which is partly plot convenience on my part.

    String it all together, and you've got a young bisexual eclectic pagan girl who's shy and loves nature, which is really, really stereotypical. But I don't think she's a bad character, and there isn't anything I want to change about her. She's a person who mostly has reasons for the way she acts, and the things that don't have a reason at least add up to cute romantic scenes.

    But representation is about more than stereotypes, and in order to explain what I mean by that, I need to bash on the video game Persona 4. Almost every character arc in the game follows a specific pattern: character's desires are suppressed by society -> character lashes out to a greater or lesser degree -> character learns to understand those desires and accepts that they have them -> character puts away those desires and is happy with their social role. On their own, most of those arcs are remarkably well-written, easily some of the best writing I've ever seen in the JRPG genre. But put together in a single game, with the same message repeating over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over, it feels increasingly ham-fisted. I began to long for some acknowledgement that society isn't always right and suppressing your desires isn't always the best choice.

    Kanji, a macho punk who's heavily implied to be gay or bisexual, came as a relief because the writers couldn't completely box him in. It's one thing to acknowledge your desires and set them aside, but Kanji is afraid that even having his desires makes him a fraud and a false man, and it wouldn't make sense to have an ending where he stays in exactly the same place he was at the beginning. At the end of his arc, he proudly admits . . . that he likes knitting. (He still winds up paired with a girl who crossdresses, and the writers make sure to emphasize that she identifies as a girl, not a trans guy.)

    Honestly, Kanji is just the beginning of what I see as true diversity. He's a Fox News Liberal, a bone thrown to the other side of the argument to keep from having to give it any meat. To me, diversity isn't a checkbox or a token, and it's not necessarily about things like race or sex. It's about taking the tidy little picture you've painted of a harmonious world where everyone thinks like you do, then pulling on the frame so hard the picture itself expands and you can see all the chaos you shunted off to the side. It's about admitting that people exist who aren't like you, and that your message may not mean the same thing to them as it does to you, then showing that within your story with people who come from different backgrounds and are headed to different places.

    Thoughts? I'm not sure if I'm really expressing what I'm trying to say, or if I made a wrong turn somewhere.
     
  2. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think you've got an excellent point about having to look at a work as a whole, rather than just at an individual character.

    Like, a female character in the "carer" role, no matter how complex her motivations, will feel like a stereotype if every other female character in the book is also a carer, but might not feel like one if other female characters are more diverse.

    I'm not sure if this is logical, but it's a true representation of my reactions, I think.
     
  3. Inks
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    Inks Contributing Member

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    The latter half of your argument with Persona 4's theme makes it clear that you did not get the cultural message. Your conclusion about Kanji is pretty off as well.

    When you consider the purpose and nature of stereotypes, you have to admit that they are based on truth that has been warped by cultural perceptions. They are generic or placeholder ideas. When developing a character, the whole person needs to be considered, but it would be improper to portray everyone as special snowflakes in an environment filled with prevailing stereotypes. Those stereotypes fall away fairly quickly when they stop being relevant and are replaced with different ones - since that is how it goes.
     
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  4. Duchess-Yukine-Suoh
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    Duchess-Yukine-Suoh Girl #21 Contributor

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    Hey there! I agree that more complex characters among minorities are needed. However, I have to raise a complaint about your complaint. Persona 4 is a Japanese game, written by and about Japanese people. While gender roles in Japan are certainly less strict than they have been in the past, they are still stricter than western norms. It's even considered unusual to have an opposite-gender best friend. A girl who plays a lot of sports, is especially outgoing, or plays video games is labeled a "tomboy", and being tomboy is usually seen as a bad thing. These gender norms are even stricter for guys. So, Kanji accepting that he can like feminine things is not the creators trying to throw LGBT+ a bone, but falling flat. It's a real issue. Do LGBT+ people need more positive, complex, representation? Absolutely! But straight men can like feminine things and be feminine, and people can even crossdress without being LGBT. And in some countries (i.e. not America) that's still an important message.
     
  5. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm troubled by the idea that stereotypes are based on truth, even if that truth is then warped.

    Like, the stereotype that black men are inherently violent - is that based on truth, to your mind? Or what would the truth be that was warped to create that stereotype?
     
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  6. LostThePlot
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    LostThePlot Contributing Member

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    Shockingly, I totally agree with your example.

    To me a stereotype is a character who acts in specific ways not because that's a part of their character but simply because 'that's just how they all act, right?'.

    As you say, a characters traits can on the surface seem very stereotypical but if that's what makes sense to the character then that isn't a reason to dump the character. Various progressive people harrumph at how (apparently) damaging stereotypes are and go to eyerolling lengths to demand that we do anything except represent characters that way totally forgetting that in the real world we really do have flamboyant gay people, angry black guys, nerdy white guys and chinese people who are good at math. In the real world there are all kinds of people who do all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons and art reflects that. The idea that you are somehow harming anyone by creating an otherwise well rounded character who also exhibits a trait that might be thought of as stereotypical is silly.

    Good characters stand as individuals. They transcend their group identity. Stereotypes are bad because they don't do that, not because they somehow harm anyone. If you fear you are writing a stereotype the answer is simply to write a better character, not to change it to a positive stereotype.

    Yes, positive stereotypes are stereotypes too. They might encourage us to think better of a certain group of people but if a stereotype is bad simply because it doesn't apply to everyone in a group then a positive stereotype must be as well, no? Because they don't represent the whole group. They are no more truthful, no more helpful, no more relevant to real people.

    There's nothing wrong with challenging peoples assumptions through your characters. That's a great thing for a writer to do. But you really aren't challenging anything by depicting every single group of people as all being super-nice and not at all stereotypical and certainly never indulging in stereotypical vices of their group. There is already enough commonality in the human experience without completely writing off the value of individual experiences and life choices. If you want readers to see that under the skin we're all the same then maybe do that by appealing to universal experiences shared by all of us like grief and joy and love; not by setting up ten mannequins and hanging a different gender identity on each one.

    Being a good character is an absolute defense to being a 'negative representation'. Every villain is a negative representation of someone! But we understand that a villain is a character who only speaks for themselves not for a community of thousands or millions. No character ever could represent anything more than just that one character. So why do people insist that this one guy says anything about millions somehow?

    Aside from anything else; it's megalomaniacal to suggest that your book will be so huge and important that millions of people will change their view of the world based exclusively on it; feeling the heavy weight of responsibility that only you can change the world. Not even Harry Potter is quite that widely read (or societally important).

    As a final point - As a writer you serve your story first and foremost. It's fine if you want to write a story with positive role models. But if you don't, if you just want to tell a story as you see it in your head, you have no duty to pepper it with positive representations of minorities. The absence of these things does not equate to a hatred of them. The presence of a character with a few traits otherwise seen as stereotypical does not equate to stereotyping an entire sub-sector of society.
     
    Last edited: Jan 24, 2016
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  7. LostThePlot
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    LostThePlot Contributing Member

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    It's an important message, certainly, but it's not the duty of every piece of fiction to append that message to their own.

    That is the single most important point to take away.

    It's not that any of these positive depictions are bad things. Everyone should have characters they can aspire to be (although they don't actually need to be gay or black or disabled to be an inspiration; it turns out that people, even minorities, are smart enough to be inspired by people who aren't exactly like them) and that's all very good and proper. But there's no reason in the world anyone should feel compelled to include these messages in anything that they don't feel it fits in.

    The importance of providing great characters for gay people to identify with does not trump my telling of my story that is otherwise unrelated to gay people. That a message is important doesn't stop any other message also being important. We live in a pluralist world with a great many books. There is enough room for my book with no gay people addressing the universal suffering of the human condition and someone else's book with an all gay cast exploring what it means to be gay in today's world.
     
  8. Duchess-Yukine-Suoh
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    Duchess-Yukine-Suoh Girl #21 Contributor

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    I agree with you! But I think you've misquoted me. My point in that last paragraph was that any people doing something that isn't in line with their gender norms, in their culture/country, is still worth being a "message", and isn't necessarily the writers trying to make a "safe" LGBT+ coded character.
     
  9. Inks
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    Inks Contributing Member

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    @BayView - Ahh, 'truth' was the wrong word. To better explain: The reason a stereotype exists is because it is a generally crude label that is reinforced in a number of ways. It does not mean the stereotype is true, but the statement needs to be based on perceptions that reflect a prevailing standard.

    Thus, each time the stereotype is shown to be accurate - it increases in potential influence. The conclusion is actually self-reinforcing in several ways that further creates a social divide and damages positive changes to move away from it.

    Stereotypes are not pretty - but they exist and only exist so long as they pass a certain threshold. They need this quality of being perceived in that way to be a stereotype. After all, a stereotype is a simplified and standardized concept that has been given special meaning and held in common by members of a group. There is no stereotype if there is no base upon which it can be created.
     
    Last edited: Jan 24, 2016
  10. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    But that base doesn't need to be true, not even a little bit true. It may be instead be a falsehood that benefits the people who propagate that falsehood. Stereotype as propaganda.
     
  11. Feo Takahari
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    Feo Takahari Active Member

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    To be clear, I'm not saying Kanji is throwing a bone to gay people in particular. That would require the devs to care about gay people, and I don't think that's the case. It's more a matter of rebellious people, with Kanji's gayness being the deciding factor that forces them to show that their message of cheerful conformism doesn't work for all people.

    To give a sillier example, Robert Silverburg once wrote a story where a water main is spiked with drugs that cause memory loss. One of the characters commits suicide because his career depends on his excellent memory. Another character eventually concludes that choosing to lose your memories will become a powerful social force that dominates the world and cannot be stopped. This is pretty silly if you don't think like Robert Silverburg, but he's always had trouble writing people who aren't himself, so he doesn't bother with any of the other kinds of people who would force the movement to fail.

    Sci-fi writers are very prone to this form of myopic utopianism. "What would make the whole world happy? Well, I know what would make me happy, and obviously that would make everyone else happy as well!" But I don't think science fiction is the only genre where it matters to consider different viewpoints. It's easy for a story to feel barren and empty if everyone in it thinks alike, and a big part of that is considering the different backgrounds and life experiences that would lead to different perspectives.

    @LostThePlot For better or for worse, your story doesn't exist in a vacuum. If your story has no black women, that's not necessarily a flaw in the story.* But if this story has no black women, and that story has no black women, and the other story has one black woman who's stupid and talks in painfully inaccurate slang, black women have room to complain about something. It's not fair, but it doesn't have to be fair.

    *It might be if your story is set in a town full of black people, but that's a different argument.
     
    Last edited: Jan 24, 2016
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  12. Samurai Jack
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    Samurai Jack Active Member

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    Defining a person by a stereotype is an indicator of a person prone to confirmation bias, and that's bad.

    But anybody can be fit into the mold of a stereotypical profile, depending on what angle is taken.

    OP character's labels of young eclectic bisexual pagan girl who's shy and loves nature simplify what is very much a complex person. She is not defined by any of those characteristics, nor are any of those characteristics dependent on the other.

    Unless of course she IS defined by those characteristics, and those characteristics ARE dependent on each other. Then she is a stereotype, and that reveals something about the author.
     
  13. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think the reason we need to be aware of stereotypes in our writing is because stereotypes come from the subconscious mind, including our subconscious minds. And a lot of our writing comes from our subconscious minds - obviously we're conscious of the typing and the structure and whatever, but the real creativity tends to be subconscious. So if we write a character who just feels right - where does that feeling come from? What is it that tells us this character is right while a different one needs work?

    I honestly don't have an answer to that question, but I think it's an important one. And I think if a character who just feels right to us also happens to fit into a stereotype, we should ask ourselves whether that's what's giving us the right feeling.
     
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  14. Oscar Leigh
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    Oscar Leigh Contributing Member

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    The depiction of stereotypical characters is okay as long as it is clear that you are not promoting the stereotype. The easiest way to do that is not to do many with the stereotype, even if they're only character representing a demographic, it's only really problem when you have something like a whole bunch of flirty gays or black criminals. Then it becomes pushy.
     
  15. Oscar Leigh
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    Oscar Leigh Contributing Member

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    The depiction of
    The depiction of stereotypical characters is okay as long as it is clear that you are not promoting the stereotype. The easiest way to do that is not to do many with the stereotype, even if they're only character representing a demographic, it's only really problem when you have something like a whole bunch of flirty gays or black criminals. Then it becomes pushy.
     
  16. Oscar Leigh
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    Oscar Leigh Contributing Member

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    Oops. Posted twice. I shouldn't use my phone for this it seems.
     
  17. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    But you can't even monitor that if you aren't aware of the stereotypes. You have to give at least some thought to it in order to decide whether your inclusion of a stereotypical character is "okay".
     
  18. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I believe stereotypes are usually based on ignorance. By ignorance, I don't mean stupidity, but rather a lack of knowledge. If you see somebody who is different from you in some definable way (you are visibly Caucasian and they are not/ you are a woman, he is a man) you are prone to taking on board what you think this kind of difference is all about. Often, people tend to observe the behavior of a few people in this 'other' group, and then apply these observations to all people from this group. Even if most people in that group DO behave 'that way' (which is unusual) you might well misunderstand the cultural reasons why.

    The only way to transcend stereotypes is to get to know the people and cultures involved. The better you know them, the faster the stereotypes will fall.

    If somebody offered you (non-Scots) the change to say what you think a Scots person would be like, I'm curious what you might say. It's been a huge eye-opener to me to discover how totally wrong most stereotypes of Scots people are. I've lived here for 30 years, and fail to recognise the 'types' usually portrayed by people who have never lived here or got to know what Scotland is truly like. It's an incredibly diverse place, containing all sorts of personalities, talents, abilities and cultural beliefs. There are a few cultural aspects of Scottish life that can be said to be 'typical' of Scotland, but not as many as you'd think.

    I'd say you can't go too far wrong, as a writer, if you just imagine yourself in the shoes of your characters, no matter what their background might be. If your imagination is good enough, you should be able to conjure up a reasonable reaction to the kind of life they lead and the social pressures that exist within it.
     
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  19. Oscar Leigh
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    Oscar Leigh Contributing Member

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    You're point being? I fail to see how an argument that said nothing about not thinking on stereotypes can be countered by saying that stereotypes should be a concern. I didn't say they weren't. In fact, what I said suggested they were. I was saying that it's not always a problem, in response to the suggestion it is. If a character is truly good, then it diesn't ruin them at all to make them a little stereotypical. Stereotypes are a shallow pool to draw character. I doubt you could do a real, complicated character with only stereotypical aspects. It's too faint.
     
  20. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    Wow. I thought I was quick to see an argument in everything, but I think you're teaching me a few lessons.

    I was responding to your post in the context of the larger thread, not contradicting it.

    Seriously. In the other thread you call me a hypocrite, in this thread apparently we're arguing when I didn't think we were... the "ignore" function can be bit frustrating because it makes it hard to follow conversations, but feel free to give it a try and see if it works for you. I'll do the same.
     
  21. Oscar Leigh
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    Oscar Leigh Contributing Member

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    In another thread I referred to a perceived specific point as hypocritical. That point, as it turns out, did not exist, I was mistaken. And again with this, I thought you were referring to me. Which I think us pretty fair seeing as it was q response to me. If it more general, indicate somehow, the burden of communication is on the communicator.
    There is no reason to ignore each other over two mistakes. We've hardly even been aggressive. If you see it that way, okay, but I consider my interaction with you mild. I could do so much worse, you can tell from how few swear words I'm using. I curse a lot when I'm angry.
     
  22. LostThePlot
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    @jannert has it pretty much correct. The way you transcend stereotypes is by getting to know the people involved and that's exactly the same in literature too. The second you break the bubble and begin to see characters as people and not as a group member then all the stereotypical woo melts away. As long as we write characters who are fully fleshed out human beings with thoughts and feelings drawn from a source other than their group identity then you are transcending stereotyping.

    For all their self-righteousness the progressives out there are extremely keen to have us think of people and characters exclusively as what groups they are part of and not as individuals. This kind of collectivism is antithetical to the idea of writing unique human beings with tastes and views and ideas they have built up over a lifetime. Essentially, that kind of mind set is directly opposed to the idea of writing good characters and objects to the idea of art reflecting life; instead demanding that art reflect what they believe that life should become. In the other thread I used the term cultural marxism for this behavior and while that's become a disparaged term in recent years it's hard to find anything else to call it when a powerful group is asking that art serve their agenda of cultural change instead of serving the story, the author and the wider world as it is today.

    Finally - I think someone needs to start asking for a citation whenever someone says that stereotypes are harmful. Positive stereotypes presumably aren't harmful, right? So why is it just taken as read that all stereotypes are negative and that those negative stereotypes actually lead to harm? We aren't making laws off the back of stereotypes, we aren't barring anyone from pursuing anything because it's outside their stereotyping. There's still racists and sexists and so forth out in the world, but they didn't become racists because culture perpetuates racists stereotypes; racist people flock to stereotypes to prove their bigoted ideas. Racism is the problem, not stereotypes. Stereotypes are the symptom, not the disease.
     
  23. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    You might not want to assume that all the "progressives" are out there, or that your strawman arguments are in any way accurate representations of what's going on. As a matter of fact, in a thread about stereotypes, your stereotypes of progressives are pretty effective examples!
     
  24. Tenderiser
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    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Contributor

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    On the other hand, I don't think you should view your characters in a vacuum. Society treats men differently from women, and black men different from white women, and white gay men different from straight black women. That's not thinking of them ONLY as their sex, colour, gender and sexuality, but to ignore it is naive. It's like the people who talk about being "colourblind" when what they mean is they refuse to accept that non-white people are disadvantaged, as a group. It doesn't help anybody.
     
  25. LostThePlot
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    That's a fair point. I certainly would agree that a lot of kinds of people should be reflected more in fiction (or reflected better) but there isn't an easy answer. The causes here are giant societal forces which in macro terms determine the kinds of stories that writers want to tell. And in time society will change. But trying to force it to won't make a difference. Writers being asked to include characters they didn't imagine is tokenism and does more harm than good. Token characters are, by definition, shallow and bad representations of people and having shallow, bad representations of certain kinds of people just reinforces the idea that those people aren't worth writing about.

    I am an individualist and I have faith that other individuals will tell the stories they want to see in the world. I tell the stories I think should be told and I am certain that black people and trans people and disabled people are doing the same.
     

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