NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
In his new book, Kwame Anthony Appiah tells the story of a Pakistani woman who fled an abusive marriage. Years later, Samia Sarwar tried to convince her parents to allow a divorce so she could marry again.
Her mother eventually agreed and set up a meeting at her daughter's lawyer's office and brought alone a man who shot Samia in the head. According to witnesses, the mother left cool and collected. The murder of her daughter, she believed, restored her family's honor.
To most of us, so-called honor killings seem like an alien and terrifying concept, but it wasn't so long ago that we conducted ourselves in ways that might seem just as hard to understand.
For centuries - in Britain and in this country, too - gentlemen fought duels to defend their honor. But dueling ended. Chinese women stopped binding their feet. The Atlantic slave trade ceased.
Appiah's new book examines what led to those changes and the lessons we might be able to apply to today's problems. Has there been a time when you felt your honor was at stake? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, Ariel Dorfman on the stories every Chilean schoolchild reads about copper miners, including the 33 men now trapped underground.
But first, Kwame Anthony Appiah joins us from a studio at Princeton University, where he's a professor of philosophy. His new book is "The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen." And it's nice to have you back on the program.
Professor KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH (Philosophy, Princeton University; Author): It's very nice to be with you, Neal.
CONAN: And you argue that none of these practices changed as a result of new arguments, that everybody knew, for example, that dueling did nothing to prove who was right and who was wrong.
Prof. APPIAH: Yeah. I think the most interesting thing I discovered in looking into the history of honor is that in all the cases of the big honor practices that you think of as terrible, like dueling and foot-binding and even slavery -which one could understand as an honor practice - they were already understood to be wrong long before they came to an end.
I mean, the case of dueling, for example, dueling was banned on Christian grounds in the ninth century.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. APPIAH: It was made illegal in England, I believe, under Queen Elizabeth. Certainly, it was illegal under the common law well before the 18th century in fact, in the 17th century. And, of course, it was clearly crazy because the fact that I can kill you in a duel doesn't prove that I was right. It just proves that I'm a better fighter than you are, or luckier.
And everybody understood all these things. If you read the discussions of dueling in the 18th century, there's this sort of hilarious thing where people say, well, of course, we have to defend her honor, but it is a bit strange that we do it. And then they give you all the reasons.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: And then they hand out the pistols.
Prof. APPIAH: Then they hand out the pistols, and they get to it. So - and the same is true when I started looking at it in the case of foot-binding, which is this honor practice in China where they bind the feet of high-status women in order to make them marriageable, in order to symbolize their fidelity to their husbands and so on.
Already, you know, hundreds of years before it came to an end, you have people saying, well, this is very unpleasant and cruel. It causes pain. There's a Chinese proverb that says two tiny feet, two wells full of tears. I mean, everybody knows that it's painful.
So the question is: How does this recognition, there's something wrong with it, get shifted into an actual movement for change? And that was where I found, in all these interesting cases, it seemed to me that honor - shifts in honor, were important.
CONAN: And shifts in honor - well, at least in the case of dueling, ridicule was part of it and public media.
Prof. APPIAH: Yes. I think the thing about dueling was that it was supposed to be reserved for the aristocracy, for so-called gentlemen. And as the press grew, and as there was more and more coverage of the activities of everybody, including gentlemen, other people got to see this slightly absurd practice.
And one of the things that happens between about 1830 - when the Duke of Wellington, who was a very grand fellow, has a duel - and about 1850 is that there's a big shift. And instead of its being thought to be a way of defending your honor, it just becomes ridiculous.
And there's a very funny account in the diaries of a man called Sir Algernon West, who lived in the middle of the 19th century, about one of the last well-known duels in England, which was between two members of parliament, who were members, actually, for the same constituency.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. APPIAH: And they had to share the taxi to the fight. And Sir Algernon says that basically, they were ridiculed in an article in the Times, and he says, so ridiculed in more than morality to get rid of dueling.
CONAN: And indeed that as dueling - as members of what used to be the middle class, the trades class ascended to the House of Lords by virtue of their great wealth, that indeed the landed aristocracy found it, well, ridiculous to see drapers and assistant drapers out on the dueling lists.
Prof. APPIAH: Yes. Yes. What's interesting about this change is that, actually, it was predicted, pretty much at the beginning, dueling sort of begins to take off actually around about Shakespeare's time. You remember the duels in "Romeo and Juliette."
Prof. APPIAH: I mean, those are part of a practice that's being replaced by the duel, because you remember in "Romeo and Juliette," the Montagues and the Capulets have these sort of street brawls between young men. And dueling was a way of tidying that up by saying, well, no, you have to give notice and you have to limit it to two people. And so it was actually - it was an improvement, in some ways.
But that led to a lot of killings at the court, and Francis Bacon - who's most famous to us, I suppose, as an essayist, though if you're a legalist, he was also attorney general of England and lord chancellor. And he, at the beginning, in prosecuting one of the cases, said to the judges, look. This is going to stop when what he called rude mechanicals in other words, people who weren't gentlemen start doing it. The trouble was...
CONAN: That would be you and me, right?
Prof. APPIAH: That would be us. The trouble is, it took several hundred years before that happened. But nevertheless, Bacon got the point right, I think, at the start of the modern duel in England, which is that it can only work to generate honor for gentlemen if only gentlemen are allowed to do it.
And in fact, the fact that it was illegal was part of the point. It was the nobility claiming the privilege of acting outside the law.
So - but yes. In the end, it goes away, and very swiftly, so that by the Duke of Wellington, who's the grandest Englishman, you know, of the early-19th-century duels once only, it should be said, while he's prime minister, no less. But 20, 30 years later, if somebody tries to duel, it's just ridiculous.
There's a wonderful passage in Evelyn Waugh's novel "Officers and Gentlemen," which is about the middle of the - sort of soldiers in the lead-up to the Second World War, into the Second World War, where one of the sort of gentlemen officers is asked what will happen if somebody challenges him to a duel. He says laugh. I'll laugh.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. APPIAH: So - and yet 100 years before, as I say, you know, the Duke of Wellington felt he had to fight a duel because someone had accused him of doing something mildly misleading, which after all, for a politician, you know, that's a pretty standard accusation.
CONAN: And as you point out, though, it was a pretty safe thing to do, because the Duke of Wellington was a notoriously bad shot.
Prof. APPIAH: He was a fantastically bad shot. There are lots of respected ladies' diaries of the period reporting all kinds of unfortunate people -including sometimes his hosts - at shooting parties who got shot.
And there's a famous story of a woman who was hanging out her laundry from a house on an estate, and the Duke of Wellington came by and fired a shot. She got hit, and his host, the lady, the wife of his host, said to this woman: Do be quiet. You should you've just had the honor of being shot by the Duke of Wellington.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. APPIAH: So this is part of this sort of - the obvious sort of absurdity of the whole connection between dueling and class at the time, you know, this sort of weird class structure.
But the point is it changed very swiftly, and by the end in fact, the Duke of Wellington was commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but he ordered the practice to be seriously punished among soldiers. So he himself turns around and became one of the people who fought against it.
But as I say, the main thing that happened to it was that it became ridiculous.
CONAN: We're talking with Anthony Appiah about his new book, "The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen." Has honor become an issue in your life? Give us an example. 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chris is calling us from Tallahassee.
CHRIS (Caller): Hi. Thank you for such a wonderful, interesting subject. I've been in the criminal defense business for 25 years, and many times, I've come across cases where defendants will explain their behavior in sort of an honor setting, where the person was slighted, offended or...
CONAN: Proper respect was not shown?
CHRIS: ...somehow where they had to respond, even though thinking ahead, five minutes ahead of their, you know, the consequences that would happen would have stopped them, they don't. And typically, it's young men, but not always, and...
CONAN: But to fail to respond would have meant I'm sorry, Chris. Failure to respond would have meant losing face, losing prestige?
CHRIS: Yes, yes, losing face or losing prestige or the reputation.
Prof. APPIAH: Well, we say - or being dishonored, and that's what dis is short for, I think: disrespected or dishonored.
CHRIS: Right. So maybe it hasn't died out.
Prof. APPIAH: No, I don't think it has. And I think that - actually, there's a nice literature and social psychology on the fact that you're from Florida, and the part of the country in which honor plays the largest role in explaining certain kinds of fights, including up to and including murder, is the South.
There's a big difference. There are still more substantial honor cultures in the American South than in the north. I'm sure all the Southerners out there are nodding their head and saying we know (unintelligible) dishonorable.
But it turns out that if you look at murder statistics in the American South, where there are the higher rates of murder, it turns out that when you look into them, that they're not about theft or burglary or - they're about people defending their honor. And actually...
CONAN: And when you talk about an honor group, that's a set of people who all recognize the same code, whether that's the English aristocracy or a criminal gang in Tallahassee.
Prof. APPIAH: Right. Or just a regular guy in Tallahassee who has - you know, whose friends expect him to defend himself. If somebody says something, say, slighting about his wife or his girlfriend, he's not supposed to let it pass, and his honor, his entitlement to respect from that community of peers, depends upon him doing something when that happens to defend his honor. And he can't duel anymore, but he can take it outside.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Take it outside. Chris, does that sound - does that analysis sound about right?
CHRIS: Oh, it sounds very right, and, you know, I agree. And I think what as I remember reading about duels is many times, they would go through the motions, but maybe all shoot high or just up in the air just to make sure they went through the motions and they both kept their honor.
CONAN: As in the Duke of Wellington's case, exactly that happened, though it's not quite clear the duke did that. As we mentioned, he was a bad shot.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. APPIAH: But his opponent, Lord Winchilsea, intentionally shot in the air because he didn't want to kill the Duke of Wellington.
CONAN: Chris, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.
Kwame Anthony Appiah is our guest. He's the author most recently of "The Honor Code." We want to hear from you about a time you felt your honor was at stake: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. Stay with us, TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
We're talking with Anthony Appiah about his new book "The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen." It's about the concept of honor and the defense of it for centuries.
And as you've heard, we talked about a duel that occurred that involved the Duke of Wellington, the hero of the Napoleonic Wars. You can read a play-by-play of that duel in an excerpt from his book at our website at npr.org.
We'd like to hear from you about a time you felt your honor was tested: 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Again, you can go to our website: npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And the second example in your book, we talked about duels, which were sort of a personal thing, and the honor group was a small group. But the Chinese practice of binding feet, again it persisted for 1,000 years and became, well, passe in a very short period of time. Well, you tell us the mechanism.
Mr. APPIAH: Well, I think what happened was that the late 19th century was a period of enormous pressure on the Chinese intellectuals, what we call the Mandarins, the literati who ran China, this enormous class of people who had passed these national exams and ran the nation.
They were highly educated, philosophically educated in the Confucian classics, and here they were, living in what they thought was the greatest civilization in the world, and they kept losing battles.
The British could, from half a world away, could come and beat them in the Opium Wars. The French could march into Beijing. The Japanese in the 1890s could beat them in naval battles. And they were trying to figure out what they'd gotten wrong.
So they started engaging with the - with Western intellectuals, mostly missionaries, mostly English-speaking missionaries to a great extent, and also the wives of the business elite of the coast. And - who very respectfully tried to explain to them not just that foot-binding was wrong as I say, there were many reasons for thinking that it was wrong the Chinese literati understood already but that it was a source of - it was giving them a bad image in the world, actually, along with opium use.
So they were persuaded partly of course, they already knew the arguments against it. They knew about the pain. They knew that it limited women's movements. They knew that it wasn't healthy and it could cause enormous suffering. But they were persuaded in this dialogue with these Westerners to see their honor, the honor of their people, their culture, their civilization, as being at stake.
And that was part of what pushed them - very swiftly, actually - into organizing these societies, these anti-foot-binding societies. And in those anti-foot-binding societies, what they did was that they, in order to sign up, you had to promise two things.
If you were a woman, you had to unbind your feet, but if you were a man, you had to promise not to bind the feet of your daughters and not to allow your sons to marry women who had bound feet.
And you can see that in a society where marriage is arranged and where there's an elite within which honor is very important in getting married, if you switch the code from foot-binding being a condition for marriage to being something that makes - is an obstacle to marriage and, in fact, from being honorable to being slightly shameful, then very swiftly you can turn it around.
And what happened was usually, in about 20 years in most places in China, you go from, you know, the majority of elite women foot-bound to over 90 percent un-foot-bound.
CONAN: And so this is - as opposed to a personal thing - a collective feeling of shame and guilt.
Mr. APPIAH: Yes. I mean, that's the the most powerful force - one of the most powerful forces, I think, in the world in politics is this sense of collective honor, which is very much tied up with modern nationalism.
Our - you remember, our founders referred about having a decent respect of the opinions of mankind. Well, one of the opinions of mankind is about whether you're honorable or not, about whether you're worthy of respect.
And if you love your country or even care about your country a little bit, you're likely to care about whether it's respected in the world. And when you see and also about whether it's entitled to respect, because the heart of honor isn't just caring about respect, though caring about honor does involve caring about being respected. The heart of honor is thinking of yourself as entitled to respect, as having earned respect and worrying about having earned disrespect by failing to do what's right.
And the thing that the Chinese felt was that in binding the feet of their daughters, they were doing something that wasn't just wrong, and it wasn't just causing them disrespect. It was causing them disrespect which they had deserved, and they didn't want to deserve disrespect.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Let's go to Andrew, Andrew with us from Minneapolis.
ANDREW (Caller): Hello, gentlemen. How are you today?
CONAN: Very well, thanks.
Mr. APPIAH: Good, thank you.
ANDREW: Wonderful. Well, I'm an American serviceman, and I've been overseas and visited largely Muslim cultures. And my curiosity involves not only the fact that the act is committed as a result of an infliction of somebody's honor or a family's honor, but do the sociological reasons for them - i.e., honor for one's country, personal honor - interfere with the fact that honor killings, in many ways, are associated with a religious background and if that will affect the longevity of the practice in modern culture?
Mr. APPIAH: Good. I think that's a very important thing. And remember, just to go back for a second to what I said about dueling, dueling was clearly understood to be un-Christian from at least the ninth century.
So it takes more than recognizing that something is not religious to get people to give it up when it's an honor practice. Nevertheless, as I try to argue in the book, it's an extremely important fact about honor killing - which, as you say, is very common in Muslim countries, though it's also quite common in India among people who aren't Muslim.
The important fact about it is that it's clearly, I would say, the majority, by far the largest majority of authoritative Muslims sources say that it's wrong.
Now, they say it's wrong for some reasons that you would respect and for some reasons that you wouldn't, but they agree that it's wrong. And I think one of the powerful forces that will move against honor killing in places like Pakistan is the recognition that it is leading to dishonoring not of Pakistan, but of Islam. And people will want to defend Muslim honor, and one of the ways they're going to have to move if they want to defend Muslim honor is to give up this immoral practice, a practice which is already understood by, you know, all the reputable Muslim scholars to be un-Islamic.
CONAN: There's a great passage in your book, a fascinating conversation with a mullah named Abbad(ph) at a mosque in Islamabad. To begin with, this religious teacher surrounded by his students admits that when he sees women who are not totally veiled, quote, "I just want to cut them into bits or betroth them to someone."
When the startled Geoffrey(ph) asked if this is consistent with Islam, the mullah blushes and falls silent for a moment. Then he looks around at his students and mumbles: Islam does not allow it, but sometimes you have to do it to set an example.
Mr. APPIAH: Yes. I love the fact there, of course, notice that what he's doing is treated marriage as a punishment.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. APPIAH: He says I'm either going to cut them up or I'm going to betroth them.
CONAN: Also, just to follow up on Andrew's point, yes, Islam could be used as an offense of Islamic honor perhaps as a jujitsu argument against honor killings. There are other examples of other human rights - what we would consider human rights problems in places like Pakistan which Islam does not address.
Mr. APPIAH: Yes. I mean, we have to accept that, I mean, this is a complicated and sensitive issue, of course. But again, it's true that I think there are good Muslim reasons for doing some things like stoning adulterous men and women that we think you shouldn't do, and I believe we're correct. And, of course, many Muslims think that they don't want to do it, either.
But I think what one has to remember about that is that the reason why Islam teaches that stoning to death is the right punishment for adultery is that the prophet was influenced by the Old Testament, by the Torah. And in the Torah, it says that you should stone people for adultery.
And it's true that in the New Testament, Christians are turned against this because Christ says let him who is without sin cast the first stone. But you'll notice, he doesn't say don't cast the stone. What he says is, you can only cast it if you're without sin.
So the idea - so what's happened is we've given up stoning for adultery, right. I mean, there is no Christian leader in this country or anywhere else, as far as I'm aware, who defends stoning for adultery. And as far as I'm aware, there's no serious Jewish scholars or rabbis who defend it.
But it's in our texts, and it's in the Muslim texts, too. And I believe that just as we have found ways to live with these texts without doing everything that's in then, so Islam will move in that direction.
My point about honor killing, though, is it isn't even in the texts, and nor is the other - one of the other great problems in some parts of the Muslim world, which is female genital cutting. That isn't in the texts.
So we don't have to fight against - we don't have to reinterpret the texts to make progress there. We can just appeal to the texts, say look, it isn't there. Why are you doing it? Why are you doing this thing in the name of Islam that isn't in the sources?
CONAN: And not and Andrew, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it but not do away with honor, which as you point out is probably part of human nature, but to reinterpret honor to make social progress.
Mr. APPIAH: Exactly. You know, you look at honor. It looks like it's violent, it's undemocratic, it's illegal, it's immoral, it's irreligious, and your first thought is let's get rid of it. I think that's not going to work.
And so, rather than the revolution of trying to go against our natures and abandon this concern with respect, let's work in every culture and on every issue to try and reshape on it, to put it in the direction of supporting what's right, of supporting morality, as it does already in many cases. One of - all -almost all the honor codes in the world, for example, are aligned in defense of the truth. It's dishonorable to lie in almost every culture.
Well, there's a case where honor and morality are on the same side, and we can move honor on to the side of morality in other cases as well. And as I say, I believe that that is already happening in Pakistan. One of the best questions ever asked about honor killing was asked by Asma Jahangir, the head of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission. She's a great woman lawyer. She said about the case you mentioned, what sort of honor is it to open fire on an unarmed woman? And I think that's exactly the right question.
And shifting honor so that it's clear what's dishonorable about that is part of the way that Pakistan and many other countries where there are still honor killing will move, I believe, in the coming years.
And my reason for hope is that just as it only took a short generation to move from dueling being required to being ridiculous, and just as it took only a short generation for foot binding to move from being something that every girl of good family had to do to something that no girl of good family should do, so we can move, I hope, swiftly to a world without honor killing.
CONAN: Here's an email from Jeremy(ph) in Athens, Ohio. Does honor have any objective basis or is it merely relative to one's culture? If it is not objective, then does it fall short of moral concepts just as right-wrong? It seems this is a difference between the wrongness of slavery and the examples of honor killing discussed so far.
Mr. APPIAH: I think that, in general, as I said, honor is an entitlement to respect. Some entitlements to respect come from morality. Human dignity is an entitlement to respect that I believe every human being has in virtue of moral demands. In that case, what honor requires in respecting human dignity is what morality requires.
But there are other cases where honor, as I said, runs against morality. And still yet, cases which we haven't talked about, where honor is important in motivating people to do things. But the things it motivates people to do are not moral or immoral, they're just good things of a non-moral sort.
We honor people who are successful in the academy. We give people honorary degrees. Those degrees are meant to honor them and to honor their scholarship. It's not because theyre morally good. Many of the people who get honorary degrees are probably not very morally good. And like the rest of us, they're pretty average morally. But they're not average in a scholarly way. And, similarly, we honor great artists. We do lots of honoring that has nothing to do with morality.
So there's a case - but my problem with honor, as it were, my fight with honor is that very often it's not - I don't care about the cases where it's used for things that aren't morality. What I care about are the cases where it's used against morality. And that's where honor killing comes in, that's where dueling comes in, that's where slavery comes in. These are cases where the honor system was running on the wrong side.
And what you have to do - what was done in those cases was to switch it around and to make it shameful to support slavery, shameful to support foot binding.
CONAN: Kwame Anthony Appiah's book is "The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happened."
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's talk with Candice(ph), Candice with us from Fort Myers.
CANDICE (Caller): Hi there. I was calling because when I was a young girl - I'm a Southern woman from South Carolina. Me and my ex-husband were at a party with several young couples, and we were attacked by some youths and robbed. During the course of that, one of them actually slapped me and my now ex-husband did not come to my defense.
My father had the biggest problem with that. He just could not understand that no matter how much we tried to explain it. You know, they had guns and he probably would've ended up dead. That was just unacceptable to my father that my ex did not come to my defense during that.
CONAN: That's not the reason for the divorce?
CANDICE: No, no, no. It's not.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CANDICE: But it certainly didn't make my father unhappy when it was over.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. APPIAH: Well, look, I think that's one of - that's a lovely story. I'm sorry about what happened to you. But I think I'm with your husband here that it wasn't a good idea to add to the injury of your being slapped the loss of her spouse. And this is one of those cases which reminds one that honor can lead you to do things that are not just, as I said, immoral and often commanded against by religion, but stupid.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. APPIAH: Honor can lead you to do things that are profoundly irrational. If you think about it, it's completely ridiculous for the Prime Minister of England to risk his life because some well-known idiot in the House of Lords has accused him of being slightly dishonest in a rather complicated affair involving support for London University, which was what the original occasion for the deal was. It's completely crazy.
CANDICE: Well, I happen to agree completely. But my father didn't see it that way.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. APPIAH: Well, but your father - but that's the point. You know, honor needs reform. I'm glad that your father cared about honor. It just led him, I think, in this case, as it sometimes does, to make a mistake.
CONAN: Candice, thanks very much.
CANDICE: Thank you. Bye-bye.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can squeeze one more caller in. Judy(ph), Judy's on the line from Oakland.
JUDY (Caller): Hi. Yes. I'm a teacher. I worked a lot with people who have gotten themselves into all kinds of situations where they have made bad choices based on honor. And, basically, what I feel is underneath that is the possibility of being shamed. And so when people say they're protecting their honor, theyre often protecting themselves from feeling shamed and that there's something wrong - will be something wrong with them.
CONAN: And that's one the points you make, Anthony, that indeed, within these honor groups, there are real penalties to not defending your honor.
Mr. APPIAH: Absolutely. And shame is the sort of necessary correlative of honor. If you care about being honorable, then if you fail to live up to the code, what you feel is shame but the sign of your being serious about the code is that if you don't live up to it you have shame. It's not just that other people cease to respect you. It's this very disturbing experience of ceasing to respect yourself.
And that is a key reason why if you can get people to care about honor, if you can get people to develop a sense of honor, they will do a lot to avoid that sense of shame.
CONAN: Judy, thanks very much. I wanted to end with this email we got from the Reverend Ma(ph) in Grants Pass, Oregon. You guys said ridicule helped ending duels. A similar tactic is being used today by a woman named Leima Gobuye(ph) -mispronouncing that horribly - a Liberian woman who helped in the civil war recently tour the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where raped women on a scale of numbers and brutality is unprecedented. She uses shame. She says, we must shame the mothers to shame their sons into stopping the violence and atrocities. As your guest said, ridicule was stronger than laws against dueling.
Kwame Anthony Appiah, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.
Mr. APPIAH: It was a pleasure, as always.
CONAN: "The Honor Code" is the name of the book. Stay with us.
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