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The Ethics of Talk: Classroom Conversation and Democratic Politics

by Ruth W. Grant - 1996

Recognizing that there is an ethical dimension to conversation generally, I raise the question: What is the ethical impact of conversation in the classroom? This is an important issue for democracies, where the quality of politics depends heavily on the quality of public discourse. Recently, university education has been criticized for fostering a moral relativism and partisanship that are weakening American civic life. I argue that the experience of critical inquiry conducted through classroom dialogue can cultivate precisely those ethical characteristics required of participants In the public life of a deliberative democracy.

Recognizing that there is an ethical dimension to conversation generally, I raise the question: What is the ethical impact of conversation in the classroom? This is an important issue for democracies, where the quality of politics depends heavily on the quality of public discourse. Recently, university education has been criticized for fostering a moral relativism and partisanship that are weakening American civic life. I argue that the experience of critical inquiry conducted through classroom dialogue can cultivate precisely those ethical characteristics required of participants in the public life of a deliberative democracy.

Recently, several powerful works have appeared that locate the current threats to American democracy in the weakness of our civic life, particularly in the decline of public discourse and even of the art of and opportunity for simple conversation.1 In light of these concerns, we are called on to consider whether there are resources within liberal democratic institutions and practices capable of supplying remedies for our liberal contemporary diseases. I think that there are, and in some unexpected quarters. One of these is the university classroom—the very place commonly under attack today as a major source of the twin evils of relativism and dogmatic partisanship so destructive of democratic political life. But it need not be this way. The classroom is a unique locus of public conversation, one in which the qualities most necessary for democratic discourse are very often cultivated. There is an ethical dimension to conversation, an “ethics of talk,” that has particular importance for the practice of education in liberal democratic societies.

What do I mean by the “ethics of talk”? When we speak of the ethics of medicine or the ethics of marriage, we are referring to the rules or principles that ought to guide our judgments and actions in those particular spheres of life. When we speak of the ethics of gambling or the ethics of drinking, we refer to the issue of whether these are ethical activities according to some set of principles by which we make this sort of judgment. In speaking of the ethics of talk, I mean neither of these. I am not looking for the rules that must govern a good conversation, rules concerning honesty, for example. Nor am I proposing an argument concerning whether talking is a morally permissible activity; that would be a very short argument. Instead, I mean to raise the question of whether talk is an ethical activity in a broader and more positive sense. Can talking make people better? And, in particular, what sort of talking can make people better?

Admittedly, this seems an odd question. If talking ever does make people better, one would think it would be on account of what is said, and certainly not on account of the talking itself. Yet the activity of talking has an ethical effect. If you consider our common contemporary practice in educating very young children, you will see that this is so. On a daily basis, often beginning in preschool classrooms, the entire class will gather for meeting, discussion, or “share time.” Children will learn that they are expected to raise their hands before they speak and to listen quietly while others are speaking. Teachers are quite self-consciously teaching both verbal skills and social skills during this time. But these social skills require certain moral capacities and qualities of character. Students are learning to take turns, which is to act on a sense of fairness; to have patience, which is another word for impulse control; and to listen to others, which involves putting yourself in the speaker’s shoes, or the rudiments of the fundamental moral capacity to empathize. Parents, though perhaps less self-conscious about this process, employ it regularly. The struggle to conduct a simple conversation among parents and siblings at the dinner table, for example, is an exercise in training all of these moral skills, but often in the face of powerful jealousy and the anger it provokes. In order to take part in the conversation, children are required to exercise considerable self-restraint.

The capacity for conversation develops gradually over time. At a four year-old’s birthday party, the time spent at the table eating cake is as long as it takes to eat the cake and no longer. By the time the same children are seven or eight, you may have to cut the conversation short in order to make sure there is time left for other activities. As children, we all had to learn the skills required to conduct a conversation. So much is obvious. What is less often remarked is that acquiring the ability to converse, as much as it may be a matter of linguistic skills, is also a component of moral development.

Moreover, the ethical dimension of talk is just as much a part of adult conversation. To participate in a good conversation requires certain qualities of character, and conversing reinforces those qualities. But different sorts of talk have different ethical requirements and different ethical effects. If we are willing to accept the notion that talk can make people better, we are led to wonder what sort of talk does this best. This is a particularly compelling question for college and university educators. In our society, we educate young adults largely by requiring them to spend four years participating in structured sessions of talk. What is the ethical impact of this activity? What might it be at its best?

Considering this question leads to the heart of an ancient and ongoing controversy about ethics and education. Stated starkly, the alternatives are two: moral education, values education, or education for citizenship, meant to transmit particular ethical principles and habits to the next generation; or education as critical inquiry, meant to cultivate independence of mind and to ensure that ethical precepts are adopted only after full examination and not on the basis of authority.

Adherents of these two positions engage one another in a vigorous dispute where each seems to have objections fatal to the other. Moral education is faulted as partisan and dogmatic. It is said to be, in essence, an authoritarian education and, hence, particularly inappropriate where it claims to educate good democratic citizens. An education in critical inquiry, on the other hand, is faulted on two grounds. Such an education may cultivate individual independence, but its critics contend that it tends to produce only sophistry and relativism. It fails as an ethical enterprise. This is the criticism of the “critical-inquiry” approach most often heard from “moral education” voices on the Right. From the Left, other sorts of moralists raise a different cry. To the charge that the education they themselves promote is partisan and dogmatic, they reply that all education is partisan and dogmatic. “Inquiry” is a fig leaf covering a host of substantive ethical principles that are never questioned—the liberal principles of individualism, toleration, free speech, secularism, and so forth. This sort of education is no more neutral or objective, and hence no more “free,” than the alternative.

If each alternative were as its opponents claim, a coherent education for a free citizen of a democratic regime would be an impossibility. We would be left with a wholly unsatisfactory set of choices. Either we choose between moral education, which is authoritarian, and free education, which undermines morality, in which case we must sacrifice one crucial value for another, or we choose between different kinds of partisanship, in which case the argument about alternative-educational approaches dissolves into the “real” power struggle between political factions.

It seems to me that the choices need not be construed in this way. If we accept that there is an ethical dimension to engaging in classroom conversation, then even the most extreme version of the critical-inquiry approach cannot be considered ethically neutral. But neither is it correctly viewed as an education in particular ethical values or political positions. The ethics of talk pursued in a classroom setting is an education of character. It is by no means value-free, but it does not train adherents to a particular tradition or political persuasion either. A good conversation is a nonpartisan ethical activity. Training in critical inquiry is a moral education as well as an education in independence of mind. Moreover, it is a civics education as well, cultivating precisely the characteristics required of participants in the public life of a deliberative democracy.2

To support this claim requires explicating the statement that a good conversation is a nonpartisan ethical activity. What kind of conversation is a “good” conversation and what explains its ethical impact? I have already noted that different sorts of talk have different ethical requirements and different ethical effects. With respect to classroom conversation, I would argue that dialogue or deliberation is the appropriate sort. Though debate is the characteristic mode of political talk and especially of democratic talk, it ought not characterize a democratic education. The comparison with debate highlights the ethical impact of dialogue.

There is an exchange between Socrates and Glaucon in Plato’s Republic in which Glaucon is asked to choose between dialogue and debate. The scene occurs in Book I after Thrasymachus, the rhetorician, has challenged Socrates most emphatically on the question of whether it is better to live justly or unjustly. Socrates says to Glaucon:

If we should speak at length against him, setting speech against speech, telling how many good things belong to being just, and then he should speak in return, and we again, there’ll be need of counting the good things and measuring how many each of us has in each speech, and then we’ll be in need of some sort of judges who will decide. But if we consider just as we did a moment ago, coming to agreement with one another, we’ll ourselves be both judges and pleaders at once.3

Glaucon chooses the latter method. He has also already chosen his position on the question at hand. He has just said that he believes the life of justice is superior to the life of injustice. 4 Given the Socratic understanding of justice, these are the same choice. A just life is to be governed by reason. To proceed by coming to agreement among themselves is also to be governed by reason, rather than by some third party acting as judge. Thus it seems that to engage your adversary in dialogue is a just act as well as one requiring the participants to act justly.

The exchange suggests a variety of distinct ethical dimensions to dialogue that must be specified. Most obviously, persuasion is generally superior to force as a way of dealing with disagreement. A dialogue presumes that all participants are equally open to persuasion. Moreover, this means that each participant accepts an obligation to yield to the better argument. This is not always easy to do. It requires self-discipline to alter your position when you have become convinced of the truth of another’s; it also engenders humility.

All who have ever been part of a good conversation have had the experience of recognizing something as true in spite of themselves, even against their ardent wish that it be otherwise. An internal struggle ensues—which we always lose. Once having recognized the truth of a proposition, it is simply impossible to believe the contrary any longer. If you see that two plus two is four, you are not free to dispute it. Our-language reflects this experience as we say that we are “compelled to admit” that something is true. Yet this sort of compulsion is perfectly compatible with personal autonomy. A conversationalist who follows the dictates of reason is self-governing in doing so. He or she yields not to his or her conversation partner (though it may feel that way at times), but to the better argument.

There is an additional ethical demand involved in dialogue or deliberation, which is that the participants take responsibility for the statements they make and the opinions they put forward. In a conversation where one participant has authority over another, “Because I said so” can trump any argument. But in a true dialogue, participants are required to supply reasons and evidence in support of their positions. When one’s position has been challenged, to respond with “Well, that’s my personal opinion” is just not acceptable. The phrase is a conversation stopper precisely because it means that the speaker has abdicated his or her responsibility as a conversation participant.

Participants in a debate are also required to defend their positions. But the other ethical elements of dialogue are not present in the same way in the structure of debate. A debate is a contest in which participants compete in their ability to persuade an audience. Their success depends on the characteristics of the audience or the standards of the judges. They are not expected to be open to persuasion themselves, nor does it make any difference whether they are convinced of what they say. Debate is a form of performance, directly engaging the vanity and egotism of the participants. Dialogue at its best is a self-effacing, self-forgetting experience. One gets lost in it and forgets the time. In this respect, the experience resembles working a puzzle; the search for the solution becomes completely absorbing. In contrast, a debate is structured so as to allow only two alternative solutions to any given problem or two alternative answers to any given question, each defined in advance. These two positions are to be argued as vigorously as possible. There are winners and losers, and the losers do yield to their opponents or to the authoritative decision of particular people.

The ethical experience of debate is thus entirely different from that of dialogue—necessarily agonistic rather than potentially cooperative, closed rather than open-ended, governed by an external authority rather than the internal submission to reason. Unlike debate, a dialogue is a conversation in which different opinions are critically evaluated, distinctions are made, and argument and evidence are put forward with a view to reaching agreement on whatever comes to light as most reasonable—and with the expectation that something new and better will come to light. And unlike debate, dialogue requires the participants to conduct themselves ethically and autonomously in very important respects.

Debates of various kinds can be fruitfully employed in classroom settings to be sure, but they are most beneficial when each side is used to expose the limits of the other, to bring to light the premises of the controversy, or, in short, to spark a dialogue. Just as classroom conversation in preschool teaches fairness, patience, and empathy, classroom conversation of this sort can be an experience in self-discipline, humility, autonomy, responsibility, and “being reasonable.” The same can be said of many forms of conversation that share these characteristics of dialogue but are not dialogues strictly speaking, for example, deliberation, inquiry, speculation, and so forth.5

It is curious that educators seem more likely to encourage conversation among preschoolers and university students and more likely to suppress it in the years in between—precisely during those years in which people like nothing better than to spend their time talking to one another. In years past, in a traditional middle school or high school classroom, the students were practically prohibited from discussing what they were learning among themselves. To the extent that this approach still prevails, it represents a missed opportunity on a large scale, and it leaves students unprepared to engage in dialogue. Much has been made of university students who are not prepared to write. Often they are even less prepared to talk. In freshman seminars, they start from scratch in learning how a conversation proceeds, what it means to give a reason, and so forth. There is an additional unfortunate consequence to the standard approach. Years of such an education can leave the nearly indelible impression that “academic” or “intellectual” subjects are simply not fit subjects for conversation.

One further strictly pedagogical note: The preference for dialogue (and, by implication, for seminars) would seem to be entirely divorced from disputes over curriculum reform, and in important respects it is. Yet the issue of classroom method has muddled the curriculum question in the following way. Some adherents of the critical-inquiry approach have no objection whatever to diversifying curricula, but they suspect that those who are most interested in introducing new materials are also interested in teaching them in a moralistic and partisan fashion. This is the sometimes hidden and sometimes not so hidden issue. And in truth, a professor who approaches material as matter for inquiry and dialogue can do wonders with Plato and with Adrienne Rich, while a professor who uses material for partisan purposes will do no good at all with either.

This point depends, of course, on the viability of the distinction between partisan and nonpartisan talk. I have said that a good conversation is a nonpartisan ethical activity. I have also said that the critical inquiry approach to education has been faulted as neither ethical nor nonpartisan. According to the critics, we must choose between ethical education and independence of mind, and ultimately, since nonpartisanship is impossible, we must simply assert our particular political persuasion. Exposing the ethical dimensions of dialogue should have made clear that there is no necessary contradiction between ethical training and independent judgment. In fact, a good conversation is an ethical activity in the manner I have described precisely because its participants act independently or autonomously. They listen to reason and guide their own judgment accordingly, which requires exactly the same sort of self-discipline required by moral action generally speaking. Moreover the constant necessity to give reasons for opinions is the best antidote to ethical relativism. Belativism is not produced by the habit of raising critical questions, though it might be if one were never expected to supply any answers. But conversation does require the effort to answer the questions. One learns that there are some opinions for which reasons and evidence can and must be supplied. One learns that, while it is perfectly sufficient to say “My favorite ice cream flavor is strawberry,” one cannot similarly say “My favorite political ideas are conservative” and leave it at that.

If there is an ethical training in dialogue, is it not training in particular qualities of character and not others? And if it is, is it not in fact a partisan process after all? In other words, is not every ethical commitment partisan, even a commitment to reasonableness? At one time, this question, which today seems to cause such great difficulties, would have been nonsensical. Partisanship meant partiality, and that is why it was suspect. An adherent of a particular party was partial to its interests or positions rather than concerned with the common or general good. Partisans were understood to be partial because they were motivated by passions or interests in a manner that prejudiced their judgment. Partisans were unreasonable by definition. This was the thought behind the antiparty attitudes of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At that time, partisanship had meaning only in opposition to impartiality and reasonableness.

But let us concede for the moment that it is not nonsensical to wonder whether there can be partisanship on behalf of reason. Suppose we understand partisanship to be any fundamental commitment to a political or ethical position that precludes other alternatives. In this sense, the commitment to rational discourse is certainly partisan. But now we have a semantic problem. Now we are in need of a different set of terms to designate the very real difference between rational discourse and partisanship in the old-fashioned sense. Calling rationalism “political” does nothing to alter the gap between a conversation aimed at genuine inquiry and one aimed at producing a consensus on a predetermined position or point of view.6

Participants in a good conversation may all learn or reinforce the same qualities of character but still hold very different positions. There are, after all, issues about which reasonable people can disagree. This is, in fact, one of the ethical lessons of dialogue. The experience of dialogue forces the conversation partners to recognize the complexity and ambiguity of the matter under discussion. Conversation undermines self-certainty. I spoke of this earlier in terms of humility. It could be cast instead in terms of tolerance. The ground for tolerance of different points of view is not simply exposure to differences, though that is, of course, a necessary precondition. It is the recognition that the important questions do not have easy answers, that doubts remain, that it is easy for people to make mistakes and therefore understandable when they do, and that many disputes are not about what is right and wrong but about what is most important, which is much more difficult to say with certainty. Because reasonable people can disagree, the effort to encourage reasonableness through dialogue remains distinct from efforts to inculcate particular views.

The “rationalism” inherent in dialogue, unlike other “isms,” opens up the possibilities for persuasion and conversation, rather than closing them down. In a good classroom conversation, every position is open for exploration, even the commitment to reasonableness itself, and no position is too shameful or contemptible to consider. The commitment to reasonableness produces an effort in the classroom to cultivate the qualities that make conversation among people with opposing views possible. And the conviction that reasonable people can disagree is the precondition for any decent politics, that is, for the possibility of persuasion rather than force. If we really believed that only irrational people could disagree with us, there would be no reason to talk to them.

Decent politics, and democratic politics particularly, is conducted through talk, and thus conversation has an impact beyond the individual development of character. Conversation is a civics education as well as a moral education because the capacity for conversation is a crucial public capacity. There is a “public ethics” of talk as well as a private one. Consider the following anecdote from my experience on jury duty. When the jury first began its deliberations, the foreman polled us and found we were divided. Four hours of deliberation ensued. At the end, we remained divided, nine to three. Of the three, one was a woman who had said nothing the entire time except to register an opinion of “not guilty” when we were first polled. At the end, she was asked whether anything further that might be said could change her mind. She answered “No.” In this case, the “silent juror” did not matter much since there where two others who were also immovable. But as I thought about it, it became clear to me that there was something not quite right about what she had done. What if all twelve jurors had behaved in the same way?

A juror’s responsibility is not limited to registering an opinion. A jury is meant to deliberate, and each juror is supposed to consider the evidence and testimony presented in court and reach a conclusion that he or she believes is defensible. A juror ought to be able to give reasons for his or her decision. Giving reasons and considering the reasoning of others is part of a juror’s job. Without that, there would be nothing to keep the process from being entirely arbitrary. Something quite similar could be said about voting as well. A responsible voter makes a considered decision and not a random selection. Public discussion of the issues and candidates in an election campaign is something akin to the deliberation of a jury.

In general, public life in a democracy presupposes the giving of reasons. In every public organization, people are expected, not only to have opinions, to take positions, and to make decision is collectively, but also to defend their positions and to engage with others in mutual attempts at persuasion. I offer as an example-a recent local school board meeting where a controversial redistricting plan was under discussion. There were certain things that people did not say. Nobody said that they opposed a particular plan only because their children would not be able to go to school with their friends. Nobody said “We don’t have to listen to what you say because there are more of us than of you.” These things may have been true, but they were not said—and not only because it would have been ineffective to say them. When somebody did say that supporters of a particular plan were acting only to benefit their own neighborhood, people rightly understood it as an insult. The plan had to be defended on grounds that were potentially persuasive to everybody. The reasons people gave may have been hypocritical—that is, they may have been developed after the fact to justify positions people really supported for self-interested reasons or on the basis of irrational preferences—but in this public-forum, everybody did feel compelled to give plausible reasons. And the members of the board knew that they had to come up with a plan that was at least defensible, whatever their real motivations. Everyone in the room would have been embarrassed to act without reason or to advocate something that they could not provide a rationale for. And embarrassment is a good indication that an ethical principle is at work. Even in this sort of public discussion, the ethics of talk is apparent.

The kind of conversation that took place at the school board meeting is closer to debate than it is to dialogue, and that is generally true of political talk in a democracy. This is true for a variety of reasons, though I suppose the most evident is that political talk is supposed to eventuate in decision and action. And particularly in democracies, decisions are made by a process where only two choices are presented at a time, “for” and “against.” Nonetheless, dialogue remains crucial in public life, and not just in the classroom. For example, we have “legislative floor debate,” but “committee deliberation.” There must be opportunities in politics for conversations that allow creative alternatives to emerge or new items to find their way onto the agenda, or for a more thorough exploration of differences than might be possible in a large and thoroughly public setting.

But there are also public conversations that do not occur in strictly political contexts and are not limited to political subjects. These conversations have ethical advantages that are different from those I described in speaking of classroom conversations. Moreover, the participation in the conversation is by no means limited to highly educated young people. I am thinking of the kinds of conversations that traditionally took place among men in barber shops and neighborhood bars and among women on the park bench by the sandbox or over coffee in each other’s kitchens; conversation of the kind that New York cabbies were once famous for; good dinner table conversation.

What does it mean to engage in this sort of talk? It means that you, as an adult member of the society, are expected to have an opinion; that others will listen to what you have to say; that it matters somehow what ordinary people think and it matters that we get things right. We are not only expected to have opinions, but to take responsibility for seeing that they are reasonable and defensible and grounded in the facts. These expectations are part of the public ethics of talk, and they are a crucial part of democratic political culture.

Moreover, public conversation gives the conversation participants a sense of personal efficacy. From a certain point of view, it might seem like a false sense of efficacy. Why should ordinary people spend their time talking earnestly to one another about things they can do nothing about? Why should I care what my neighbor thinks about restricting violence on television, for example? Neither of us is likely to have any impact on policy on this issue at all. Even conversation about political candidates could seem senseless when each of our votes is nothing but a drop in the bucket anyway. Yet it does matter what we think, and not only because public opinion matters and each of us is some small part of that. More importantly, what we think about one issue is part of a whole complex of attitudes that affect our behavior in all kinds of settings. In this example, it is obvious that my neighbor’s opinion might have something to do with how she treats my children when they visit hers. But something similar could be said in relation to almost any issue. Moreover, the ability to participate in the conversation is important in itself. It is evidence of the ability to make yourself heard in a public setting. Because the conversations themselves matter, the sense of personal efficacy involved in conversation is real.

So is the sense of dignity and respect that a conversation reinforces. Conversing is an activity that recognizes the value of each of the participants. Everyone has something to say, everyone listens. Referring to a group of black working-class men who regularly gather-at a Chicago cafeteria, Valois, Mitchell Duneier writes:

What is it about Valois that encourages the black regulars to participate in a group life which helps them to “rise above” what they perceive as the low level of morality in the ghetto? Participation in the collectivity at Valois fosters a consciousness of oneself as an elevated human being, a person who has it within him, by virtue of demeanor and values, to be better than the sordid environment outside its doors. An activity as simple as “intelligent discussion” often suffices to make a man feel that he is engaging in conduct that signifies his assimilation into society.

Horace sat at my table and talked about some people near his apartment on Forty-seventh Street who had been bothering him with their music.

“I told them to take their fucking bottles and to take their big musical briefcases away from my window. . . . That’s the difference between the people on Forty-seventh Street and the guys here at Valois. Here people talk to each other. They listen to each other. They discuss the political situation in Chicago. They seem to be on an intellectual level. They seem to have the ability to sit and talk with anyone who’s available. They seem to have the ability to talk things out.“7

As a society, we need more people who have these abilities. We need more good conversation, in and out of the classroom. We no longer have quite the same occasion and opportunity for it as in the past. My examples earlier were of barber shops and park benches. Today, conversation has shifted venues and is more often co-ed. But my guess is that there is also simply less of it for people in all walks of life. This is a major loss.

Public conversation establishes our sense of ourselves in relation to society as a whole. Put simply, to be part of the conversation is to be part of the community. Personal efficacy, dignity, and community are all goods that a liberal society is often said to systematically undermine. Liberal society is said to encourage only selfishness and isolation. Yet, if I am right, personal efficacy, dignity, and community are all qualities cultivated by the quintessentially liberal activity, talking.

There are many things wrong with liberal democratic society in America, but they cannot all be attributed to its liberalism. It is too easy to condemn liberalism wholesale as the source of all of our ills. In some cases, we are in need of more of it, not less. Liberal education is just one example of the liberal institutions and practices whose potential must be properly understood and cultivated if we are to cure what ails US.8

I have tried to argue for the moral and political importance of a certain sort of classroom conversation in democratic societies. The experience of participating in reasoned discussion can develop not only critical acuity and intellectual independence, but also qualities of good character as well as crucial civic capacities. It goes without saying that the abilities of a good conversationalist are not to be confused with intellectual sophistication. Too often, we produce the latter without the former, perhaps because educators at colleges and universities are less aware than kindergarten teachers of the ethical dimensions of the conversations that take place in their classrooms. They are less conscious of the fact that habits of conversation are learned and that, one way or another, they are teaching them. Of course, colleges and universities are by no means the only venues for the cultivation of the capacity for conversation. But these institutions do provide opportunities too good to be missed for those who are convinced that the capacity for conversation cannot be taken for granted and that public conversation is essential to democratic life.

An earlier version of this article was prepared for the colloquium “The Ethics of Everyday Life,” sponsored by the Institute for Religion and Public Life and supported by the Lilly Endowment. I am grateful to the organizers of that group and to its members for their comments and inspiration. I would also like to thank Peter Euben and my colleagues and students at Duke University for their suggestions and critiques. The opinions expressed herein and any remaining errors are my own.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 97 Number 3, 1996, p. 470-482
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10369, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 6:28:55 AM

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About the Author
  • Ruth Grant
    Duke University
    Ruth Grant is associate professor of political science, Duke University. She is currently coediting John Locke's education writings with Nathan Tarco (Hackett Publishing).
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