This chapter highlights the importance of shame in the context of the 4IR, especially with respect to the threat of COVID-19. We pointed out the danger of shame-related coverup, which may lead to more pandemics. We also emphasized the need for the framework of second wave positive psychology (PP 2.0) which embraces (1) the existential-spiritual perspective of transforming shame into personal growth and (2) the need to understand cultural difference between East and West in the experience and regulation of shame. In the age of COVID-19, the world suffered tragic losses of lives because of cover-ups and misinformation. Therefore, we propose that a sense of shame for violating the moral norm of speaking the truth and truthful international communications would be beneficial to humanity.
Mayer & Vanderheiden’s The bright side of shame: Transforming and growing through practical applications in cultural contexts (2019) represents a landmark publication on shame from different theoretical and cultural perspective; it is encyclopedic in its breath, covering almost every aspect of shame research. However, shame, as one of the most ancient emotions, along with guilt and fear, is extremely complex both in its nature and effects; it is possible that that we may never get to the bottom of this emotion, no matter how deep we dig in our research.
In this chapter, we want to explore the second wave positive psychology (PP 2.0) perspective of shame in the East and West within the context of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). We hope that this paper will lead to better ways of curtailing public shaming and channeling shame into positive transformation.
The framework of PP 2.0 emphasizes the existential and indigenous dimensions of positive psychology (Wong, 2020, 2019a). This approach is much needed because it recognizes shame as a core universal emotion for all people, but experienced, expressed, and managed differently in different cultures. For example, we all more affected by relative rankings in performance and guilt-based shame in Western culture, but more affected by concerns about other people’s opinions and possible violations of social norms in Asian societies.
PP 2.0 also calls for more research on both the negative and positive side of shame and other unpleasant emotions such as guilt, fear, and anger as the foundation of emotional intelligence and wellbeing. COVID-19 shows the need for this emphasis. For example, shame has everything to do with the global spread of COVID-19. China leaders’ fear of losing face (i.e., the presence of a sense of shame) led to their decision to cover-up the first signs of COVID-19 when it first broke out in Wuhan in November 2019 (Sky News Australia, 2020). Shameless lying & misinformation led to the spread of COVID-19 (Boxwell, 2020). This delay allowed thousands of infected people from Wuhan to travel to other cities on China and other countries. Only public shaming of such irresponsible behavior from all the world leaders could pressure the CCP to be more truthful in reporting infection diseases in order to prevent future pandemics like COVID-19.
Thus, research on shame in the East and West can increase our emotional intelligence to understand each other’s feeling and behaviors related to shame. More importantly, it could show how we can reduce the need to lie about things we are ashamed of by cultivating the virtues of humility, honesty, and the courage to confess, make amends, and improve one’s behavior. This chapter will discuss some of the exercises of positive transformation of shame.
The Challenges of COVID-19
With the death toll approacings one million globally, COVID-19 has shown that the basic tenets of PP 2.0 (Wong, 2019a) are undeniable aspects of the human condition: (1) We all live in a dangerous world full of evil and suffering; (2) All human being have inherent limitations and vulnerability; and (3) Flourishing is impossible without overcoming the frailty and the dark side of life (Fowers, Richardson & Slife, 2017; Wong, 2020).
In spite of all their might in science, technology, and wealth, so many powerful countries have been brought to their knees, not knowing how to find a cure at this point. COVID-19 has demonstrated in a convincing manner that human beings are defenseless against an airborne steadily evolving micro pathogen that is capable of killing millions of people. One good thing that comes out from this global catastrophe is that COVID-19 reminds us that we are fallible and fragile beings.
We need to humble ourselves and learn to work with each other, as well as live in harmony with nature. Such an attitude of humility may have saved humanity from the COVID-19 disaster. In addition to making cover-up unnecessary, it would also prevent Western leaders from the over-confidence because of their “positive illusion” (Taylor & Brown, 1988) – a cognitive bias towards the illusion of control and optimism.
Communication is vital in containing infection diseases. A critical ingredient for preventing future pandemics is to restore public trust in governments and international communication. Scientific research and education may increase general acceptance of the imperative of speaking the truth. When it comes to highly contagious infectious diseases, every county is responsible for every other country because infectious disease knows no political borders. Leaders and researcher need to work together to ensure truthful communications. Saving lives is more important than saving face. Truth could save lives, whereas coverups to save face could kill millions of people.
Another challenge has to do with climate change. Deforestation and other environmental disruptions may result in novel diseases due to increased human-animal interactions and wildlife markets for human consumption, according to Harvey (2020). It is important to remember that we are part of the ecosystem and we need to learn how to protect the environment.
In other words, COVID-19 was a disaster waiting to happen, because we have ignored the fundamental truth that there are inherent limitations. When we play God and entertain the false confidence that with science, wealth, and power we can do anything, there will be a global catastrophe soon or later.
Now COVID-19 teaches us that there is a “forbidden fruit” (Genesis 3) after all, and there are serious consequences for violating this basic rule, such as eating wild animals (which may cause novel diseases). COVID-19 awakens us to the truth that we need to live within human limitations, and we are morally accountable to a higher power, whether you call it God, Jesus, Buddha, or Nature, for things beyond human understanding and control. There is no shame in our humility, but ironically, the desire to be like God would lead to disaster and shame.
For psychologists, there is a greater challenge of how to cope with the psychological impact of COVID-19, even when the crisis is over. Yong (2020) observed that
“At a moment of profound dread and uncertainty, people are being cut off from soothing human contact. Hugs, handshakes, and other social rituals are now tinged with danger. People with anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder are struggling. Elderly people, who are already excluded from much of public life, are being asked to distance themselves even further, deepening their loneliness.”
One good thing from the widespread mental health problems may be the decline of the stigma surrounding mental illness, because we are all negatively impacted psychologically by COVID-19.
Finally, the coronavirus is a good metaphor for shame, which is also ubiquitous, insidious, and destructive. We all have experienced its effects and tried to live with it in the best way we can. We may try to hide some embarrassing mistakes in the past or some family secret, but we pay the price for building up defences, isolating ourselves, and constantly worrying about being exposed. We may avoid expressing our opinions or doing something differently because of the fear of rejection and humiliation by others. Worse still, we keep on revising our life story, trying to mitigate against our sense of shame by blaming others or distorting our memories. In one or another, we try to avoid or tolerate it as an ever-present threat to our pride and self-esteem.
Yet, we often have difficulty articulating our shame, even when we can feel its presence everyday. We cannot pinpoint its cause or source. We don’t know where it is lurking under. All we can do is to avoid being shamed by others. But in a meritocratic society, it is inevitable that we have to compete for status and access to limited resources.
The age of COVID-19 also reveals the power of IT technology in controlling the pandemic and monitoring people’s daily movement (Tidy, 2020). For example, drones from the sky can monitor people’s every move (Pietsch, 2020). Such universal surveillance may be here to stay and may also extend to other less-affected countries, even after COVID-19. This is a scary vision because it means that people will be increasingly concerned about their privacy, and fearful that their secrets may be exposed, leading to public shaming.
The Digital Culture, 4IR, and Shame
In this uncertain and scary time, the power of surveillance by Big Brother and the public shaming on social media have become a serious issue. The New York Times article The Industrial Revolution of Shame said it all (Scibona, 2019). New technologies have given both individuals enormous power to shame others and authoritarian governments the ability to socially control citizens on an unthinkable scale. Such social and political forces released by information technologies also challenge us to act responsibly to shape the fourth industrial revolution for the common good (Schwab & Davis, 2018).
Shame Nation (Scheff & Schorr, 2017) is the first book to examine the phenomenon of online shaming and cyberbully and offer practical guidance and inspiring advice on how to prevent and protect against cyber blunders and faceless bullies. Any troll could bring down a business or ruin a celebrity, causing public humiliation and real psychological damage.
The call-out or outrage culture (Susaria, 2020) is a form of public shaming to keep certain individuals accountable for their behaviors that may offend some individuals or groups. Such outrage can go viral on the social media, because some platforms write algorithms that maximize engagement to amplify the outrage through a snowball effect.
On a personal level, shame is commonly experienced when one’s self-identity or self-esteem is damaged because of mistakes, failures, or defeats. It is a self-conscious emotion involving a negative evaluation of one’s moral self. But shame is also commonly experienced through a process of group identification and the negative evaluation of one’s social self (Salice & Sánchez, 2016).
These shameful feelings can be greatly amplified because of the prospect for public shaming and punishment through new technologies. This chapter focuses on cultural differences between the East and the West in two major types of shame: relational shame and moral shame. The East is a shame-based culture, while the West is a guilt-based culture (Wong & Tsai, 2007). The East emphasizes relational shame as necessary for maintaining interpersonal relationships and group harmony. In contrast, the West views shame more negatively as a moral failure worse than guilt – guilt means I have done something bad, while shame means that I am a bad person (Brown, 2012; Lewis, 1998; Van Norden, 2002).
According to the Pew Research Center (Duggan, 2017), roughly 4 in 10 Americans have personally experienced online harassment and 62 percent consider it to be a major problem. Cyberbullying or online harassment of scientific and health professionals could have a damping effect on academic freedom or free speech to express unpopular views.
Therefore, people are afraid to express independent thoughts in an age of tyranny where everyone has to conform to some ideology, political correctness, or groupthink (Blackford, 2018) This is what John Stuart Mill would call “the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling”. Social media and call-out culture makes it possible to ruin any person’s career or any business through shaming and ostracize anyone who has the courage to express their unique ideas, which may offend someone.
Another major concern in the age of 4IR is the rise of AI and robotic-processing automaton (RPA; Galer, 2020). By 2022, International Data Corporation (IDC; Jyoti & Schubmehl, 2019) predicted that 75 percent of enterprises will embed intelligent automation into technology and process development. A 2020 Ederman-Trust Survey (Purtill, 2020) showed increasing worries about job losses and a looming recession due to automation. Nearly two in three people felt that the technological changes are too fast, and they had no control over the robotic revolution.
Carrying the logic of the computer model to its extreme would be Yuvah Noah Harari’s controversial book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2018); it gives us a chilling future when dataism becomes our new god and our faith will be placed in the power of data processing and algorithms. “Having raised humanity above the beastly level of survival struggles, we will now aim to upgrade humans into gods and turn Home sapiens into Homo Deus,” Harari boldly declared.
Shame and Meritocracy
Paradoxically, in our efforts to become out best and climb the dominance hierarchy in order to overcome our own sense of inadequacy and shame, we set ourselves up for more failures and more shame in the ruthless global competition. The age of the 4IR only magnifies the digital inequality and the income gap between people. There are no winners in a meritocratic society (Markovits, 2019).
Markovits argued that a meritocracy produces radical inequality in any society with inherent social-economic inequality. Roger Karma (2019) explains why a meritocracy makes everybody miserable. Meritocracy turns life into an endless competition. The race begins in early childhood (competing to enter the best preschools), continues into the teenage years (competing for admissions into top schools) and then extends into the workplace (competing for good paying jobs).
According to Paul Gilbert’s (2000) social rank theory, our emotions and moods are significantly influenced by the perceptions of our social status or rank. Shame, social anxiety, and depression are all related to defensive submissive strategies when individuals find themselves placed in inferior ranks. But winners do not fare much better.
Meritocracies constantly feed a sense of shame to the losers in this endless competition, and fear of failure to the winners, who are worried about losing. Thus, shame permeates through society and imprisons all of us. How can we be liberated from this bondage of shame so that we can freely pursue an ideal life and engage in creative work for the greater good? We are suggesting that the answer may be more existential-spiritual and political, as Thompson (2015) pointed out.
The future for a great life is not promising, even before the current COVID-19 pandemic. According to Shum (2020):
“All manner of Great Life Plans for houses, cars, and families, most goals tend to gravitate towards some form of self-preservation and stability. But in a world where natural disaster is the order of the day and artificial intelligence (the ubiquitous AI!) is charted to surpass our own, it’s often tough to figure out what we can do that really helps us get there.”
Now, the prospect of over 200,000 death in American alone (according to the White House; see Zapotosky, Wagner & Iati, 2020) casts a dark cloud on all of us. The widespread lockdowns and self-isolation have resulted in the economic shutdown of many business sectors. The economic fallout from COVID-19 is staggering and incalculable at this point (Monderer, 2020). In short, the old meritocracy is no longer working in the age of COVID-19. We need to reimagine a new world order, and we need to collectively awaken to some enduring values that can save humanity. In other words, we need to consider Thompson’s view of shame seriously.
Shame from an Existential Spiritual Perspective
In an earlier article, Wong (2019b) mentioned that the Biblical narrative of the fall of Adam and Eve shed much light on the human condition. “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves” (Genesis 3:7, NIV). Thompson (2015) elaborated on the theme that we were made for happiness, but were banished from paradise with the burden of shame, guilt, and fear for disobeying God’s command and wanting to be as wise as God:
“We walk on the earth burdened with the ancient code that we received from our first parents. We hide behind our rhetoric and have come to depend on our various garments to protect us not so much from the other but from ourselves.” (p.109)
In other words, shame, guilt, and fear (anxiety) are the core emotions that have plagued us from antiquity since our ancestors ate the forbidden fruit to become as wise as God. The metaphorical truth in this ancient narrative is still relevant today. While we owe much of our physical wellbeing to scientific progress, at the same time, we still bear the burden of Being; conscious of our own nothingness, aloneness, and insignificance in this vast cosmos as helpless orphans.
By spiritual, Thompson meant that we were made for happiness through relationships and creative work. We can heal shame and restore joy by restoring our relationships with ourselves, others, and the Creator. This existential spiritual understanding of shame as part of the dark side of the human condition explains that we can only be healed through returning to the purpose for which we were created; namely, to glorify God and enjoy him forever by living in harmony and attunement.
Even for unreligious people or unbelievers, it is still helpful to hold a high view of human beings that we were wired for happiness through good relationships and creative work. The main reason for our unhappiness is that not only have we allowed shame, guilt, and fear to enter into our lives; we also are pretending that they do not exist or they would just go away, if we only focus on happiness.
The main lesson from COVID-19 is that toxic thoughts and emotions do not just go away if we focus on the positive. We need to realize that we can be infected with the virus of shame, even as a baby without any language. Shame weaves its way into our lives simply through “an emotional sharing,” without the necessary language “through the brainstem, limbic shame and right hemisphere” (Thompson, 2015, p. 82).
All through our life, we been wounded by a thousand needles through shame, the silent killer. The emotion of shame is always part of our daily experience especially in the important domains of achievements and relationships. Shame is also the emotion we often anticipate as we look into an uncertain future because of past experiences. Thompson pointed out that shame, if allowed to do its destructive wok, will not only ruin our life, but the world in which we live:
“The way of life is the way of shame. Shame, as evil’s vector would like it to be, keeps itself hidden among life’s e everyday events. It wants to be known as an artifact…However, it intends to dismantle a world that was destined for goodness and beauty” (p.131)
“But honest vulnerability is the key to both healing shame–and its inevitably anticipated hellish outcome of abandonment–and preventing it from taking further roots in our relationships and culture. “ (p. 104-105)
That is why Wong (2019a) has long argued that the science of sustainable positive psychology can only be established by embracing our vulnerability to shame and other negative emotions and situations, similar to how we cannot maintain good physical health without dealing with negative pathogens.
“But naked vulnerability is not merely a representation of our having been created to be in relationship. God desires us to live like he lives. Thus, to be created in God’s image also refers to our having creative dominion within the world. And to be maximally creative also requires that we are vulnerable” (Thompson, 2015, p. 122).
Here is another important insight regarding creative work. We must be willing to be vulnerable to failures, rejections, obstacles, and the painful emotions of shame, guilt, and fear that accompany such endeavours. To engage in meaningful work is not simply a matter of goal setting and being committed to achieve it. It is better to view the pursuit of meaningful work as an existential struggle to endure suffering in order to create meaning and a world of goodness, beauty and happiness. That is the main tenet of second wave positive psychology.
Citing Romans 5:1-5, Thompson observed: “Note the progression from suffering to perseverance to character to hope, and hope of this sort does not put us to shame” (p. 179). Thus, hope is not magic. Hope is not wishful think, nor magical thinking. Hope does not depend on miracles most of the time. It calls for perseverance towards the idea, while ignoring the shame that accompanies such efforts until we no longer feel the sting and see a “hopeful future” emerging.
Contrary to the prevailing view that existential psychology focuses on the dark side of life, existential positive psychology actually focuses on the positive view. For instance, pain, shame, and guilt could serve adaptive functions–they are existential givens that inform us that we need to change collective and individually, so that we can become what we were meant to be. COVID-19 changes our lives in a fundamental way and calls for a global awakening of our need for transformation.
As long as there is ego, pride, and the desire to be appreciated, we are vulnerable to the destructive power of shaming, which can be transmitted by the tone of one’s voice, or the look in one’s eyes. It can also be transmitted by judging others or excluding them. COVID-19 has taught us that we are responsible to not transmit the virus of shame.
The interpersonal dark side of existence includes the accumulated toxic experiences of rejection, bullying, marginalization, and alienation. A sense of shame because of one’s language and cultural handicap is a big part of acculturation stress, which happens to all people transplanted to a different country, whether as refugees, immigrants, or returnees.
Shame in the Asian Culture
According to the Analects (Watson, 2009), Confucius held that using punishment to influence ordinary citizens will do little to develop a sense of shame (chi 恥) in them. This term is usually understood as a predisposition to feel ashamed when one does something wrong because it seems wrong to oneself, and not because others regard it as wrong or shameful.
Mencius, who was said to have studied under Confucius’s grandson Zisi, went even further than Confucius. Mencius believed that every person has some things that he or she would be ashamed to do, and these are expressions of innate virtue of righteousness. He even declared that individuals without a sense of shame were no longer human (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2004). Shame may have been a factor that contributed to the longevity of China’s civilization.
The Chinese are much more sensitive to relational shame, and they have many shades of shame. Li, Wang, and Fischer (2004) started with a list of 83 words that were related to 羞 xiu “shame/shyness,” 耻 chi “disgrace,” and 辱 ru “humiliation/shame” from the dictionary; the list was then expanded to 113 shame-related words and phrases, most of which are relationally-related shame and are not translatable to English. Even when there are equivalent translations, the emotional content encoded in the words might be different (Bai, 2015; Lin & Yao, 2016).
Guilt cultures in the West rely on an internalized conviction of sin as the enforcer of good behavior, emphasizing punishment and forgiveness as ways of restoring the moral order; whereas shame cultures in the East depend on external sanctions, emphasising self-denial and humility as ways of restoring the social order (Hiebert, 1985). For both cultures, the violation of personal identity leads to shame. However, for shame cultures, personal identity is dependent on continued relations with the group, since shame is a more effective way of social control rather than guilt (Bedford & Hwang, 2003).
Shame is understood in the Chinese culture as related to “face”. The most complete definition of face was offered by Ho (1976):
“Face is the respectability and/or deference which a person can claim for himself from others, by virtue of the relative position he occupies in his social network and the degree to which he is judged to have functioned adequately in that position as well as acceptably in his general conduct; the face extended to a person by others is a function of the degree of congruence between judgments of his total condition in life, including his actions as well as those of people closely associated with him, and the social expectations the others have placed upon him.”
In a similar vein, Hwang and Han (2011) also emphasized the vital role of face-saving (zuo mianzi) and fighting for one’s face or honor (zheng mianzi ) in all social interactions. They further pointed out that the Chinese usage of face can be divided into two broad categories: namely moral face and social face; both are related to the Confucian concepts of morality. With respect to mental health, moral guilt is more related to mental health problems, and forgiveness and self-compassion are antidotes, whereas relational shame is more related to the virtue of humility and self-improvement, in order to regain group acceptance or social status.
The best way to understand current Chinese nationalism is to remember the 100 years of painful humiliation in the hands of foreign invaders starting from the Opium Wars. The government can harness this collective shame as a rallying point against Western countries.
Current Chinese President Xi’s policy of seeking global domination by all means is contrary to Confucius’ moral teachings of the virtue of humility and avoiding shame. Xi’s cover-up of COVID-19 has become a global scandal and has the opposite effect of earning respect (Campbell & Gunia, 2020).
The Positive Side of Shame
According to biological evolution, shame evolved to encourage group collaboration through following social norms because survival depended on it. Even when one person did not live by the rules (such as stealing or murdering another), the cohesiveness of the whole group was threatened. This is especially true in any collectivist society; group interpersonal harmony is valued. Even in an individualist society, there are still some social norms to facilitate social interaction or political correctness to avoid unnecessary offences against minority.
Jennifer Jacquet’s Is Shame Necessary (2015) examined how shaming—exposing a transgressor to public disapproval—could be used in a productive way. In other words, we can use shaming as a deterrent of a bad behavior without destroying anyone’s reputation or life.
At a personal level, we often suffer from our unconscious defense-mechanisms against shame (Michaelson, 2015; Thompson, 2015). Many psychological problems have their roots in hidden shame. Acceptance and transformation of shame is important in facilitating recovery from psychological disorders and transforming negative experiences into emotional resilience, character strengths, and human flourishing. In overcoming the self-deceptions and emotional lies, we become mentally healthier, stronger, and happier. According to Benau (2012), therapists should help their clients accept and transform shame, rather than trying to avoid or reduce it in order to develop “shame resilience.” The is the position advocated by Wong (2019b).
What follows are a few paragraphs from a monograph entitled Shame as The Master Emotion of Everyday Life by Drs. Sheff and Retzinger, summarized by Kimberley Nichols (2013):
- Shame is a key component of conscience, responsible for our moral behaviour. Listen to the voice of conscience will enable us to do the right thing.
- Shame signals trouble in a relationship and motivates us to restore intimacy and trust to the source in shared ideals.
- Finally, shame plays a central role in regulating the expression of emotions. It helps us to guard our emotions that have we neither repress them completely of embarrass ourselves with inappropriate expressions.
Additional benefits of shame include learning to not set up unrealistic measures of one’s value of self-worth, as we have discussed in the meritocracy section. We need to focus more on our intrinsic values as growth and making a unique useful contribution to society.
We also need to develop the courage to not be afraid of being disliked or criticized by others, as long as we are following our conscience and best judgement.
The pain of shame also alerts us to the problem of shaming others unintentionally when we make unreasonable demands or frequently judge and criticize others simply because they do things differently. PP 2.0 advocates the adaptive benefits of confronting rather than avoiding painful emotions.
Awareness of all the problems related to shame opens the gateway to healing and transformation, so that we will not do things that we will be ashamed of and we can die well without major regrets. Self-reflection and examination of one’s beliefs and values may lead to self-restructuring.
Finally, there is also the spiritual message for us to recognize our limitations and frailty and the need to hold ourselves accountable to higher power or moral authority.
Most human emotions are complex. The human quest for personal growth and wholeness necessarily involves struggling with ambivalent feelings through the dialectical process as proposed by PP 2.0 (Wong, 2011). This struggle makes us both stronger and wiser.
Shame can both stymy or motivate learning and personal growth. Unfortunately, there is not enough public discourse on the positive side of shame:
“As Dirkx implored us over a decade ago, we need to stop shying away from emotions in adult learning and to begin to courageously engage that which lies in the unconscious but which drives our everyday actions and interactions. Shame is at the core of who we are—and who we can become—as adult learners and educators.” (Walker, 2017).
We need to cultivate the virtue of humility as the antidote to both relational and moral shame. We humbly acknowledge that we can never as good as other people in some areas, and we are never good enough to be above criticisms or corrections in our work and relationships. Therefore, in humility, we accept our limitations and failures, and are determined to improve ourselves each day. Humility also delivers us from our self-righteousness and arrogance which blind our eyes to our moral failure and from the misguided need to cover up failures.
Existential competency in therapy deals with both the negative and positive aspects of shame. We can readily distill several basic skills in existential competency from various chapters. These clinical skills include:
- Self-awareness, acceptance, and acknowledgement of one’s failures and limitations.
- Self-forgiveness and self-compassion.
- Self-affirmation through re-authoring and reframing.
- Self-affirming the intrinsic value and sacredness of life.
- Taking personal responsibility for positive change.
- Seeking a support group.
- Focusing on the meaning people attach to events.
- Seeking deeper meaning and self-transcendence.
- Seeking deeper understanding through verbalizing one’s emotions and dreams.
We want to conclude this chapter by citing Ron Farmer (2013):
“The path of self-transformation demands that we return to accepting ourselves for who we are; that we make our feelings of self-worth impregnable against unexpected errors and misfortunes. What follows are some guidelines for achieving this aim.”
The world would be better, if we pay more attention to shame. May the force of shame be with you all–to prevent us from doing anything we maybe be ashamed of and spur us to improve ourselves daily to be better and stronger people.
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