Insult Pacifism: Bill Irvine replies to Eric Scott

[This guest post is a response to a critical essay by E.O. Scott, who wrote it in response to W. Irvine’s original post in the Oxford University Press blog. My commentary on Bill’s post and his subsequent talk at STOICON ’16 can be found here.]

By William Irvine

Let me begin by thanking Eric O. Scott for taking the time to respond to my Oxford University Press blog and my STOICON talk on what I call “insult pacifism.” As I like to tell my students, if what we seek is the truth, we have the most to gain from those who challenge our views, since they will be the quickest to discover our mistakes.

The Stoics were very much interested in transforming themselves into better human beings. As part of their program of self-transformation, they attempted to develop their own character. Such efforts might have included doing things that they were afraid of doing, simply as an exercise in overcoming fear. Or it might have included intentionally interacting with difficult people, simply so they could practice preventing anger from arising within them.

But besides being concerned with their own well-being, Stoics felt a social duty to make their world a better place. This could be done, they knew, by introducing other people to Stoicism, but it could also involve helping extract non-Stoics from the trouble they got themselves into as a result of their misguided views regarding what in life is valuable. Marcus Aurelius is a prime example of a Stoic who took his social duty very seriously, but despite being the emperor, he failed to bring about a just society. The Rome that he ruled still allowed or even encouraged slavery and acts of human cruelty.

It is easy for us to judge Marcus harshly, but before we do so, we should realize that future generations are likely to do the same to us. Eric Scott says we live in an unjust world. I agree entirely, but I think I have a different perception of that injustice than he does.  It is this difference in perception, which I will now explain, that makes me critical of some of the campus protests that have recently been in the news.

Consider, for example, the injustice, on a global scale, of allowing people to live on two dollars a day. Many of us in the developed world, including many college activists, find it easy to ignore the plight of these individuals: because they live so far away, their lives don’t intersect with ours. And yet, closer investigation would reveal that their lives are not only interconnected with ours, but are, in a sense, as close as the shirt on our back or the dress on our body. If the label on that shirt or dress says “Made in Bangladesh,” it was likely made by someone working long hours under hazardous conditions, for two dollars a day.

Many college activists concern themselves with the injustice of the racial discrimination they detect on their campuses. They even take pains to develop an ability to detect racial microaggression, as when a fellow student asks, “Where are you from?” These same students, however, seem oblivious to the rather more serious form of racial discrimination — known as slavery — that still exists in places like Mauritania. They also seem ignorant of or indifferent to the human trafficking that might be taking place in their college town. This last injustice, of course, is sex based rather than race based, but this makes it no less objectionable.

College activists might without thinking twice carry on a conversation about the injustice they experience on their campus, all the while eating a juicy hamburger at a local restaurant. They can do this only because they are oblivious to the inter-species injustice that is involved in treating animals cruelly and then killing them, all to satisfy our craving for meat.

College activists might think of themselves as social justice warriors, but it is unlikely that their descendants will share this assessment of them. And when these descendants learn of the students’ obsession with microagressions, they will be even more puzzled by their behavior. Where, they will wonder, was their sense of proportion?

In my recent remarks, I was passing on the advice I think the ancient Stoics would offer to modern targets of insults. These include not only barely perceptible microagressions but outright racist, sexist, and homophobic attacks. The Stoics’ advice: shrug or, better still, laugh them off. This advice is a consequence of the Stoic insistence that we divide the things in our life into two categories: those we can control and those we can’t. We can’t control whether other people insult us. We can very much control, though, how we respond to those insults, and in particular, we can respond in a way that minimizes the harm they do us. College students would do well to give this Stoic strategy a try.

I was surprised, by the way, that Scott would refer to those who experience injustice as “victims.” They are certainly targets, but the Stoics would tell us that they are victims only if they choose to see themselves as such. They would add that if you choose to play the role of victim, your suffering will be intensified.

When we examine the lives of Stoics, we find that many of them were targets of injustice. Musonius Rufus, for example, was exiled to the desolate island of Gyaros, but he did not spend his time there complaining about the unfairness of it all. This is in large part because he refused to play the role of victim, a refusal that doubtless made his exile far more endurable than it otherwise would have been. More generally, when we look at the Stoics, we cannot find a “victim” among them — and if we could, Stoicism probably wouldn’t have remained a viable philosophy of life for two thousand years.

The social movements of the last few decades have taught us how harmful labels can be. We therefore no longer refer to someone who is blind or missing a limb as being handicapped. This change in thinking has had profound consequences. These days, “handicapped” individuals are doing things that in the past would have been unthinkable: there are blind skiers as well as footless individuals who, with the aid of prosthetics, can outrun the rest of us. So much for their “handicaps.”

In much the same way, those who are targets of sexist, racist, or homophobic slurs have an important choice. If they take themselves to be the victims of insults, they are likely to be needlessly miserable. If they instead take themselves to be the targets of insults, and if they respond to those insults by shrugging them off, thereby making their insulters look foolish, they not only limit the harm the insults do them but act as an inspiration for the rest of us.

Realize that shrugging off a sexist, racist, or homophobic insult does not preclude you from fighting the injustice that probably lurked behind it. To the contrary, it leaves you with more energy with which to carry on that fight! Imagine how different the world would be if people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, on being the targets of racism, had chosen to play the role of victim. Suppose that instead of spending their days organizing protests, they had responded by wallowing in hurt feelings.

And before I conclude, let me respond to Scott’s observation that my remarks at STOICON did not make ethnic minorities feel “welcome or wanted.” I know that this is what you are supposed to do if you are trying to get someone to convert to your religion or join your political party, but it is not something an ancient Stoic would have felt compelled to do. Indeed, when Musonius Rufus lectured, he did not try to make those in his audience feel welcome or wanted. To the contrary, those in his audience were reduced to silence by the sting of his remarks. They were, Epictetus tells us, made to feel ashamed of the way they were living their lives. He adds that a visit to a Stoic should feel like a visit to the physician’s office: you should not leave feeling good, since any treatment that can cure you is likely to cause you discomfort at first (Discourses, III: 23).

We Stoics invite everyone to join us in the practice of Stoicism and think that what Scott calls “marginalized people” have as much to gain from its practice as anyone, but we extend this invitation fully aware that not everyone will find Stoicism an attractive doctrine. To benefit from Stoicism you have to be willing to critically examine your values and your strategies for living. It is an examination that most people are unwilling to undertake.

It is entirely possible that if the Stoic movement continues its current geometric growth rate, someone will come up with an “I’m okay, you’re okay” version of the doctrine that allows you to call yourself a Stoic without requiring self-transformation. But this Indulgent Stoicism, as it might be termed, will have lost its power to transform people and thereby transform the society in which they live.


Bill Irvine is a professor of philosophy at Wright State University and the author, among other books, of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.

21 thoughts on “Insult Pacifism: Bill Irvine replies to Eric Scott

  1. Paul Braterman

    What concerns me most about a culture concerned about micro-aggressions is neither the pettiness, nor the lack of proportion, nor even the slide into censorship, but the treatment of the victim stance itself as morally worthy, and of those who fail to respect inflamed sensibilities as morally defective. Am I seriously expected to refrain from asking someone I meet, of different physical appearance or with a different accent from most of those around us, where she is from, in case she feels I am challenging her right to be here? And is it right to regard me, for daring to ask this question, as lacking sensitivity? Or can I get permission to ask it if I can display my own persecuted minority credentials?

    On both sides of the Atlantic, there is serious rampant political racism. We do not need a sense of personal victimhood to fight this, but a sense of more than personal justice.

    Liked by 6 people

  2. virtue42015

    As an aspiring Stoic I have had occasion to scold a colleague on the use of a “microaggression” on myself and have asserted my willingness to do so again if any male Stoic addresses me as “dear.” On the occasion mentioned my interlocutor did the Stoic thing and changed his tone immediately.
    On the calling out of “microaggressions” in an academic setting my first reaction is to rejoice that students feel sufficiently confident (and safe) to stand-up for themselves.
    In general I believe that a taking the stance of “uninsultability” is somewhat arrogant and should be used with Stoic Caution and not automatically demanded of others.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Woolsey Biggins

    Great post. I think one of the attractive pillars of Stoicism is its reliance on reason. For our society to advance we need to maintain open discussion. While emotion should not be dissected out, it will be reason and reasonable thinking that will advance our thinking and our life on this planet.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Woolsey Biggins


    I am an aspiring Stoic myself. From my understanding and practice of Stoicism being “uninsultable” would be an important part of being a Stoic. The concept of not being insulted revolves around the concept of not taking on negative emotions from something you have no control over. It doesn’t mean you need show tolerance to the others views. You can be admonish the insulter and not actually be insulted . That’s what a Stoic would do.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Massimo Post author


    My take is similar to Woolsey’s: there is no contradiction between working toward ignoring insults (most definitely a Stoic precept, found everywhere in Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus) and pointing out to someone that his behavior is not just.

    Also, nowhere does Bill say that we should beat other people on the head with our Stoicism. Indeed, he very clearly says in his book that this should not be done. This is about personal improvement, not about telling other people what to do.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. labnut

    Great post with an unfortunate title. I would have preferred Insult Imperviousness which I think better describes the Stoic, to say nothing of the unfortunate connotations of pacifism.

    What concerns me most about a culture concerned about micro-aggressions is … the treatment of the victim stance itself as morally worthy, and of those who fail to respect inflamed sensibilities as morally defective.

    Well said. That is it in a nutshell.

    In general I believe that a taking the stance of “uninsultability” is somewhat arrogant

    I would instead see it as the sign of a well formed Stoic who has developed strength, resilience, hardiness and moral confidence. What Paul called ‘inflamed sensibilities ‘ is rather a sign of imperfect development.

    Wisdom is the first characteristic of the Stoic. Wisdom is a matter of knowing when and how to respond, if at all. It is always a thoughtful, considered response that depends on reason, not emotion. It does not coerce or manipulate but always appeals to rationality. Victimhood is instead an appeal to identity, with all its unfortunate consequences. It is a form of manipulation, the very antithesis of Stoicism.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. synred

    The Martin Perl Science and Technology Book Club I attend is reading Wilson’s Consilience. One of our members wants us to discuss Intelligent Design in this context. I don’t want to, but I guess stoicism would suggest I should do build my character, right? Ugh!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Xiren

    With Eric’s permission, I’ll leave his response to the above response here. As well as on your post.

    “Dr. Irvine,

    Thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my piece—“the one loan that even those who are grateful cannot repay,” as Seneca puts it in his first Letter!

    Among the thoughts you’ve shared, I especially appreciate where you say “shrugging off a sexist, racist, or homophobic insult does not preclude you from fighting the injustice that probably lurked behind it. To the contrary, it leaves you with more energy with which to carry on that fight!” I think that point establishes our strongest piece of common ground!

    That is all I really want so say at this point—we’ve each made our case, and the readers of Stoicism Today are doubtless content to move on to other topics. Since this is now a two-way dialogue, however, I’ll go ahead and make a few additional remarks in the interest of mutual understanding:


    I think you are correct that we each “have a different perception” on the world’s injustice—but it may lie along somewhat different dimensions than the ones you have identified.

    Let me first emphasize that I can’t really speak to campus or radical activism. My original article neither condoned nor strongly censored these student groups, because I have no personal connection to any such student organization, and I have not studied current events well enough to know what incidents are and are not representative of the culture of campus activism.

    I am far more interested in what the implications of your arguments are for the broader community of people who are concerned about racism, sexism, etc—a community that includes a large fraction of modern Stoics.

    With that in mind, here are my thoughts on three of your statements in particular:


    On campus activists’ “sense of proportion”: I’m sympathetic to your argument here, since, after living in a rural third-world village for a while as a missionary kid, for a long time I had troubles feeling concerned over anybody’s plight in the West. The economic inequality in the world is just so incredibly vast that it can sometimes seem to dwarf any other kind of purported injustice in an affluent country like the USA (short of outright violence).

    It is worth noting, however, that people who are concerned about microaggressions—whether they are moderates like me or radical student activists—typically view them as only the very tip of a much bigger and more devastating ice berg, such as systemic racism (the sort of thing you find documented in books like Michelle Alexander’s famous The New Jim Crow (2010)). There is also arguably a very close relationship between tolerance for microaggressions and people’s willingness to vote for someone like Donald Trump for the presidency. In that sense, your argument about a “sense of proportion” would have sounded somewhat stronger before November 8th.


    You speak of microaggressions and microaggression training as if their chief and only purpose is to facilitate feeling insulted, or to adopt a mindset of “victimhood.” No doubt there are some people who match this description, but when it comes to the broad community of people who are concerned about racism, etc, it is little more than a caricature.

    I can accept your proposition that we distinguish between ‘victims’ and ‘targets’ (so long as we continue to show those ’targets’ appropriate respect and kindness). But there are other reasons that one might want to learn or teach others about racism, sexism, etc: In my experience, people are usually far more interested in how to avoid committing injustice themselves, or avoid being a bystander to injustice, then they are in feeling offended, complaining, or in viewing themselves as victims.

    Scott Aikin and Emily McGill-Rutherford have developed these ideas beautifully in their paper on Stoic feminist theory—I strongly recommend that paper to you, if you are not already familiar with it: “Stoicism, Feminism and Autonomy,” Symposion, 1(1):9–22, 2014.

    If we were to take a poll of every faculty and staff member who is involved in microaggression training on college campuses, I strongly suspect that almost none of them would tell you that “creating victims” is their objective. I think they would all tell you that their objective is to create people who are interested in self-transformation and self-criticism, and in standing by ‘targets’ of injustice. It may be that they have failed to meet that objective—and that they could benefit from supplementing their efforts with a course in Stoic resilience training!—but the virtues of there intentions at least deserve to be acknowledged.


    It surprises me that your response to the idea of helping minorities feel “welcome and wanted” is to adopt the argument that if people don’t like truth-telling, they can go elsewhere.

    People feel welcome and wanted when we show their ideas the Principle of Charity—it’s as simple as that. As I made clear in my essay, the Principle of Charity does not prohibit you from criticizing people’s ideas or their use of impressions—quite the opposite! If you want to give a lecture that has power like Musonious Rufus, Charity is vital. People need a persuasive case before they can be deeply moved, and they will not be persuaded as long as they feel they have been misrepresented or had their concerns treated in an injust or cavalier way.

    I don’t for a moment think that you need to back off on the Stoic principle of resilience toward insults, Professor. But I also don’t for a moment believe that people of color, LGBTs, etc, are somehow less interested in self-transformation than other people are, or that they will tend to only be interested in a diluted, “you’re okay, I’m okay” philosophy. No: we all have the seeds of virtue.

    All we need to do in order to create a “welcoming” environment for marginalized people and their allies is to A) make clear in the abstract that we do care about injustice of all kinds, and B) be willing to acknowledge the valid concerns, where they exist, that motivate people who think differently than us, rather than reducing them to a one-dimensional caricature.

    You have now been clear in conveying (A), and I appreciate that! As long as you continue, however, to broadly characterize progressive-minded people as being motivated solely by a dishonorable lack of Courage and Temperance (i.e. a “victim mindset”) rather than an honorable love of Justice and Prudence, then you will continue to find that your audiences come away not so much “ashamed” by your moral message, but something closer to “disappointed” in it.

    We need to find a way of strongly encouraging people toward Courage and Temperance without downplaying or trivializing their love of Justice.”

    You can find this text as well as other relevant information on Eric’s blog here:

    Liked by 1 person

  9. labnut

    We live in a robust world where we daily experience harm. It may be minor, I stub my toe or not so minor and I burn my hand. It may be serious, and I am mugged. It may be major and someone tries to murder me. It may cause me emotional pain or physical pain. It may harm my social standing. It may harm me because of my group membership or it may harm my group. It may be an unintended slight or a deliberate snub. There is a large spectrum of potential harm I must confront in my normal life. I have experienced all these harms and so do most people.

    No one is free from harm and we cannot avoid it. We all have to learn how to deal with harm appropriately. We learn to endure, react or avoid. We also learn that there are boundaries, that when crossed, demand protection, retribution or restitution. These boundaries are enforced by rule of law and social convention. They create three zones:
    1. A private zone where we are expected to absorb or avoid harm as individuals.
    2. A social zone where we appeal to community norms for protection.
    3. A legal zone where we appeal to the rule of law for protection.

    These zones mark, approximately, our idea of the severity of harm, with the legal zone confined to the most severe harm. Lesser harm is regulated in the social zone while minor harm we absorb privately. But these boundaries are under pressure and have moved downward. The legal zone becomes larger as we become more litigious or regulate more behaviour. The social zone has become larger as we increasingly punish smaller transgressions. The private zone is shrinking. For example, my personal religious beliefs are under threat and my opinions are subject to censorious opprobrium.

    Is this a good thing? Are we not reversing our centuries long growth of freedom with a suffocating network of community norms and legal threats? Are we not creating a climate of micro-regulation where we have few real freedoms except the freedom to conform? Are tolerance and respect being slowly being strangled to death in the name of a notional and narrowly defined tolerance and respect?

    But there is an even bigger price to pay. We are substituting ethical behaviour with regulated behaviour. The result is the death of ethical awareness. And when ethical awareness dies we become scofflaws and free-riders. And that seriously damages our society. We should be developing ethical behaviour but instead we are imposing regulated behaviour.


  10. labnut

    I strongly suspect that almost none of them would tell you that “creating victims” is their objective.

    I strongly suspect that, that whatever their intent, they are rewarding and reinforcing victim-like behaviour. And by doing so they are infantilising them, delaying their transition into full adulthood.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Massimo Post author

    Xiren (and Eric),

    Thanks for your thoughts on this matter. It seems to me, however, that you and Bill are talking at cross-purposes. To begin with, consider even the very title of Eric’s initial response: “Stoics do care about social justice.” As if Bill or anyone else ever suggested otherwise. Indeed, the issue of social justice is entirely logically orthogonal to the issue of taking offense at someone else’s remarks, or specifically at perceived microaggressions. One can perfectly consistently advocate social justice in general, and even specific actions against bullying, insensitive behavior, and so forth, while at the same time rejecting the very notion of offense.

    And that’s the crux of the matter, from a Stoic perspective. The ancient texts are very clear on this issue: Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus repeatedly state that the proper Stoic response to a perceived insult is either nothing (the “stone” reaction) or a self-deprecating sense of humor (the “ah! You don’t know the half of it!” reaction).

    Indeed, Stoics like Cato did not react even to physical insults, let alone verbal ones! He famously simply walked off without a word after someone slapped him at the thermal baths.

    Now, one can legitimately reject the Stoic take on insults or on anything else, and that, of course, is perfectly fine. But one cannot coherently complain about being excluded or not being made feeling welcome at a Stoic conference if one rejects a fundamental aspect of the Stoic approach. This is an open club, but not one were anything goes. If you prefer pleasure and avoidance of pain to virtue, for instance, the Epicureans meet next door.

    Also, Eric admits that he doesn’t have direct experience of people concerned with microaggressions on campus. Both Bill and I, however, live on campuses and do have first-hand experience.

    From my vantage point I agree with Eric that the goal of microaggression training, safe spaces and the like is not to create a victim mentality. But that doesn’t mean that those courses of actions do not, in fact, create or reinforce a victim mentality. It’s an open empirical question, and I’d like research psychologists to get down to it and study it.

    And in fact, people have studied it! Bill’s book on Stoic Joy discusses several research papers comparing the outcome of different kinds of post-trauma interventions by psychologists, in situations ranging from the bombings of London during WWII to the 9/11 attacks in the US. The results seem to be pretty clear: with some exceptions, people tend to bounce back faster if they are not offered support that assumes that they are fragile and in need of long periods to process the trauma. And we are talking about far greater shocks than microagressions.

    Eric’s invocation of the principle of charity and his call to be welcoming to marginalized people are well intentioned, but miss the mark. Nobody wants to be unwelcoming, and nobody says that there is no racial, gender, and more broadly social injustice (indeed, to doubt this about Bill is, in fact, uncharitable). Nor is anyone saying that Stoics shouldn’t be concerned with those issues. Justice is, after all, one of the four cardinal virtues. And Hierocles’ circles and the concept of cosmopolitanism inherited from the Cynics are very much positive social values engrained into Stoic doctrine.

    Also — and very explicitly, in his book — Bill is not suggesting to use Stoicism as a stick to beat others on the head. Indeed, he talks about practicing “stealth Stoicism” and to show people the way by means of your behavior, not your words (unless you are a teacher). All that is being put forth is the unquestionably Stoic idea that if you feel insulted by someone it is entirely within your power to deny assent to that impression and move on. This ought to be empowering, and is one of the best aspects of Stoic practical philosophy.

    Liked by 5 people

  12. Xiren

    To somewhat rudely speak in Eric’s place, I’ll say it’s truly an honour to be thought worthy enough of someone’s time to merit such a lengthy response – especially from you, Massimo, as you’re one of my philosophical heroes. I’d quote Seneca here, but Eric’s already beat me to the punch.

    I’ll agree with you, though, the two of them do seem to be talking at cross points. When confronted with (something they both can agree is) injustice, I’m certain they would act in more or less the same manner. I’m certain they both can agree that injustice in this world is a highly dispreferred indifferent, and something we would all do well to work on eradicating (though my guess would be that they don’t equally prioritise such an endeavour). The devil, it would appear, is in the details.

    What I took from Eric’s writing is less that it’s the Stoic responsibility to “make others feel welcome” in the philosophy [if I thought that were necessary, I’d have left long ago!]. But rather, that one does disservice to the philosophy, and paints it in an unflattering light (indeed, even to its adherents) when we use it scoff at the plight of others, be they real or imagined. This is especially true when we do not make it clear that this is a philosophy with love for all mankind at its core.

    Imagine the difference between “These over-sensitive types are misled! They are cultivating a victim mentality!” and “These over-sensitive types are misled! They run the risk of over-shadowing people who work for genuine change in society. As prokoptontes, we can do our part to create a more just world through our practice of oikeiosis, etc…”

    I wasn’t present to Stoicon, and did not hear Bill Irvine speak. I’m not a university student, never been inside a ‘safe space’ and have never seen anyone accused of a ‘ microaggression.’ I haven’t even lived in a Western country for nearly six years and thus know very little about the revolutionary culture that has been growing on college campuses there. From the sound of it, I doubt such people would have much interest in Stoicism anyway. But I have been in online spaces with other professed prokoptontes. And I have seen young volunteers helping migrant children with HIV get cursed at for selling trinkets on the street. I’ll leave you to guess which group is collectively better at handling insults.

    Ultimately, though, I don’t think it necessary to imply that a figure as prominent in the community as Irvine or as dedicated and hardworking as Eric are either of them shirking their primary commitment to virtue. It’s a matter, I think, of priorities and rhetorical technique. For my money, I’m always going to err on the side of compassion, even if it compromises the oomph of my commitment to take insults in stride. It’s clear that we disagree on that point. But this is a vibrant and growing community of differing opinions and brilliant minds. If at the end of the day, we can call each other brother and sister in the Logos, I suppose we don’t have that much to complain about.

    Liked by 3 people

  13. labnut

    I greatly enjoyed reading your observations of Shanghai. They brought back so many powerful memories of my stay in ’92, ’93 and ’94.

    Contrary to what you might have heard, there are no traffic laws here in China, there are only suggestions.

    So nothing has changed 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  14. E. O. Scott

    Massimo and Xiren,

    Happy Thanksgiving! I don’t have time to respond as much as I’d like to you guys’ exchange (oops! I mean you people’s! Folks? 😉 ), but I did want to add my two cents:

    1¢: I really appreciated your synthesis, Xiren! If I could have blended the important points on both sides of the question as well (and yes, as “charitably”) as you have in your comment, maybe the entire conversation around this issue would have a little less tension!

    2¢: Massimo, I resonate very strongly with this statement of yours: “One can perfectly consistently advocate social justice in general, and even specific actions against bullying, insensitive behavior, and so forth, while at the same time rejecting the very notion of offense.”

    That is really the main thesis I have been trying to convey: “Don’t be offended. But take it seriously.”

    And Xiren is right—I’m sure we all agree on that principle. The devil is in the details.

    And if I have indeed been unjust in any of me interpretations of Irvine’s positions, I’m eager to offer mea culpas. As Cicero says somewhere in De Finibus, it is always a bit difficult to have an effective debate through long-form blog posts, where misunderstandings tend to get magnified, rather than via a real-time dialogue, where we can make sure that our opponent is on board with us every step of the way!

    Liked by 1 person

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