The Personalist Project

The recent Courage conference--"Welcoming and Accompanying our Brothers and Sisters with Same-Sex Attraction"--was by most accounts remarkable.

For me, the title is literal, since one of the speakers, Joseph Prever, is my own much-loved younger brother. 

Unfortunately, my husband and I were moving our umpteen children and our preposterous overabundance of goods and gear from Michigan to Maryland at the time of the conference, so even though it took place practically in our old backyard I haven't yet heard the talks.

I mean to do so at the first opportunity, though, and I urge you to do the same-- especially since a brouhaha about the inclusion of my brother and some others associated with the Spiritual Friendship blog threatens to overshadow what the speakers actually said there. (I'm told the talks will be available soon through Ave Maria Radio and will let you know the details when I learn them.)

My impression of the talks will have to wait till I've heard them. But the post-conference conversations have made me want to address a much broader topic: the difference between subjectivity and subjectivism.

Taking subjectivity seriously is crucial; falling into subjectivism is fatal (and futile). 

Here's what I mean:

By "taking subjectivity seriously," I mean welcoming and really listening to people's descriptions of their lived experience. And without leaping immediately to the question of whether they fit neatly into the truth we already know. Really listening: not just figuring out how to use someone's experiences as Exhibit A for the truth we're defending, or the falsity we're refuting.

By "falling into subjectivism," I mean denying any truth, any principles, against which real-life experience can be measured. Or acting as if real-life experience trumps principles.

So my topic is a lot broader than the question of people with SSA, but just to put things in context, what got me thinking was Deacon Jim Russell's opinion that certain speakers shouldn't have been given a platform at the conference. As he puts it:

...Simply said, being “gay” is not enough; being a “gay Catholic” is not enough; being a “celibate, gay Catholic” is not enough. And even being a “chaste, celibate, gay Catholic” is not enough. To be a credible public witness, one must both “embody” and articulate the “truth-love” of Church teaching and pastoral care related to same-sex attraction from a position of confidence, clarity, and certainty, with an undivided mind, heart, and purpose.              

One problem with such stringent criteria is that this particular conference was aimed not so much at articulating Church teaching as it was at helping those who work pastorally with people with SSA to understand and support them. Rightly understood, that will inevitably involve listening to their testimony--even if they have not altogether arrived at "confidence, clarity, and certainty." (All the speakers, as I understand it, were committed to chastity and to Church teaching. This wasn't a question of sneaking heterodoxy in, disguised as doctrine, but of people candidly describing their experience and exploring what it does and doesn't mean.)

But whether the topic is same-sex attraction or anything else, the trouble is, people sometimes see lived experience being taken seriously and jump to the conclusion that subjective feelings are being treated as trumping objective truths.

It's understandable. Lots of people think the leap is inevitable. I'm reminded of a politician we ran into once at a New Hampshire county fair. As the poor man trudged across the vacant lot under an August sun towards the throng of prospective voters, carefully avoiding the cow patties, we confronted him about his pro-choice position. He replied that he used to be pro-life, but he had come to see things "through his wife's eyes." Her experience trumped his principles. Or maybe it just served as a convenient excuse for abandoning them. Either way, it was one or the other: real-life experience or principles. It couldn't be both. 

So, sure, some people give "accompaniment" and "encounter" and "dialogue" a bad name. Some think we should abandon the truth for the sake of the person we're "accompanying," as if that would be doing them any favors. Others, more manipulative, go through the motions of making a person feel "accompanied" or "dialogued with" and then do whatever they were going to do anyway. It's a ruse, a strategy, a counterfeit of real respect.

So what happens when someone proposes listening to people, asking questions like "How do you experience your situation? How do you experience the Church's efforts to help you? How do you experience people's descriptions of you and conversation about you?"

Often, well-meaning, orthodox people respond something like this:

Look, what's the point? We know the objective truth about their feelings, their experience. Why bother poking and prodding into their subjective state of mind? The way to help them is to tell them the truth, and  the best way for them to help themselves is to live according to it. Anything else is just sentimentality and relativism; we'll end up sowing confusion, which is harmful to them and everybody else. "Compassion" and "dialogue" and "listening" and "subjectivity" have been tried already; they've brought us to the mess we're in today. The best service we can render to any person is to present him with the objective truth and its requirements.    

There's a very basic confusion here, though. People hear the buzzwords and buy the idea of pitting experience against truth--when in fact it's a legitimate--even an unavoidable--way of coming to truth. We "objectivists" are not just saying that real truth is out there, but that it's accessible to us--that the mind can really "see" it: not just by discursive reason, or by accepting the word of an authority, or by some kind of blind faith. If we reduce experience to misleading sentiments, or to something only a relativist would pay attention to, we miss out on all kinds of riches.

If we're really on the side of truth, we need not fear lived experience, any more than we should fear scientific discovery or the genuine insights of modernity (though of course we need to be wide awake enough able to identify sentimentalism, manipulation, pseudo-science, and all the other caricatures of truth).  

The truth shall set us free, and one of the things it sets us free from is living in needless fear of all its counterfeits.

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Comments (22)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Sep 2, 2015 12:30pm

Amen, amen, Devra! I couldn't agree more.

Reading about the post-conference debate, I started a post on just this topic. Too many Catholics—including Catholics who think of themselves as specialists in the thought of JP II—treat "objective" as coterminous with "the truth" and "subjective" as a synonym for "unreal". 

Meanwhile, among the key emphases in JP II's thought is exactly that truth is to be found in subjectivity, and that when it comes to persons, it even has a certain priority over objective truth. (Not in the sense of being "truer" than objective truth, but being especially true of the person.)

What's interesting about the truth available in and through (other people's) subjectivity, is that we can't get it unless they freely share it with us. 

And who wants to to throw their pearls before scoffers and moralizers?

Katie van Schaijik

#2, Sep 2, 2015 12:32pm

The generosity and courage of gay Catholics who are willing to share their struggles and their stories, despite the unjust and uncharitable tendencies of so many of their fellow Catholics blows me away.

They deserve our admiration and gratitude, plus our reverent receptivity.

I know I've learned a lot from them. 

Rhett Segall

#3, Sep 5, 2015 11:02am

Devra and Katie, your reflections on subjectivity remind me of Pascal’s aphorism “The heart has reasons of which reason knows nothing”. In this context I felt the urge to re-search Maritain’s incomparable “Existence and the Existent”. Subjectivity, which Maritain equates with the Existent, is a major theme of the book.

Here is a quote of his on subjectivity and conscience:

“…if it is true that the judgment of the subject’s conscience is obliged, at the moment when judgment is freely made, to take account also of the whole of the unknown reality within him-his secret capacities, his deeply rooted aspirations, the strength or frailty of his moral stuff…the mysterious call of his destiny…He cannot formulate any of these things. They are unknown to him in terms of reason. But the dim instinct he possesses of himself…know them without knowing it in the indescribable mode of cognition by connaturality."

Rhett Segall

#4, Sep 5, 2015 11:05am

In further reflections Maritain goes on to explain how subjectivity, as subjectivity, cannot be known objectively but “…in certain ways…by mode of inclination, sympathy or connaturality…”

The applications of these principles to those with SSA might be a certain reverential silence before the journey of the human heart.

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Sep 7, 2015 9:10am

Those are very Newmanlike quotes. Very apropos, too. Thanks, Rhett.

Joao AO

#6, Oct 23, 2015 7:49am

Thank you Devra!

I think we haven't arrived at a balance yet.

I'm one of those who disagrees with people calling themselves "gay Catholics". I've heard their reasoning, and upon reflection I always arrive at the notion that these are two identity labels that are ultimately in conflict.

However, I'm not one of those who disregards justice and charity (as well as subjectivity) when addressing "gay Catholics". The conflict can't go that far as attacking them as enemies or intruders of the faith.

I'd like to address this by also mentioning what is at stake when we speak of subjectivity: the reality of the lived experience, not of "being gay" (this is a cultural and identitarian label and not primarly a description of experience) but of the way the person looks at maleness, femininity and the relationships between them. So, we're never really talking about "gay Catholicism" when we look at it subjectively; we are talking about the personal reality that includes same-sex attraction. A reality that is biological, psychological, social and spiritual, and has to have an explanation of development.

Joao AO

#7, Oct 23, 2015 7:51am

Philosophy isn't what will be primarily helpful, in the sense of directly helping us with the questions of the day. It only clears the way for the emergence of the lived experience. Philosophy helps methodically but its uses can't take the place of the data itself. The experience itself needs to be described in personal detail, and that is mostly about the perceptions and beliefs of the person about themselves and others (what they have elaborated from their memories, related to facts), and the behaviors that they have come to associate to their feelings, emotions and desires. So this puts us right on the realm of psychology.

I may be wrong in generalizing, but in several occasions I've read "gay Catholics" distancing themselves from the examination of the development of attractions, identities and their functions. They rather speak (to others) about their identity as it is than about what it means or has meant. I appreciate their efforts, but this places them in a precarious position. Mostly because of its incompleteness if we're indeed considering their subjectivity, because they're glossing over a major part of it and moving forward towards embracing realities that are objectively distinct from Catholicism.

Joao AO

#8, Oct 23, 2015 7:52am

Psychology is essential because this is about arriving at a personal experience. To be patient, caring, knowledgeable about what to say and when to say it and yes, with a therapeutic healing intent. That is why we listen to people: not to answer questions about objective truth, but to build them up as persons in their personal truth, while a person develops towards the maturity and stability without which they can't approach that objective truth about themselves.

So, I'm very worried about the tendency towards belittling psychotherapy or group therapy since when properly practiced and spiritually integrated (according to our best current technical understanding of what truly helps people) they provide us the tools to arrive at the core of a person's subjectivity. That field has been dedicated to precisely that for quite a few decades now, it should be honored.

To look away from that level of explanation and detail, at the same time that a cultural identity label is embraced, is truly a mistaken and confusing movement, in my opinion.

Joao AO

#9, Oct 23, 2015 8:57pm

I don't think you need to consider homosexuality as a mental disease. I wasn't talking about psychopathology, the "language of disorder". This isn't about the medical model's approach of "mental disease". But bear in mind that "disorder", in the Catechism, is used as a moral concept, not a medical or psychological one (and that sense is accurate).

Contemporary and effective approaches don't find it necessary to offer specific treatments to specific disorders in specific populations. In other words, you don't have to have a disorder in order to partake in therapy. You can also just benefit from the psychological literature.

Rather, "homosexuality/same-sex attraction" is an adaptation with value and meaning, and should be respected as part of a person's history. Healing is about making the best out of it, accepting it. This is often the opportunity to heal the whole family.

It's not about "homosexuality" itself. It's about, as I said above, the person's self-perception of their maleness or femininity, the way they solved identitarian and emotional issues in their relationships, especially with their family and peers. So, I believe that when we separate the unnecessary pathologization of mental states we can really benefit from what psychology and therapy do best.

Devra Torres

#10, Oct 28, 2015 11:48pm

Joao AO, first, please accept my apologies for the delay in responding to your comments. We've recently moved and are unusually busy.

I'm not clear on what you mean by "philosophy" as "clear[ing] the way for the emergence of the lived experience" or by psychology being essential for arriving at a personal experience. Lived experience, as I mean it, is something direct: something by which we make contact with an objective reality. We can examine it, philosophize about it, make use of psychology to understand it better and arrive at practical solutions to problems. I don't see any reason why taking subjectivity seriously would involve belittling psychotherapy. Have you noticed people who call themselves "gay Catholics" belittling it? I haven't. I've heard some warn against therapists who offer unrealistic guarantees of getting rid of people's same-sex attraction. Possibly that's what you're referring to? But from the rest of what you say, it doesn't sound at all as if you're defending that kind of therapy ("Healing is about making the best out of it, accepting it").

In short, I'm puzzled by what you mean and hope you can explain it  a little further!

Joao AO

#11, Nov 5, 2015 3:26pm

Thank you for the reply Devra!

I'm glad to be of service and happy to explain myself better.

When I spoke of philosophy I meant it as the approach that a person takes when discussing an issue. In this case, one can speak of homosexuality in philosophical or theological terms. That is the approach you took and is most often found at The Personalist Project. It includes any description of the framework, the anthropology, and the ways or conditions necessary for approaching the subject in a complete way. In other words, the fundamental and methodological aspects that would frame it.

So, "something by which we make contact with an objective reality", is a philosophical definition for "lived experience", and also a philosophical stance that inspires a subsequent method (beyond itself). That is what I meant by philosophy "only clears the way for the emergence of the lived experience". I agree with the principle, phenomenologically. This excludes (in the sense of not including, rather than denying), for example, other philosophical or epistemological positions opposed to or not focused on phenomenology. Certainly there is also biological and chemical data to be collected and interpreted pertaining to the issue of homosexuality, but the "lived experience" is what interests me so much, just like you, Devra, and your reflection about the importance of subjectivity (without sinking into subjectivism).

With that principle and approach defined, we can start "filling it with content". At this point is where I present psychological analysis and research as a proper instrument for conducting an investigation into what the "lived experience" of being gay/homosexual/same-sex attracted is. We can know what it is by digging deep and unearthing and recording what that experience truly is like. Therefore, I'm talking about achieving and interpreting the data of lived experiences of persons with an experience of same-sex attraction and they way they see themselves, as well as related topics. The field of study that does this systematically is psychological (in several sub-fields, such as developmental psychology) and psychotherapeutic research, making it the proper instrument.

Joao AO

#12, Nov 5, 2015 3:56pm

To make it short and allow you to ask more questions if you wish - I would risk losing or confusing you again if I kept going without checking if this makes sense to you - I'm going to focus on 2 specific ideas that are particularly important.

«Have you noticed people who call themselves "gay Catholics" belittling it? (...) I've heard some warn against therapists who offer unrealistic guarantees of getting rid of people's same-sex attraction.»

Indeed I have, very much so. They do at least avoid the subject. But there's a few complicated reasons why this happens, and noone is to "blame" for it. I do believe that they should consider it, personally and intellectually, much more carefully than they have. I only recommend it from my own point of view with considerable personal insight into the issue and hope you feel I'm not misguided or being offensive to any gay catholic in doing so, because I understand that this cannot be done against a person's own will. Nevertheless, we have a lot of room to explore here and everyone's welcome!

Joao AO

#13, Nov 5, 2015 3:57pm

So, one of the reasons why there's confusion and evasion around the topic of therapy is precisely because of people being forced to do it. Parents force it, religions expect you to marry the opposite sex (some being more strict that Catholicism and not even viewing celibacy kindly), and so on. Another reason is that many who attempt to help take the wrong approach as far as goals or psychotherapeutic theory and technique are concerned. Please be advised, subjectivity is respected even when you partake in psychotherapeutic procedures. The relationship between client and therapist is the most important factor according to our contemporary understanding, for example. But yes, most of all there's this idea that "change" is about going from homosexuality to heterosexuality as if plenty of heterosexuals didn't have many problems themselves... Rather, you can indeed change from not being attracted to the opposite sex at all into being capable of a relationship and even marriage. That is not unrealistic you know? And it's good news. Of course, abstaining from sexual impurity, whether with the same-sex or the opposite, is one of the first goals in that process.

Joao AO

#14, Nov 5, 2015 4:09pm

As for the 2nd and last idea I find very important, it's:

«it doesn't sound at all as if you're defending that kind of therapy ("Healing is about making the best out of it, accepting it").»

The therapy I'm referring to is actually including all of this. It's about both/and: the acceptance as well as the change. You don't become someone else, you become more who you really are. And what are you, really? We can go back and forth with the philosophy and theology, but there's a lot to know about your personal history as well. As I previously mentioned, it's mostly about the way you see yourself and relate to others.

There's a few confusions one can understandably make, for if a therapy proposes to "change" an individual in ways that are found to be impossible, wouldn't we look upon an approach that "heals" and "accepts" the person for who they are as the appropriate route?

Again, what if both things happen? What if we pursue the "not-impossible" task of transforming yourself through full acceptance? The funny thing here is that one of the apparent paradoxes of psychology/psychotherapy is at play here. So it happens (a datum from research and expertise) that change does happen after acceptance. You have probably experienced this yourself: an emotion or attitude that is fully experienced moves on into something else (for example, moving from anger or guilt towards sadness or grief).

Before stopping here I'll go straight to the point: it should be no surprise then, that although they go quite deep, this possibility of change through acceptance is also true about one's sense of sexual identity, romantic or sexual attraction, and fantasy. When it comes to identity and personal experience, others have found that they were never "gay": they weren't gay as kids, they were different; they aren't gay now, they are just experiencing attractions to the same-sex. Acceptance, often mediated through therapy, can lead to less labels and more accurate ones. Instead of gay catholics, they are just catholic men and women who are same-sex attracted. To understand that those feelings aren't who they really are but simply present themselves to their experience is a very significant result of psychological change. They shed the labels and keep only their identity in Christ.

If you could share this dialog with Joseph I'd be happy to hear/talk to him as well.

Devra Torres

#15, Nov 5, 2015 5:33pm

Thank you, Joao--I see much more clearly what you mean now. As to the possibility of getting rid of same-sex attraction through therapy, I'm not sure what to think. I used to think that it was as promising as it was made out to be by certain therapists and "ex-gay" patients who made it sound like it was usually successful. I assumed people who were skeptical of it, including those who wanted to outlaw it, were only acting out of their wish for everyone to consider being gay as something fine, even desirable, rather than a disorder that needed a "cure." I assumed certain therapists had been drummed out of business, pressured into not offering such "cures" not because they didn't really work but because they were intimidated by a pro-gay culture. 

Now I have the impression, from people who seem trustworthy and who are not pushing a gay lifestyle, that such "cures" are much rarer and more incomplete than I had thought.

Devra Torres

#16, Nov 5, 2015 5:38pm

As to therapy in general, until recently I had a prejudice against it, or an idea that a lot of psychological problems could be fixed by getting your spiritual life in order and doing common-sense things like eating well, sleeping well, and getting lots of fresh air and exercise. It was the testimony of my brother Joseph, along with quite a few other people I'm close to, which helped me realize that this was a prejudice, and that a lot of harm can be done by making this assumption, since it implies that the person who can't "handle" life without therapy is just failing to try hard enough, or failing to be holy enough or virtuous enough. I learned things about depression and anxiety and OCD, for example, from friends who had actually had "lived experience" of them and reassessed my "philosophy" in consequence.

Devra Torres

#17, Nov 5, 2015 5:45pm

As to the label "gay," I think it's a problem if it's understood to describe the core identity of a person. I think it's less of a problem when it's used to describe a person who predominantly and persistently experiences same-sex attraction and not opposite-sex attraction. Many Catholics (my former self included) think it would be better not to talk about it, or give it a name at all, figuring that we all have some tendency or "besetting sin" but we don't need to go around announcing it and defining ourselves in terms of it. They see "coming out" as putting an unfortunate label on yourself and announcing something that is better kept to oneself.

But Joey said something that makes sense to me: if you do experience persistent and predominant same-sex attraction, even if you firmly reject the idea that that inclination is your sole core identity, you respond to both men and women--all the time--in a way that's a little different, a way that's not the expected and assumed way. So it colors all kinds of experience and creates all kinds of misunderstandings, just because people in general just assume things about you that aren't true. 

Joao AO

#18, Nov 6, 2015 8:32am

Your perception of the issue is quite accurate. The rate of success varies, and depends a lot on the therapist's specific training on this issue, it's actually not much different than success rates of psychotherapies in general. So, the prejudices you mentioned about solving difficulties like anxiety, depression or OCD on your own or with faith, are very common and they do also result in the idea that homosexuality could be "fixed" that way too (and I would discourage others from viewing it simply as mental illness). But these are all very minsconstrued notions about the roles of faith and that of psychotherapy.

There's much confusion about what is "real change". I never thought ex-gay was an accurate label either. This seems to be associated with the "get rid of it" expression you also used. Sure, if you're a person who suffers with unwanted attractions and/or experiences, you may just want it to end, you'd rather it just went way. For some, they literally can't live with it, they can't face themselves, the world and society that way. But experience shows that those attractions have a meaning, they express real needs in the person. So, real growth comes out of acceptance and understanding them, not really by "getting rid" of it. Another form of that is summed up in the expression "pray the gay away", thinking that God would and blaming yourself for when that fails to happen.

These notions have existed in some faith communities that attempted to "treat homosexuality" without a proper inner working of the person typical of therapeutic processes. That has caused shortcomings resulting in a lot of unnecessary pain and loss.

It's important to note that those efforts weren't "real therapy", however, so it's good to establish that difference and not confuse it with the approaches that can still be done properly and effectively.

Joao AO

#19, Nov 6, 2015 10:19am

Thank you for sharing Joseph's experience! It makes sense to me as well. There's people who don't want to talk about it, yes, but the topic concerns you when someone makes you care about it and talk about it, or shares it with you. The problem seems to often be about what others will think of you when you experience it and do want to talk about it. And so you try to define and describe yourself in ways that avoid misunderstandings, but often feel unsure, unsafe, ashamed, etc.

You say: «you respond to both men and women--all the time--in a way that's a little different», but why is this "being gay"?

I think it's helpful to look anew at what "being gay" means. I'm talking about the conclusions myself and others have reached, so I put them forward as alternatives for anyone who would like to consider them, especially because they contrast -- and yet are very similar -- with the way Joseph has referred to his own experience.

Joao AO

#20, Nov 6, 2015 10:22am

The experience is actually not that of "being gay" but more accurately that of "FEELING DIFFERENT", precisely the way you put it. That's the most accurate description, I've found.

It can be different from people to people, but it often starts in childhood, very early on. I don't have any problem with people being different or even weird! After all, I'm kind of strange myself. However, this means that my problem has been to think that "I'm special" compared to others.

There seems to be something of an excess of that in those who experience SSA. When giving it more attention, we've experienced that it's about "being special" in the sense of "not fitting in", "not belonging". So it makes a lot of sense that people express this need to belong in many different, sometimes exaggerated or impulsive, ways.

What seems to me, however, is that the need to belong is first and foremost about a person's own gender. To belong in the world of men or women. This is the experience that makes them different, "queerer" than the rest, and by that I mean, from people that WOULD be like them if they didn't experience their own selves differently.

Joao AO

#21, Nov 6, 2015 10:23am

So isn't it likely that working through that "feeling different" aspect can result in some different perception and experience of yourself? Even growth? Even change?

This is part of a development process. As it turns out, deliberate interventions such as therapy (but others, like self-help groups or peer-lead retreats) specialize in going through those experiences, identifying the person's needs, allowing them the opportunity to grow in their self-understanding, not by getting rid of their past or present, but by building bridges that go further, that go beyond, and that affirm who they are as male or female. In turn, being more in tune with being a man or a woman makes you feel like you truly belong among them.

In summary, I don't believe that there are different types of people, gay or otherwise. Rather, that people have different types of experiences, living in different types of circumstances. There's a difference between "having/experiencing" and "being" that goes way beyond semantics. It's one thing to acknowledge that you experience something specific or different, but that doesn't mean that you're a different kind of person. At the very least, it doesn't *have* to be understood that way: it's yet another personal way to put it into words and present yourself to others, within a person's framework, subjectivity, self-understanding, existing communities, self-identifications, etc. So while I understand that, I still personally find it profitable for anyone to avoid the gay label because it associates itself with this excess of "being" rather than of "having/experiencing" as it actually is. I believe a caring, compassionate and deep appreciation of what self-identified gay catholics experience naturally leads them away from the gay label and more into an identification with their own self, their own sex, their own faith. Myself, I am a man, I'm not gay. I experience the need for affectionate (and sometimes even romantic, and sexual on very odd occasions) encounters with men in order to feel like I belong and am cared for among them, but feeling that need doesn't make me gay. You see the difference? I respect and seek to understand better those who, *unlike* myself and plenty of others with very similar experiences to theirs, have still decided to keep the gay label. :)

Katie van Schaijik

#22, Nov 6, 2015 10:34am

Devra, your description of your new way of thinking vis a vis therapy and the term "gay" reflects mine too.

The honest testimony of people like Joe has dramatically shifted my thinking. So has the experience of joining Adult Children of Alcoholics.

When I say, "Hi, I'm Katie, ACA," I'm not proclaiming that dysfunction is my core identity. I'm not proposing that everything that's wrong with me is my parents' fault or that I'm hopelessly messed up and can't do anything about it.

Rather, I'm identifying myself as dealing with a particular set of issues, which many others also deal with. I'm standing in solidarity with those others. I'm confessing shared struggles, shared hopes, and a shared need for a particular kind of help. I'm also saying, in effect, "I'm not better than you. I understand you, because I am one of you."

I've been hugely blessed through this identification. I experience it as a gift from God.

Nothing would be more off-putting to me than to have non-ACA Catholics tell me I shouldn't call myself ACA because really I'm a child of God. I'd want to say, "Go away and mind your own beeswax."

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